On the one hand, you could see Paul Heckingbottom’s point. Seven minutes into injury time at Tottenham last week, his Sheffield United side led 1-0 and seemed about to pull off perhaps the most surprising result of the Premier League season so far. They then conceded twice and so, rather than being able to celebrate a great smash and grab, Heckingbottom was left to reflect on the fact his side have already dropped seven points with goals conceded in the 88th minute or later this season.
To make it worse, when the Sheffield United manager had protested about Peter Bankes’s attempts to get the goalkeeper Wes Foderingham to get on with the game, the referee apparently replied that if a short pass wasn’t on he should go long. It’s easy to see why that should rankle.
Sheffield United are a very northern team: in the popular imagination they are chip butties, the actor Sean Bean and a long diagonal pass up to Brian Deane. Heckingbottom is a very northern man with a very northern name. He and the club deserve better than lazy long-ball assumptions. Would a referee have said the same to a dithering goalkeeper for a sophisticated southern side?
Perhaps he would. What, after all, was the issue here? At goal-kicks, Sheffield United like to split their centre-backs and play out. Tottenham pushed up to make that difficult, leading Foderingham to hesitate and so draw the wrath of Bankes.
But if they lack the confidence or the ability to take a pass from a goal-kick when opposing forwards are closing them down, maybe United shouldn’t be playing out from the back. After all, goal-kicks can be taken very short with no opposing player allowed in the box until the kick is taken, giving the player receiving the pass at least 12 yards of space. If that isn’t enough, then what is the option but to go long?
Heckingbottom, understandably, doesn’t want to go long with his centre-backs split and deep. If the opposition wins the header, a forward could in effect have a run on goal against a stretched defence without even the threat of offside. That’s why he accused referees of “not understanding the game”.
But that’s part of the gamble of passing out from the back and it’s hardly unique to Sheffield United. Other sides cope. And what’s the alternative? That a team looking to take a short goal-kick, finding easy passing options thwarted, gets to call for an extra few seconds to reset and go long? Whatever the precise details of Heckingbottom and Bankes’s conversations, the law and common sense are on the referee’s side.
There is a wider point, though, about the new regulations on time-wasting. Sheffield United did waste time last Saturday. Twice Foderingham was treated for injuries and on both occasions he tore off his gloves and hurled them away so that even when the physio had attended to him, more time was lost as he retrieved and refastened them. Tottenham fans and players were clearly agitated by the amount of time that was apparently seeping out of the game.
Except it wasn’t. Only three minutes of injury time were played in the first half, which seemed short. But when the board went up on 90 minutes, it showed an additional 12 minutes to be played. As it turned out, there were almost 16. Imagine the psychological and physical impact of that: you’ve held out for 90 minutes, you’re ready to go again for another four or five but it turns out you’re only three-quarters of the way through the second half.
Perhaps the threat of that will be enough to stop those blatantly running down the clock and that, in turn, will allow referees to be a little more generous to indecisive goalkeepers. Certainly the knowledge that a referee will add on extensive periods should allow the team being time-wasted against to retain their composure better – although given Uefa’s opposition to the lengthy periods of added time there could be ramifications for Premier League teams in European competition.
The additional added time is having an impact. Five rounds into the season (49 games given the postponement of Luton v Burnley) there had been 18 goals scored after the 90th minute; last season there were four in the first five rounds (50 games).
Only five of the 18 have been scored by away teams, and there is a skew to the stronger sides (obviously defining this is difficult: you can argue at the moment whether Arsenal are stronger than Manchester United or West Ham than Chelsea, but Manchester City are clearly stronger than Fulham or Spurs than Sheffield United). Which is what you would expect: the longer a game goes on, the likelier the “better” team are to win it. That is why the weaker side often waste time in the first place.
On the face of it, cutting time-wasting is a good thing. Time-wasting is cheating. It seeks to diminish the amount of football played, it is the definition of anti-football. But that does benefit the big sides.
Similarly, looked at from a purely sporting point of view, the move to five substitutes is clearly good: it eases the physical pressure on already overstretched players, it lessens the chance of a player having to play on through injury and it offers coaches more tactical flexibility. The problem is, it is an advantage for the sides with the greatest squad depth.
This is the absurdity of the position in which football now finds itself. The disparity between rich and poor, even within the same division, is now so great that attempts to prevent time-wasting, which ensures more of the product, may end up damaging the product by making it more predictable and thus less of a spectacle.
It may be exciting now to see Aston Villa or Spurs turning games in injury time, but how long will that thrill last if it only makes the already predictable even more predictable?
What nobody seems to have stopped and asked is why teams feel the need to spoil; why they feel unable to compete at actual football. It’s one thing to be tough on time-wasting; far better would be to be tough on the causes of time-wasting.