Keep your hands behind your back when you block. Do not raise them when you jump, even if, really, you need that for leverage. Get close to your man, you have always been taught that, but not too close because then you are open to all sorts. Although, if you are super close, maybe you will get away with it. Welcome to defending in the Premier League 2020 and the above guide is merely to help you stay on the right side of the new handball rule, although that, too, is evolving. Defenders are not penguins but perhaps it would be better if they were.
Eric Dier sighs. When is your arm not your arm? When is its position natural or otherwise? And what is natural for one person and not the next? “In and around the box with the new handball rule, you are terrified,” the Tottenham and England defender says. “You don’t feel free. You really don’t feel free to act, to try to play in a normal way.”
Dier was not patient zero, the infection was already spreading, but his handball case last Sunday against Newcastle felt like the moment when things got out of control. There had been outrage the previous day – it had been building all season – when Everton’s Lucas Digne headed against the hand of Crystal Palace’s Joel Ward from two yards away. VAR gave the penalty and Richarlison scored what proved to be the winning goal.
At least Ward was facing the ball. Dier had his back to it as he jumped, touch tight with Andy Carroll, for a header. Then he felt Carroll head the ball against his arm. VAR intervened, the penalty was given, Callum Wilson scored and Newcastle had a stoppage-time draw.
Of all the memorable quotes, the one from Liverpool’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, stood out. “Eric Dier didn’t do anything wrong and it’s a penalty – the only option is to cut our arms off,” he said. Even Steve Bruce, the Newcastle manager, said it was “a nonsense, ludicrous”. As Dier notes, that everyone seemed to be of the same opinion, including the opposition manager, was not just a rarity but made it “very clear that things aren’t right”.
He adds: “All the rules in the video meeting we had at the beginning of the season – there are conflicting rules that make no sense. If you’re too close, if you’re in close proximity and the ball hits your arm, it’s not a handball. If it hits a certain part of your arm, it’s not a handball. And if your arm is in a certain position, it is a handball. For me, it’s very clear. Is it intentional? Is an arm in a position it shouldn’t be? Those are the two questions you need to ask.”
The authorities acted during the week. Whereas Fifa had demanded any handling offence outside the natural silhouette of the body should be a potential penalty, Premier League referees, as of Saturday, were able to take the context of the incident into account – including, for example, whether the ball had travelled from close proximity and the player had a limited opportunity to respond. The referees have regained a little control, the ability to actually referee.
It should be pointed out that if the ball hits a player’s arm or hand that has been raised above the shoulder line, it is still deemed to be a strict liability offence – even if they are looking the other way. In other words, Dier’s action against Newcastle would remain a penalty.
“One thing that isn’t talked about so much about my incident is that if you watch it, Jamaal Lascelles pushes me in my back and that’s what causes my arm to then be raised even more,” Dier says. “But you need your arms to jump. Andy Carroll is one of the best players in the air and watch how he uses his arms to jump.”
The increased subjectivity has not pleased everybody. “I don’t like subjectivity in football because subjectivity normally goes to a certain side,” said José Mourinho, entering trademark conspiratorial territory on Friday.
For Dier, the problem arises when VAR suppresses subjectivity. “My stance has always been that with anything factual, I want VAR,” he says. “So goal technology, the offside rule – I want VAR. But anything that is of an opinion, I’d rather not have it. I’d rather live with the human error of the referee I can accept a referee making a judgment and sometimes getting it wrong. I can’t accept it being wrong when VAR is involved. But even with VAR, when it comes to tackles, handballs, 50% agree with it and 50% don’t.”
In these perilous times, defenders must also come to terms with assistant referees keeping their flags down on tight offside decisions until the play has passed. The idea is that with VAR providing the safety net, it will allow chances to flow more smoothly but for defenders, it is another alteration to their traditional frames of reference, another test of their focus.
All in all, it might not seem a great moment for Dier to be readjusting to life as a centre-half, having previously played in midfield. “No, I’m happy with that,” he says with a smile. The mission continues at Manchester United on Sunday.