How can we make soccer more watchable?

1. How can we make soccer more watchable_ (770x409p)

Key Points:

  1. Soccer is notoriously resistant to change.
  2. Advances in technology and analytics have highlighted key problems with the sport that hurt it as a spectacle.
  3. Accordingly, I discuss potential solutions for key issues like quarter-inch offsides decisions, time-wasting, and diving.

Estimated reading time: 10-20 minutes

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As I’ve mentioned before, this blog is 10% luck, 20% skill, 15% concentrated power of will…oh wait, that’s not right. Bad jokes aside, it’s about 50% information I hope and think you all will find interesting and useful and 50% public diary.

With that in mind, today’s post will be a bit of a departure, as I’m invoking birthday privilege to focus purely on something I want to write about. So, if you don’t have any interest in a lengthy treatise on how soccer should evolve, I’ll see you next week! We’ll be back to that interplay between pseudo-philosophical musings, fitness, and nutrition that you love so much.

Anyway, on to today’s topic…

The (Somewhat) Beautiful Game

It’s no secret that to those who aren’t interested in soccer, watching it can be pretty darn boring. Many sports are like that, with the stop-start nature of baseball and football, the late-game fouling marathons in basketball, and the average fan’s inability to follow the action in hockey. But, soccer is stereotypically considered the worst offender, at least in the U.S.

And as I’ve gotten older, I’ll confess…I somewhat agree. Don’t get me wrong, I still watch a fair amount of soccer, but in limited circumstances. Typically, I’ll watch Arsenal play, which is engaging because I have a vested interest in the outcome, or I’ll tune in to the knockout stages of the Champions’ League because it features high-stakes games between elite teams.

Now, I want to clarify that unless the game in question is a real stinker, I don’t tend to find watching matches boring. It’s more that I’ve become increasingly aware of problems within the sport that hurt the spectacle on the field, and increasingly fed up with soccer’s resistance to change. There is typically no better justification than, “This is how we’ve always done it.” So to that end, I’m going to highlight three problems and propose solutions for them.

Please bear in mind that all these potential fixes would need to be trialed first. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but I believe they all represent an ideal starting point for addressing issues with the game.

Problem 1: Offside

This particular issue helps highlight soccer’s legendary resistance to change. The sport has only had video review to aid referees since 2016. Plus, the technology wasn’t even widely adopted until around 2019. Let that sink in for a moment. The world’s most popular sport, with so much money in the game that its governing body, FIFA, keeps over a billion dollar cash reserve, has been using video review technology for less than five years.

While this video review technology, known as VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has helped increase the accuracy of major decisions regarding goals, penalties, and red cards, it’s also caused a number of problems.

One of them has come to be colloquially known as “toenail offsides.” The increased scrutiny offered by VAR technology means goals are disallowed for ever smaller offside infractions. This is due to offside being a binary, objective rule. There are no degrees, no considerations of intent or whether the offside provided an unfair advantage.  A player is simply offside or onside.

The problem arises because seeing these “toenail offside” decisions go against your team simply feels bad, even when they’re technically correct. Maybe that’s too nebulous, but the feeling is real. It’s hard enough to score a goal during a soccer match, so seeing one scored by your team only to be chalked off for an attacking player having a quarter-inch of their big toe in front of the last defender seems unfair.

This is particularly galling when a player being offside in this way leads to zero tangible benefit, because that potentially unfair advantage is what the rule aims to address. Take this example and this example (8:42 in video). In the first, the player points to where he wants the ball delivered, scores a brilliant chip…and has the goal disallowed because part of his upper arm was offside when he was pointing. Despite him starting his run while being behind his defenders, the ruling was technically correct, according to the laws of the game.

In the second example, the attacking player was coming back from an offside position, but his heel was marginally offside when the ball was played. Never mind that his offside position provided no advantage whatsoever because he received the ball still with two defenders between him and the goal. By the letter of the law, he’s offside and the goal was correctly disallowed. But, both of these examples give me the ickies, to use the technical term.

On the fantastic soccer podcast, Stadio, they refer to these instances as “spiritually onside,” and I quite like that. So, what should we do about these technically offside but spiritually onside scenarios?

Solution 1: Invert the Offside Rule

What do I mean? Well, right now, the law is written so that if any part of a player that may legally play the ball is offside, the entire body is offside. I propose changing it so that if any part of the player that may legally touch the ball is onside, they’re in the clear.

That way, instead of bemoaning the fine margins and miserable luck that led to a goal being disallowed, we could marvel at the skill of the player for timing their runs perfectly, leaving just enough of their body onside for the goal to count. It would be similar to an NFL player making a leaping catch near the corner of the endzone, but still having enough mental wherewithal and body control to touch the tips of his toes to the turf before his momentum takes him flying out of bounds. Super impressive to see.

This rule change would also increase the number of through balls and breakaways, which fans consistently find to be some of the most exciting parts of the game.

Now, this change would absolutely require an adjustment on the part of defenders. But they’ve done it before, even within my lifetime! In the early 1990’s, a new rule was added forbidding goalkeepers from picking the ball up with their hands after receiving a pass from the feet of one of their own defenders.

Some people groaned about the idea at the time, but eventually everyone got used to it. As a result, defenders and goalkeepers are much more skilled with their feet than ever before, and the game as a spectator sport has improved accordingly. If you dare, go back and watch high-stakes matches from the 1990 World Cup, the tournament of abject drudgery that led to the backpass rule change. These contests are borderline unwatchable now. It was simply far too easy for a team to slow the game down, and the spectacle suffered accordingly. Speaking of the spectacle suffering…

Problem 2: Time-wasting & Diving

Whenever someone who doesn’t enjoy watching soccer says they just can’t handle the way players dive and roll around, I grimace to myself and reluctantly agree. Perhaps my inner highschooler is still sensitive to the American perception of soccer as a “wussy sport,” but seeing this in matches still makes my stomach turn.

While this time-wasting and diving are technically two problems rolled into one, they’re related, so let’s cover them together. We’ll start with diving. First, now that all top leagues use VAR, there’s no excuse for not doling out harsher penalties for blatant diving and injury faking.

Players, like all humans, respond to incentives, so we need to de-incentivize diving. First, punish those who go to ground with no contact with an automatic yellow card, and a red card if they attempt to win a penalty or trick the referee into thinking another player seriously injured them. They would need to be quite liberal with the cards for a season or two before the change stuck, but I’m almost positive this would work.

Next, referees need to actually call fouls if a player doesn’t hit the turf. Players often dive because refs won’t penalize a defender unless the attacker crumples like a house of cards.

Moving on, what can we do about time-wasting? This is actually code for a larger issue, namely, that not every team plays an equal number of minutes throughout a league season.

How can this be?

Well, so far during the 2022/23 Premier League season, the ball is in play for an average of roughly 55 of the 90 allotted minutes. However, there have been multiple matches in which the total “ball in play” time has dipped below 45 minutes. That’s less than half of the actual game! In particular, matches involving Brentford are played in a rather stop-start manner, with one featuring a measly 43 minutes of action.

From a sporting fairness standpoint, we can clearly see the injustice here. In American sports like football and basketball, “ball in play” times are much shorter relative to the total clock, yet the rules are incredibly specific regarding when the clock is and is not stopped. This isn’t the case in soccer, and it encourages time-wasting tactics that turn off neutrals and even embarrass the fans of the teams perpetrating them.

Solution 2: Replace the 90-minute running clock with a 60-minute stop clock.

As the host of the excellent Tifo Football Podcast said, “This is a change you should like if you’re a fan of…football being played during football matches.”

Personally, I think a stop clock is inevitable. The 2022 World Cup took a step in the right direction by dramatically increasing the amount of stoppage time added to the end of each half. In total, matches averaged nearly 12 minutes of additional time, a roughly 13% increase in total minutes relative to the typical 90.

However, when exactly time was added was never adequately explained, and seeing anywhere from eight to fifteen additional minutes on the board took both a physical and mental toll on the players. It also didn’t completely discourage time-wasting, since the clock was still constantly running.

Instead, if the clock were to be stopped in the case of goals, fouls, substitutions, and VAR checks, we’d fix the problem entirely, especially when combined with harsher penalties for diving. With no time to waste and the risk of earning a red card, players would have far less incentive to attempt to deceive the referee. The only argument that can be made against this is, “This is how we’ve always done it and I don’t like change,” which has no actual merit.

Instead, with the average “ball-in-play” time consistently hovering around 55 minutes for the past two decades, it makes sense to bump this up to a standard 60 minutes while removing an incentive to engage in one of the worst parts of the game. Everyone wins!

Problem 3: Penalties

To start, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not referring to penalty shootouts at the end of knockout matches. I thoroughly enjoy them. I don’t think there’s a more intriguing psychological battle in all of team sports. Plus, to be blunt, all suggestions for what to do instead are frankly, bad. Keep shootouts as they are.

But, penalties during matches are a different story. Here’s a groundbreaking revelation for you. In soccer, it’s hard to score goals. The average professional match features less than three. For this reason, penalties become far too valuable for their own good. Part of the aforementioned issues with diving stem from the reality that penalties offer arguably the easiest route to scoring a goal.

However, my main problem with penalties is that the reward is too often disproportionate to the infraction. Bear with me here as we take a brief detour into one of soccer’s only widely-used advanced statistics.

Known as xG, or “expected goals,” multiple statistics companies use algorithms to determine the percentage chance of scoring from any given shot. They do this by examining a database of decades’ worth of matches and and considering the following criteria when any player shoots the ball:

  • Distance from goal
  • How wide or how central the location of the shot
  • How many players between the shooter and the goal
  • Whether the ball was hit from the ground or out of the air

So, a shot like this would have an xG of less than 0.01, meaning that it had less than a 1% chance of going in…even though it did. By contrast, a tap-in with just the goalkeeper to beat from eight yards out would have an xG closer to 0.95.

Every penalty kick is assigned an xG value of roughly 0.8, since around 80% of penalty attempts are converted at the highest levels of the game.

But…because any infraction within the 18-yard box results in a penalty, the situations that yield penalty kicks often have nowhere near an 80% chance of leading to a goal. Let’s look at a some examples.

While in many of these cases, the referee was deceived by exaggerated contact from the attacking player, that’s not the main problem. Instead, notice that nearly all of these “fouls” took place at an angle from which it would be incredibly difficult to score, or with a large number of players who were well-positioned to block a shot. Yes, in some cases the rules were followed, but in most of these examples, it still feels unjust that such a massive benefit was gained as the result of the foul. It feels random and unearned. So, how do we fix this?

Solution 3: Modified Free Kick Protocol

First, we need to understand that penalty kicks haven’t been around forever. They weren’t added to the laws of the game until nearly 30 years after the sport had been codified by the English Football Association in the 1860’s. This addition was made since the original punishment, an indirect free kick from the spot of the infraction, was seen as an insufficient deterrent for a serious foul or deliberate handball. Basically, incentives were skewed, and it often made more sense for players to break the rules.

Funny how things come full circle, huh? Originally, the rules encouraged questionable tactics from defenders, and now they do the same from attackers.

Anyway, penalty kicks were adopted in the 1890’s, but a version we would recognize as close to the modern iteration wasn’t implemented until the 1930’s. Since then, there have been numerous small tweaks, so the point is, even something as entrenched as penalties can be changed. Keep that in mind, because this is the most radical of all my suggestions.

I propose that all fouls within the 18-yard box lead to a direct free kick from the exact spot of the foul, but with a couple of twists. First, the defending team would not be permitted to form a wall. Additionally, and only for fouls in the box, the player who takes the free kick would be permitted to immediately take a second touch. They don’t have to do so, but they can. Regardless of whether they do or not, every other player besides the opposition goalkeeper must start outside of the 18-yard box, and play would be live as soon as the designated player takes their first touch.

So, for a foul that was committed more towards the center of the box, a player has a better chance of scoring from a direct shot, and a foul further away and less central would require a second touch and more creativity. Perhaps they take a touch towards goal and attempt to shoot, or maybe they’d attempt to find a teammate via a clever set-piece routine. Not only would this be exciting to watch, it would mean the chance resulting from the foul would more accurately reflect the situation that led to it.

No longer will scenarios like in the above video yield an 80% chance of a goal, and we should all be able to agree that would be for the best.

Footy, I’m only saying this because I love you.

Like seeing someone you care about not fulfilling their potential, it’s difficult to watch soccer knowing it could be so much better, and with some relatively simple changes. These three aren’t the extent of what I think needs to be done, as better financial regulations and more transparency are becoming increasingly necessary. So are safeguards around the number of matches players endure each season. Mandating a decrease in total minutes played would help address the injury epidemic and increase the quality of matches, since players would be less fatigued. But that’s a topic for another day.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, my suggestions here are merely intended to be a starting point. It’s common for FIFA to trial new rules in U-17 competitions, since they hit that elusive sweetspot of high enough skill and low enough stakes. It’s possible that some of the solutions I’ve proposed would cause more problems in execution, but we won’t know unless we try.

However, it’s clear something needs to be done. Many high level sports executives are quietly worried about the rise of esports harming younger generations’ interest in traditional sports. And frankly, they should be. There’s a reason esports’ popularity is growing while that of traditional sports is shrinking. But we’ll dive more into that next week. In the meantime, long live the beautiful game!

Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. What did you think of the proposed changes? Do you have better solutions to the problems I highlighted? Reply to this email and let me know!


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