Penalty box holding is a contentious issue that has reared it’s head again this weekend. Branislav Ivanovic felt he should have had a penalty for holding in the first half having been wrestled to the ground where otherwise he’d probably have headed a free-kick in. From the same free-kick John Terry was also being wrestled to the ground to nullify the threat. It was clearly a foul and should have been a penalty. That being said, it is not a simplistic issue.
Last week Mark Hughes came out and claimed that his defender Ryan Shawcross was being unfairly targeted by referees for penalty box tugs. Shawcross is a serial offender however and was rightly penalized for a tug on Wilfred Bony in a fixture between Stoke and Swansea. Hughes wasn’t impressed. Jamie Carragher at half time in the Manchester United versus Chelsea game suggested that the referee was wrong to fail to give the penalty.
Why didn’t he?
One of the major issues with penalty box holding is that it has become so deeply entrenched in Premier League defending (and possibly all defending) that defenders probably don’t really see it as a foul. If Chelsea had been awarded the penalty Chris Smalling might have been absolutely livid about the decision. Ryan Shawcross for example did not believe he’d done anything wrong. It is a very good way to control an opponent who is difficult to mark and to ensure that you do not let the player have an effort on goal.
The fact that it is so wide spread means that referees often turn a blind eye, finding it easier to not give a penalty as it happens in almost all set-pieces. If we were to take a video from the Manchester United versus Chelsea game and analyse every single set-piece, we’d probably see a foul on an attacking player in 90% of the cases (of course this is a made up statistic… but the point remains). Defenders do it and forwards also do it. Forwards though, are more likely to be penalized for a hand on a defender, than if a defender has a hand on the forward. There is also usually a large outcry if an attacking player gains a set-piece advantage from holding or using his physique.
Referees bury their heads in the sand. In the Swansea game the referee got stick for giving the penalty which was grossly unfair. He may now think ‘what is the point in giving one again.’ Its also a foul that is easy to get away with because it is often hard to spot amidst the penalty box scramble that happens on corners and free-kicks.
What needs to happen, obviously, is that referees need to initiate a crack down. If they make it very clear to defenders prior to games that this is going to be a focus point for a clamp down, then defenders may think twice about grabbing in the penalty area. Further, defenders will have less grounds to complain if a penalty is given against them. If referees show consistency on this, which could have been done through a penalty being awarded to Ivanovic, then a precedent would be set. The Premier League need to work with referees to stamp this part of the game out. It is essence a form of cheating and shouldn’t really be something we turn a blind eye to.