Scrap penalty areas, rework offside and stop the clocks: Five more law changes we’d love to see

Dave Tickner

Football is pretty good, isn’t it? Yes, yes it is.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be even better. It’s been 30 years since the back-pass law came along and instantly (well, almost instantly, once goalkeepers learned to kick with two feet and override a lifetime of muscle memory) improved the game wildly for the better. There must be other ways we can help the game improve further still. Luckily, there are precisely five of those ways and they are these.


1) Penalties only awarded for denying a goalscoring opportunity
This would be a pretty seismic change to the game, but we’re utterly certain it would be for the better.

The idea behind it is simple enough; make penalties a punishment that fits the crime. In different situations that’s going to favour both attacking and defending sides but the idea is that we end up with a fairer game because of it.

Last defender cynically chops a striker down 40 yards from goal? Penalty. Pissy little foul on a player moving away from goal in the far corner of the penalty area? Not a penalty. Pretty much any handball other than a full Luis Suarez against Ghana? Not a penalty.

Now this isn’t perfect and we’re well aware of the fact that we’re going to swap one set of controversies for another. But we’re ready for you there.

We have justification and it is as follows. Yes, a ‘goalscoring opportunity’ is quite subjective, but it is a concept that already exists within football’s laws and one that people are familiar with. Hard to describe, but we all know it when we see it. Sure, there will be borderline cases that prompt debate and discussion, but we’d contend that will be more than adequately covered off by an end to the amount of debate and controversy about marginal handball calls or twatty little fouls in the corner of the box that will no longer merit such analysis because they would no longer be penalties.

Perhaps (definitely) naively, we also think that ‘What is a goalscoring opportunity?’ offers scope for a more interesting philosophical debate than arguing over ‘ball to hand’ or ‘there’s definitely contact there for me, Clive’.

But at the most fundamental level we have two main reasons for backing this change, beyond simply wanting to watch the world burn.

One, penalties so often feel like an absurdly harsh punishment under the circumstances in which they are awarded, an equivalent to about four-fifths of a goal for infringements that are very often minor or even non-existent.

But most importantly two, indirect free-kicks are ace and this way we get more of them.


2) Whoever wins the penalty takes the penalty
While we’re on the subject of spot-kicks. Simple one, this. No more just chucking the ball to Harry Kane so he can rack up dafter and dafter numbers. No. The player fouled has to dust himself down and take the penalty himself. If they’re injured, then their substitute has to take it. No exceptions.

Obviously, we’re assuming we’ve managed to ram home rule change one by this point so penalties for handball are going to be much rarer and pretty much only for blocking goalbound shots so it’s pretty easy to judge who takes those penalties. Whoever had the shot, obviously.

If for some reason we’re still stuck piddling about giving out penalties for crosses that hit defenders on the arm, then the player who crossed it has to take the penalty. Which would also produce a welcome return of the ‘full-backs taking penalties’ genre. Your Julian Dickses. Your Denis Irwins. The Leighton Baineses of This World.

Harry Kane takes a penalty

3) Make penalty shoot-outs fairer
Some minor tinkering here that really should already be standard and it’s silly that it isn’t. FIFA had a brief foray into considering replacing the standard ABAB shootout format with the ABBA method that has nothing to do with successful pop groups and more to do with tennis tie-breaks, but abandoned it even though it proved to be a fairer if very slightly more complicated system. Sort of gives the game away about what they and fans really want from shoot-outs, but really that’s not good enough.

It is really pretty easy to follow ABBA shoot-outs and statistically they are a no-brainer.

If there is an advantage to going first – and all the data says there is – then you’ve solved the problem. And if there isn’t an advantage, then there’s still absolutely no harm done. There is no downside to the ABBA system, only potential upside. So let’s do that, please.

Also, if a sudden-death shoot-out goes to the 11th player and you had a player sent off, that counts as a miss. Logically, it’s the only fair way. Otherwise you get to go back to your best penalty taker when you should have to use your worst. A punishment has turned into a significant reward.

Never mind this fad for subbing on penalty-specialist keepers at the end of extra-time; the real baller move under the current rules is getting your weakest penalty-takers to all try and get themselves sent off in the 120th minute. This, admittedly, would only work in a final. Because suspensions. But still.

Easy change, and, while an automatic miss is less funny than the prospect of centre-backs trying to get deliberate red cards, it is still pretty funny. And also fairer than what we have now, which probably is important.


4) Judge offside purely based on the position of the feet
We’re pretty sure there is no perfect way for the offside law and VAR’s quest for millimetre accuracy ever to truly co-exist but we’re also sure it can be better. More margin for error has definitely helped reduce the number of controversial calls, but it certainly hasn’t removed them altogether.

There are still offside decisions given that just don’t feel like they fit our understanding of what offside meant before VAR came along measuring armpits and such.

Arguably the biggest problem with VAR offsides as they currently stand is actually the thornier issue of deciding which frame constitutes the moment the ball was played. But we don’t really know the solution there, feels like one for the boffins.

What we can do is improve the way the positions of the attackers and defenders are measured once the arbitrary ‘correct’ frame has been chosen. And it’s simple: we just measure from the feet. There are obvious advantages to this.

One, more people are going to be onside. While griping about VAR offsides obviously falls mainly, like all griping about decisions, along tribal lines we reckon in general people get more agitated by goals being ruled out than ruled in. That’s when it feels most like we are all robbed of something by a nerd with a set-square in some broom cupboard at Stockley Park.

But two, the feet will – in most cases – either be on the ground or close to it. That’s going to make the drawing of the lines far less contentious than it currently is.

Obviously, the other option here is just scrap VAR, but maybe we’re not ready to try putting that particular genie back in the bottle just yet.


5) Stop the clocks
Would love to see this one trialled properly as a way to tackle timewasting. Honestly think it could be as successful as the back-pass law. It’s deceptively simple: we reduce the game to two halves of 30 minutes, but the clock stops whenever the ball is out of play. No more arbitrary added time tacked on by the officials, and in one swift, decisive move timewasting instantly becomes pointless.

The data is out there and shows we’d still get about the same amount of football as we do currently, it’s just the way we measure it that changes. And the amount of playing time becomes consistent across all games rather than being at the whim of the referee. Has to be worth a go.

You also take away the subjectivity not just of when the game ends but how. Once the time ticks down to zero, the game ends the next time the ball is out of play (retaining the current caveat about penalties).

Thinking about it, even if we can’t have our stopped clocks we would still very much like ‘final whistle only when the ball is dead’ to be a thing anyway, please.