Referees launch clampdown on holding in the penalty area

Published on 17 December, 2012 
By: Mark Williams

Referees are to clamp down on holding in the penalty area in a move which will see Stoke City's defensive tactics come under the spotlight.

Stoke have acquired a reputation for rough-house tactics with Maroune Fellaini taking particular issue with Ryan Shawcross's physical approach on Saturday.


Now, Sportsmail understands that elite group of Barclays Premier League referees have decided enough is enough and plan to penalise players for holding, pushing and shirt-grabbing at set-plays. If the ball is in play, a penalty will be awarded.

The Potters are not alone, with many strikers becoming frustrated that top-flight defenders have been able to get away with impeding them in this way for so long.

Everton midfielder Fellaini reacted with a shocking display of physical violence when he headbutted Ryan Shawcross at the Britannia Stadium, but it is not the first time that Shawcross and Stoke have been criticised for their approach.

Two years ago, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger accused the Potters of playing 'rugby' instead of football. That provoked Stoke to lodge a complaint with the FA.

In 2010, Wenger said: 'You cannot say it is football any more. It is more rugby on the goalkeepers than football. When you see the way Shawcross kicked Heurelho Gomes, how Robert Huth pushed Gomes in the goal, you cannot say that is football anymore.'

The evidence was clear on numerous highlights programmes over the weekend as foul play in the Stoke penalty area was broadcast.

Daily Mail chief sports writer, Martin Samuel today called for officials to take action on this issue and it seems the the festive fixtures will provide the test ground for new focus at set-plays.

Samuel wrote in his regular Monday column: 'It was still illegal to hold on to another player to prevent his movement. Meaning the first foul that was committed in the Stoke City penalty area in the 59th minute on Saturday was by defender Ryan Shawcross.

'That does not justify Marouane Fellaini’s reaction, and is only the tiniest mitigation for an incident that will almost certainly end with a three-match ban for the Everton player, but it is nevertheless an important fact.

For it makes plain that what happened on Saturday, a clash that could have ended in serious injury, a fractured cheekbone or broken nose, was a direct result of football’s decision to allow wrestling matches in the penalty area.


Ryan Shawcross clearly did not deserve to be butted on Saturday but he should have had a penalty awarded against him for holding Marouane Fellaini.

While PGMOL chiefs are very happy with officiating so far this season, cautions are down, particularly those for dissent, the one issue that stands out is holding and blocking at set pieces.

A compilation of examples will be put together and shown to referees to get commitment from them to punish this offence more often and in a consistent way.

Stoke City are bound to feature in that DVD, not exclusively of course, but the way Shawcross clearly held Fellaini is one example of many.

Holding and blocking at set pieces has been raised as an issue many times before and is seen as difficult to clamp down on due to the consequences and likely reaction.

Firstly the offence starts to occur before the ball is in play and so cannot be punished by a free kick until the ball is played. If the referee stops play before the ball is played then he could caution the offender for unsporting behaviour but play would still restart with the corner or free kick that was delayed.

That is why you often see the referee stop the kick being taken and warn the players to stop holding. This has stopped being an effective deterrent as so few follow up on the warning.

The second issue is that once the ball is played some defenders stop holding the opponent and so there is no offence to punish. However, that is happening less frequently as defenders are realising that referees are ignoring the offence which is not hard to detect.

Go back to Shawcross at the weekend and Fellaini. You could clearly see Shawcross’ arms wrapped around Fellaini, preventing him from jumping for the ball. Referees are trained to watch the ‘drop zone’ at set pieces rather than the ball in the air as nothing happens to the ball.

Blocking offences are more difficult to detect but one which always stands out is Kevin Nolan on the opposing goalkeeper. Whichever team he plays for Nolan has always stood on the ‘keepers toes, sometimes literally. It started when he was at Bolton and they faced Arsenal knowing that Jens Lehman was always put off by such actions.

I used to ask him to step away which he refused and so I awarded a free kick as soon as the corner was taken and told him that I would do so at every corner. Two free kicks and he would move away, so it can be cured.


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