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Between a Roch and a VAR’d place: examining Son Heung-Min’s disallowed FA Cup penalty

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Sonny had a penalty called back for an “illegal feint.” But was it? And was that the correct interpretation of the play?

Tottenham Hotspur v Rochdale - The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round Replay Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur comfortably won their FA Cup fifth round replay over Rochdale 6-1 on Wednesday behind a perfect hat trick from Fernando Llorente and a brace from Son Heung-Min. You’d think that there wouldn’t be much to talk about. You’d be wrong.

The biggest story of the evening stems, in fact, by the use and implementation of the VAR (Video Assisted Referee). The VAR, which is being trialled in the FA Cup ahead of its use in the World Cup this summer and possible future implementation in future Premier League seasons, was controversially put to use on numerous occasions in the first half, and was used to disallow two Spurs goals, much to the consternation of Tottenham and its supporters.

There’s a lot that could be discussed with regards to the VAR in the first half of this match, but we’re going to key in on what was perhaps the most controversial decision made by match official Paul Tierney and backed up by the VAR: the disallowed penalty kick by Son-Heung Min in the 28th minute.

To quickly sum up, Tottenham was gifted a penalty kick (again through use of the VAR) after Kieran Trippier was fouled as his momentum carried him into Rochdale’s box. Son stepped to the spot and hesitated during his run-up before converting the free kick. Tierney, however, immediately waved the goal off and gave Son a yellow card for “unsporting behavior.” Rochdale was instead granted an indirect free kick from the spot of the infraction. They went on to score an equalizing goal and carried a 1-1 draw into halftime.

The confusion on the pitch was palpable in real time as nobody seemed to understand what was going on. Tierney’s call was made due to the fact that he believe that Son “illegally feinted” during his run-up to the ball.

But did he really? And was that the right decision? Let’s take a look.

The Incident

First, it’s important to be able to see what actually happened in real time. Here is Son’s penalty kick, in its entirety.

Son’s “illegal feint”

Sonny was yellow carded and his penalty kick annulled because Tierney had decided that his hesitation before taking the kick constituted “unsporting behavior.” But is that really the case? Penalty kicks and their infractions are listed under Law 14 in the Rules of the Game. Here’s the particular part of that law, in its entirety, that deals with infringements on PKs, taken from a document on FIFA’s website:

Law 14.2, Infringements of Penalty Kicks
FIFA.com

What constitutes “unsporting behavior” is not clear, but has generally been interpreted as running right up to the ball, pausing for the keeper to move in one direction, and then kicking it in the other direction. That kind of move was rampant for many years before this rule was clarified as stated above. However, “feinting” in the run-up is fine and dandy, and it happens all the time when there are penalty kicks in football.

Son runs up towards the ball and clearly hesitates in his run-up, however he then takes another full step before shooting the ball. Notably, the keeper does not take the bait — Josh Lillis in fact takes a small step forward before Son takes the kick, but does not look at all imbalanced. He does go the wrong direction, but it’s difficult to make the argument that Son’s stopping his run is what made him guess incorrectly.

Sound nebulous and deeply stupid? That’s because it is! There is no guidance in the laws of the game about what constitutes a “feint” and what constitutes “unsporting behavior” — it’s entirely left to the judgement of the match official. Can Son’s stopping during his run-up be interpreted as an intent to deceive the keeper? You bet. But seeing as how “feinting” (which includes stopping your run up before reaching the ball) is explicitly protected in the rules, there’s plenty of wiggle room in this interpretation.

Moreover, as implemented, the VAR would need to find significant evidence that Tierney’s interpretation of the law is incorrect in order to overrule it. It’s hazy and wibbly-wobbly, but having or not having VAR may not have made a difference in this situation — this was a judgement call by Tierney, and he made it.

The encroachment

But there’s another violation that happens as this kick is taken, and happens a split second before Sonny’s hesitation. As Son runs up to the spot, multiple players run into the box before he makes contact with the ball. This is encroachment, and it is a violation.

There are various scenarios in place for what should happen if players encroach into the box during a penalty kick. Almost all of those scenarios result in the player re-taking the kick.

Law 14, Encroachment on Penalty Kicks
FIFA.com

Proponents of Tierney’s call would say that Son’s hesitation is what brought the players into the box, and it’s certainly true that at the moment Son hesitates a good number of players run into the box, anticipating his kick.

However, if you look carefully, there are in fact three players that are in encroaching positions even before Son hesitates ahead of the ball: Lucas Moura, and two Rochdale players. This is where VAR is supposed to come into play and where it failed. Even if you believe that Son’s feint enticed players into encroaching positions, the VAR should have caught the fact that there were players illegally in the box even before that feint takes place. By law, the encroachment should have resulted in the kick being retaken.

I hear what you’re saying right now — encroachment happens all the time in football and is almost never called. You’re correct. However, if the VAR is to be used, then it SHOULD be called. In fact, encroachment is one of those things that the VAR could directly address and even begin to stamp out. And even if you think Sonny’s feint is illegal and the more severe of the two infractions, chronologically the encroachment happened first and should be addressed first. Since Son was successful in completing the penalty kick, the result should have been to retake the penalty.

Conclusion

Paul Tierney’s interpretation of Sonny’s penalty kick can only be made if he believes that Son’s hesitation before taking the kick constituted an unsportsmanlike maneuver to make the keeper commit to a move before the kick was taken, and if he believes that the encroachment in the box was directly due to that hesitation. There’s certainly a case that can be made that this was the right decision, even if I and many other Tottenham fans disagree with it. The issue is that VAR apparently backed up this decision and the evidence suggests that there was encroachment before Son made his “illegal feint.”

And let’s be fair: ultimately, none of this really matters all that much. Spurs scored five goals in the second half, so the difference between a 6-1 win and a 7- or 8-1 win is academic at best. But imagine if something like this had happened in a close match, one with major implications, like a critical league game, or a cup final. What then?

If the use of VAR is intended to clarify rules and their violations, then I’d argue that it failed in this instance. And this wasn’t the only controversial incident, either: Lamela’s disallowed goal in the sixth minute is also maddeningly reminiscent of the NFL’s slowed-down replay “is it a catch or isn’t it” moments that we in America love to hate. And to be fair, there were other incidents that, although it took a frustratingly long amount of time, got the calls right according to the letter of the law.

Even so, it’s not difficult for your average football fan to look at that first half and come to the immediate conclusion that the VAR either doesn’t work, or that it’s being used incorrectly or to address the wrong things. I happen to be a proponent of VAR. I think it’s coming whether we want it to or not, and there are important conversations to be had about the way it is implemented and whether it should be considered a panacea for incorrect match official rule interpretations (hint: it shouldn’t).

If this was a shakedown cruise of the VAR in English leagues, then the first half of this match makes it readily apparent that there’s a few bolts that need some tightening before this ship is seaworthy.