A lot of football fans have looked at the way teams have targeted Tottenham Hotspur keeper Guglielmo Vicario over Spurs’ last couple of matches with some confusion. In both the Brentford and Everton matches, opposition players were clearly instructed to stand by and attempt to impede Vicario’s movement on set pieces. In both matches, that tactic resulted in goals.
It’s confusing, because there’s always been an assumption that keepers are more protected in most situations than outfield players, so both of those set piece plays felt like outliers compared to how these situations have been officiated in past matches. Spurs head coach Ange Postecoglou isn’t usually one to criticize match officials — he usually takes the line that you have to respect their decision, even if you don’t agree with it. But he’s on the record of disliking VAR, and did admit in embargoed comments released yesterday that the club has asked the PGMOL for clarification on the rules in this matter to see whether this is the result of individual referee interpretation or some sort of rule change.
“I haven’t [had conversations with the officials]. I struggle with that stuff. Like I’ve said before, I’ve kind of always been the one who says you’ve got to respect the referee’s decision or the umpire’s, but I think we have sent some stuff to get some clarification.
“I’m going to get called out for this, but there was a thing that was quite evident in the game that the goalkeeper was a protected species. I don’t think that’s just me making that up. The reason people used to say that was that if you really impeded a goalkeeper in any way in the six-yard box, you are going to get a foul. I knew that as a player, I knew that as a manager.
“There seems to be a shift there. Somebody will say to me that the rules haven’t changed but I think there’s been a shift there where now… to me, it’s obstruction. If you’re standing in front of a goalkeeper stopping him before a ball has even arrived, in layman’s terms that’s obstruction. Now someone is going to tell me that that’s not a law either, it wouldn’t surprise me.
“But it was something that I kind of thought was part of the game. I’ve seen it in general play, I’ve seen our guys get blocked trying to close people down by other people and I’m finding it bizarre that it’s not being pulled up anymore. With the goalkeepers, what’s that going to do now? Well, it’s pretty much opened it up that you can surround the goalkeeper and crowd him and put balls on top of him and just wait for the scramble to finish and see what happens.”
He’s not wrong. It’s interesting that Ange didn’t couch this in terms of good or bad, because that’s not really the point. It’s also exactly why Spurs asked for clarification from the match official’s organization about it. Spurs and Postecoglou want to know because if this is the way the match is going to be called, then more clubs are going to start doing it, and all clubs including Tottenham are going to have to adjust to it tactically, likely by assigning a player to be the keeper’s “bodyguard” on set pieces.
Ange also hit back on the framing that Vicario has been too “soft” in these situations and needs to be more aggressive to get free from defenders and go for balls.
“I can’t praise [Vicario] highly enough over the way he handled it, and the whole thing where people say ‘you’ve got to be stronger’, well, what does that mean? If he pushes or does anything to a player, with VAR, you’ve got no chance. You’re going to get a penalty against you.
“We’re telling our players now ‘just be careful in the box, they’re looking for everything with VAR, you’re not going to get away with a little shirt pull or a little push’. So how are goalkeepers supposed to be stronger in that sense when you’ve got somebody standing next to you obstructing you doing your job? If there’s contact before the ball arrives, I thought that was obstruction.
“Like I said, I’ll get called out for this because I’m probably behind the times and maybe there’s been a rule change, but there’s definitely been a shift as I see it where we’ve definitely had two goals, maybe three, [against us] that maybe in the past would have been fouls on the goalkeeper, and it’s not just in our games, I’ve seen it in other games too.”
Notably, Ange didn’t say what kind of response the club got back from the PGMOL, if any. Tottenham have a match in a few hours and I’m very curious to see whether Brighton has seen the writing on the wall and starts putting a body on Vicario, and if so, what kind of adjustments Spurs make towards protecting Vicario on corners going forward.