As the field of geology tells us, even spontaneous eruptions have long, often ancient, antecedents. Friction builds up inexorably. Pressure increases. It all happens seemingly unnoticed, until one day: kaboom.
That within the same weekend not one, but two, A-League coaches would spew molten magma during post-match press conferences is however entirely predictable, when the respective triggers are the mind-boggling inconsistency of VAR and the mind-boggling inconsistency of the International Football Association Board’s new handball rule.
On the available replays, it’s hard to see sufficient grounds for awarding a penalty for Pirmin Schwegler’s shirt-tug on Denis Genreau – the event that prompted an expletive-laden tirade from Western Sydney Wanderers coach Marcus Babbel post-game.
But thanks to the elegant opacity of the term “clear and obvious error” – a phrase so anchored in subjectivity Greek philosophers are still sitting under trees debating the precise limits of its outlines – we have no idea by what objective basis the VAR elected not to overrule Chris Beath’s initial decision.
It’s the great conundrum of the VAR era – it can claim rigid exactitude in ruling offsides to within a millimeter, yet simultaneously remain content to lurk amid the mists of ambiguity when it comes to cross-examining human decisions.
For Mark Rudan, having watched his Western United side denied not one, but two, arguably cast-iron penalties late on during their 1-0 loss to the Mariners it was the equally incomprehensible IFAB new handball rules in his sights.
“The advisory panels had a detailed and constructive discussion on how the handball law could be improved to clarify what constitutes handball and consequently, to ensure a more consistent application of the law,” crowed the brilliantly headlined “IFAB advisory panels make progress with handball” from 2018.
Like VAR, again weasel-words are at play, this time with the concept of a hand being in a “natural” or “unnatural” position at the center of conjecture. “What’s natural, what’s unnatural – I have no idea anymore. I just don’t get it,” fumed Rudan, like a modern day Diogenes, sans barrel.
The player at the center of the first incident, Central Coast’s Ziggy Gordon was similarly perplexed. “Thing is, you don’t know what the rules are these days, I just done my best to try and block a shot and keep my hands down.”
As Rudan rightly points out, amid such hair-tearing uncertainty, it’s hard for coaches to even know how to train defenders to defend. An unnatural hand to prevent a smack in the face last week? Fine. An unnatural hand trailing behind the body this week? Fine. But a deflection onto an unnatural hand during the opening week? Penalty.
In Hawaiian culture the goddess of volcanoes is called Pele. A name synonymous with flair and joy in football, there’s little wonder VAR and IFAB’s new handball rules are prompting coaches to erupt.
But while both these issues have their roots far beyond the humble realms of the A-League these coaches are sufficiently experienced and media-savvy enough to know precisely what they’re doing by “going large” on these topics.
“I’m not sitting here to deflect – I’ve got nothing to deflect – we played extremely well,” deflected Rudan.
While hugely improved from where they were last season, the Mariners remain a team very much there for the taking. Melbourne City demonstrated this two weeks ago; Adelaide last week. How Western United failed to break down a side on a 36-game streak without a clean sheet and with a reshuffled back four to boot is worthy of forensic investigation.
A team that has been built to be defensively solid first and foremost and then to attack in transition runs into trouble against sides that fail to proactively force the play. It’s a fair question for Rudan, especially coming off consecutive losses to the Jets and the Mariners.
Similarly, after the early season promise following their return to the custom-built Parramatta Stadium, questions are warranted of Western Sydney Wanderers’ performances during back-to-back losses.
Having taken a second-minute lead following an excellent counter-attack, Fox Sports matchday commentator Andy Harper cut an increasingly frustrated figure at the lack of attacking impetus from the home side.
“For me it’s been brewing for the Wanderers, [they’re] just courting trouble, not being able to hold onto the ball,” he opined shortly after the contentious penalty, before warming to the theme in the 75th minute. “They’ve showed no appetite, and less ability to dominate the possession at home against Melbourne City, and really, they’ve been sitting ducks.”
But rather than punditry lauding the attacking verve of Erick Mombaert’s City in contrast with Babbel’s Wanderers, the headlines surround issues plaguing the entire footballing world.
Just as the pressures that geologists examine are systemic, so too are all coaches affected by the present incongruities of world football’s twin bête noires – VAR’s “clear and obvious error” and IFAB’s new handball ruling.
The bad penalty decision or the non-penalty award becomes the excuse, but also the smokescreen. As media-savvy coaches like Babbel and Rudan well know.
The Guardian Sport