Time for a Change?
Would a stopped clock system help eliminate the scourge of time-wasting?
When you first fell in love with football, what was it that first drew you in? A goal kick taking forever? A substitution taking an age as the player trudges off, dragging his feet to eke out every last second? Or maybe a blatant act of feigning injury so everyone could stand around drinking water?
No? Me neither. Nobody loves time wasting.
But we can all remember games totally ruined by time-wasting. One could point out particular games, and how things might have happened differently were this not allowed. I could pick out particular managers who have been more known for encouraging such gamesmanship than others. I could pick out certain players better known for the dark arts. But this isn't about picking out individuals. Whoever you support, time-wasting compromises the integrity of the entire sport, as well as the entertainment for spectators.
But perhaps there is a solution: a stop-clock model comprising two 30-minute halves. Each half would end the first time the ball goes dead after time is up – although not if that is a free-kick or penalty; it’s important that a foul to a player in an advantageous position should not accrue an advantage.
In the NBA or NHL timekeepers are used to decide if a shot was released on time, or if a puck went in before or after time was up. The ‘last play' scenario, though, would heighten the drama, as in rugby, and guard against an important goal being chalked off for being a second too late, which wouldn’t be a good look for the game.
If timekeeping is taken out of referees’ hands and given to a separate official to start and stop the clock when the ball is in and out of play, it allows the referee to focus on the game.
Referees would be spared having to deal with stoppage time in each half and the resulting pressure that comes from managers and players about exactly how long to keep playing: no more ‘Fergie time’. The system is already implemented in plenty of other sports, such as futsal and field hockey, ensuring that only time when play is active counts.
A counter-argument is the law of unintended consequences, that football would essentially become an extended series of sector plays, because managers and coaches would exploit every stop of the clock to have extended chats with their team about tactics and strategy. The danger is that even without time-wasting, the pace of the game would slow. It's an understandable fear, as anyone who has watched endless scrum resets or line-outs being set up in rugby union will know. However, football is not rugby. Setting up a meaningful scrum is a vastly more complex way of restarting a game anything in football. In futsal, once the player has the ball in their possession, they have four seconds to restart the game, which prevents the game being broken up. There's no reason why football couldn’t give players, say, 10 seconds to restart play.
Feigning injury would still allow coaches to slow the game tempo down and pass on tactical instructions, but that is a problem that already exists and at least they would not under this system be eating into playing time.
The argument of tradition, that football has always been 90 minutes, is nonsensical. Football has always evolved. That a game should feature 11 players per side and last 90 minutes was only stipulated in 1897. In September 2018, in a Premier League game between Cardiff and Burnley, the ball was in play for 42 minutes, the shortest amount since December 2013, when just 40 minutes and 50 seconds of actual action was enjoyed by those who watched Stoke City against Aston Villa. Of the 48 minutes with the ball out of play in Cardiff v Burnley, eight were lost to the Cardiff captain Sean Morrison taking 20 long throw-ins. A change to tradition is preferable, surely, to that – even if Cardiff were never ahead and Morrison wasn’t deliberately wasting time?
According to Opta, in 2010-11, the longest Premier League games, by ball-in-play time, were 50% longer than the shortest, a staggering difference when so much effort is made to standardise other factors across the competition. Across Europe, Opta data provided by Colin Trainor shows that, in Europe’s top five leagues across 2010-2016, across all leagues broken down into years, average ball-in-play time was never lower than 52 minutes per match on average and never higher than 57. 30 minutes each way would mean an increase.
The idea that time wasted will be added back fully in stoppage time is self-evident claptrap. David Bunnell and five other data trackers specifically logged and tracked every single stoppage during the entire 2018 World Cup, even splitting it into sub-categories of what slows down matches most1. Notably, just under ten and a half minutes were spent waiting for free-kicks to be taken on average per match, with throw-ins a touch under eight minutes and goal kicks at just over six minutes. Next in the list of what caused stoppages came (in order): corner kicks, injuries, substitutions, goal celebrations, bookings, dissent, penalty kicks. The VAR system, much-maligned for slowing the game down, only came 11th in the list of things causing stoppages, with an average of just 31 seconds per match spent on it.
It’s likely these durations would decrease under a stop-clock system because players would have no incentive to dawdle. The data demonstrated that the more stoppage time accumulates across a half of football, the less accurate the amount of stoppage time added becomes. No wonder teams time-waste. It also showed that stoppage time during added time itself was particularly notable, as some referees simply added on no time for additional stoppages.
In 2012, the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL) confirmed to BBC Sport that the stop-clock method was discussed by their technical committee, which also included representation from managers, governing bodies and the clubs, including the League Managers Association and the Professional Football Association. That technical committee suggested to Fifa possible changes to the laws, which would have to be ratified by International Football Association Board (Ifab), comprising Fifa and the four British associations.
Ifab have considered a 60-minute stop-clock strategy to increase playing time as part of their Play Fair strategy put forward in 2017, noting that “many people are very frustrated that a typical 90-minute match has fewer than 60 minutes of effective (actual) playing time ie when the ball is in play.” The idea received notable support, with Gianfranco Zola telling the BBC, “I personally like this rule because there are so many teams who try to take advantage of it because they are winning and wasting time – so I think it is not a bad rule. Football is fast enough. Some of the changes I don't like very much, but this is a good one.” In the same month the Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Čech tweeted his support, saying that there are "25 minutes of effective playing time per half so you would actually see more football.”
The stop-clock idea has, though, yet to be meaningfully tested. Instead, less radical changes came: that substitutes must leave the pitch by the nearest available touchline, as opposed to the long slow endless walk off to the halfway-line when seeking to waste time. Ifab did, though, urge stricter calculation of additional time, calculated by referees stopping their watch at various moments that cause a delay, such as from a goal being scored to the game resuming, a penalty being given to actually being taken, a stoppage for a substitution, injury, a card being given out or a free-kick. However, it still only addresses part of the problem. The suggestion to Ifab of a stadium clock which starts and stops along with the referee/timekeeper’s watch to allow fans to understand why time was being added was rejected.
Although the act of referees stopping their own clock in theory sounds good, the reality is it’s still a long way from solving the problem. At the 2018 World Cup, Bunnell and his team worked out what the expected stoppage time for each game should have been. Six of the 32 group matches were into double figures for the difference between the amount of stoppage time that should have been added on across the two halves and the amount that was, the biggest being almost 14 minutes in Belgium v Tunisia. The number of minutes the ball was actually in-play across those first 32 games ranged from 44 through to 61.
This data only proves how difficult it is to referee and try accurately to judge lost time. Why not then hand responsibility to an independent timekeeper, move to a full stop-clock model and ensure in-play time is uniform across the board?