La Liga is back, and its first matchday brought plenty of uplifting stories this weekend: our dear “Isinho” Palazon scoring the first goal of the season, Baraja’s revitalized Valencia that is somehow even younger than last year, Sergi Darder now assisting and creating in Mallorca, Jude Bellingham leading a young and energetic Real Madrid, or Isco’s MVP debut with Betis.
Yet it seems that the biggest talk in La Liga town this weekend was over a negative: how La Liga’s new rules regarding added time led to more than 25 minutes of stoppage time at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez between Getafe and FC Barcelona. This amount comes as less of a surprise when you consider who coaches Getafe: ever since Jose Bordalas started coaching in La Liga, his teams have been consistently measured one of the top time-wasters in the league. Maybe it’s not my wisest decision to add more fuel to this discourse, but I feel inclined to contribute a few things.
Some degree of time-wasting and football dark arts is good for the sport. In an era of increasing inequalities in football, time-wasting is a valuable tool for the underdog to level the playing field. It feels deeply hypocritical to see Real Madrid or Barcelona fans complain about Getafe gaining unfair advantages in time-wasting, when their clubs have more than ten times the revenue and wage bill of Getafe. And audiences are certainly entertained by *some* degree of gamesmanship.
#RealMadrid €722m revenue is currently highest of most recent accounts in Spain, though others will increase when they release 2021/22 figures because of growth in match day income. Madrid overtook Barcelona in 2020/21, but both clubs earn much more than domestic rivals. pic.twitter.com/5wlAynWf79
— Swiss Ramble (@SwissRamble) October 3, 2022
However, there is something like too much time-wasting and discontinuity in the game, and both Primera and Segunda Division in Spain are veering into that territory. Since 2019, La Liga has been the lowest-scoring of the Big 5 European leagues. La Liga’s ability to attract offensive talent has dwindled in the face of the richer Premier League and teams founded by petrostates, and that has forced La Liga managers to build teams with a more conservative message. Coach Unai Emery explains it clearly and succinctly in an excellent 2020 interview with El Pais.
“The football of order that we see [in La Liga] has to do with the message of keeping a clean sheet. You look at the opponent’s goal with caution. That message has sunk in. The other extreme, that of beautiful, attractive matches, with both teams looking at each other’s goal, transmitting energy and uncertainty for 90 minutes, goes against organisation.”
“In Spain, we, the coaches, are very organised, very tactical, and competitive. And that is like the short blanket dilemma. It gives us an advantage but keeps us away from spectacular football.”
This conservative message has also included breaking up the opponent’s play via dark arts such as time-wasting, which is also reflected in the numbers.
In your average elite football game, the ball will be in play roughly 55 mins of the time. Data journalist Mark Thompson looked at data from some historical games of Pele, Diego Maradona, and Johan Cruyff, confirming that this average also applied to their times. As pointed out by Opta Analyst, last season the average La Liga match saw the ball in play for just 53:42 minutes, about 60 seconds less than the Premier League (54:49) and 90 seconds less than Ligue 1 (55:20).
Segunda is in an even worse place. The CIES Football Observatory took effective playing time data for 36 European leagues between 2019 and 2022 and found Segunda at the bottom of their ranking.
In the last couple of years, football authorities, from FIFA to the Spanish Technical Committee of Referees (CTA in Spanish), have tried to solve the time-wasting issue by increasing stoppage time and pushing effective match time closer to 60 minutes. The 2022 World Cup led the way with this change, and La Liga and the Premier League have followed suit shortly after. This is a well-intentioned but ineffective solution for several reasons.
Firstly, increasing stoppage time adds more stress to the bodies of football players who already have to deal with overcrowded schedules. This issue was well summarised in a public statement last week from Manchester United defender Raphael Varane, and there are even scientific papers that back up Varane’s claim.
We had a meeting last week with the FA. They recommended from the referees new decisions and rules.
From the managers and players, we have shared our concerns for many years now that there are too many games, the schedule is overcrowded, and it’s at a dangerous level for…
— Raphaël Varane (@raphaelvarane) August 7, 2023
Second, as pointed out earlier in Thompson’s studies, this push for 60 minutes goes against the traditional length of a football match, which has historically averaged 55 minutes. Some leagues, like the Spanish ones, might be below that average right now, but in general, the ball today is in play roughly for as long as it was in the 70s or 80s. Why do we feel the need to change that?
Finally, pushing for more added time and 60 minutes of playing time does not solve the fundamental issue with time-wasting: the frequency of interruptions in the game. Bordalas and Getafe provided the perfect example this weekend. As pointed out by Opta, the game had an effective playing time of 60:49 minutes, yet the interruptions continued to be as frequent and unpleasant as in a shorter game. One could even argue that adding more game time increases the number of interruptions and compounds the problem.
1 – Getafe vs Barcelona on MD 1 of La Liga 2023/24 holds the record for the longest game in the competition since at least the 2007/08 season. The total time of the game was 115 minutes and 54 seconds, although the actual playtime was only 60 minutes and 49 seconds. Intensity. pic.twitter.com/G04gOgGrJH
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 14, 2023
Another potential solution is using the stop clock as in basketball, which Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez has been an advocate of for some time. This solution does not consider that players who waste time don’t just want to run down the clock but also break up the opponent’s play and kill their momentum. Without the countdown of a running clock, there is a chance that interruptions of play will become even longer and create even more discontinuity.
More effective solutions might involve changing some “peculiarities” of the Spanish refereeing style. According to FBREF data from the 2022/23 season, while the average Premier League game featured 21.6 fouls per game, the average La Liga game featured 25.8 fouls. This stricter refereeing leads to more interruptions of the game and more off-beat football. Data journalist Bart Frouws found that in the 2019/20 season, La Liga referees called for handball penalties almost three times more frequently than their Bundesliga and Premier League counterparts. One area where the refs can be more strict to make the game more continuous is punishing more time-wasting offenses with yellow cards.
A couple weeks ago Bart Frouws, who works for Opta, did a comparison of handball penalties given across the big 5 leagues this season. La Liga and Serie A are clearly being more strict about the handball rule than the EPL and BuLi.https://t.co/htEnYcf63R
— José C. Pérez (@jcperez_) July 22, 2020
Time-wasting is a fundamental aspect of football in many ways. Especially in a sport where inequalities keep increasing, and the odds get increasingly dire for the underdogs, we should avoid making decisions that make the playing field even more tilted toward the strongest teams. Eliminating it entirely would be one such decision.
However, there is something like too much time-wasting and interrupting play, and Spanish leagues have veered into that territory for the last few years. The solutions proposed by FIFA and the Spanish CTA are well-intentioned but likely ineffective because even if the ball stays in play for a longer time, the frequency of interruptions will continue. And as attacking talent continues to leave Spain for richer pastures and the inequalities in Spanish football continue, managers will continue to push for conservative tactics and the dark arts to remain competitive with the behemoths of Spanish football. If some of these core issues are not solved, a return to more attractive football and less time-wasting is but a far-off dream that Emery’s blanket does not cover.