The one flashpoint in an otherwise one-sided Chelsea-Arsenal match on Saturday involved the first goal by Marcos Alonso. Reacting to a rebound on a Petr Cech save, Alonso went up to head the ball into the net. The controversy involved his arms going up and making contact with Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin’s head. The internet immediately lit up with debate over whether the goal was a foul or not. Lost in the argument was that the play showed the deficiencies in the league’s concussion policies. While it did not directly hurt Arsenal, it made clear how it one day could disadvantage a team unfairly.
Immediately after the goal was scored, the referee called the training staff onto the field. The staff immediately began testing Bellerin to determine what he knew and if he showed signs of head injury. After the match, it came out that the Spanish defender did not even know a goal was scored. The call was an easy one and he was escorted into the locker room to be further tested. He was immediately substituted based on an immediate diagnosis.
This case was very clear. Anyone who saw Bellerin sitting on that pitch knew he was in another world and needed to come off. However, what if his case was less clear? What if he had taken a blow to the head but looked and acted somewhat normal? What would have happened?
If he would have gone down and stayed down, no doubt the medical staff would have come onto the field. But if he showed signs of awareness, the medical staff would be under immense pressure to rule him safe to continue play. Arsenal had just gone down a goal, and Bellerin is the kind of world-class talent that the Gunners needed in that game. His replacement Gabriel certainly could hold his own defensively, but was playing out of position and offers almost nothing offensively (see his missed header later in the match). Arsenal could have used Bellerin in this situation, so a less obvious situation could have led to Arsenal endangering the player’s health and continuing to play him.
Concussions have been shown across the sports landscape to be a real danger that leagues must address. In the United States, where the weekend is known as Super Bowl weekend, youth football is seeing a decline in participation due to a rash of high-profile cases of sports-related concussions. Soccer federations are asking when is the right time to introduce headers to youth training. It is a serious problem where the consequences are finally becoming apparent.
The highest levels of sports set the standards for player safety, and in concussion protocols the Premier League are lacking. Despite the emphasis on referees stopping play anytime they see anyone suffer a possible head injury and the immediate diagnosis steps on the field, the pressure to play possibly injured players is still intense. The obvious solution and correct one is an idea that has been floated previously. When a player suffers a blow to the head and needs to be checked for a concussion, the player should be taken into the locker room for testing and a temporary substitute should be allowed onto the pitch.
The advantage is that a player can be fully tested for his health and properly treated if need be. If it is a concussion or injury, as in the Bellerin case, the substitute can stay on and the team is not pressured to decide between a substitute or forcing an injured player to play. The downside is the rule could be abused by clever players. But the need to protect players’ long-term health must overrule concerns about abuse of the rules. In the Chelsea-Arsenal match, the decision was easy but unfortunately this is not always the case. The league should make this always an easy decision.