Mikel Arteta said he had never seen a goal like it. Michael Carrick was glad he didn’t have to address it for too long. So should Emile Smith Rowe’s opener for Arsenal at Old Trafford have stood or not?
On a night of excitement, drama, controversy – and the landmark of Cristiano Ronaldo passing 800 career goals – Smith Rowe’s finish in Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat at Manchester United on Thursday remained a big talking point afterwards.
It was fired in with United goalkeeper David de Gea down injured after team-mate Fred had stood on his heel following a corner.
The video assistant referee would eventually award the goal, with widespread confusion in the ground giving way to Arsenal joy and Manchester United fury.
Before we hear what the managers, players and pundits think of it all, let’s clear up exactly what happened.
How the incident played out…
With 13 minutes on the clock, Martin Odegaard swung in an Arsenal corner that Harry Maguire headed clear, but only as far as Mohamed Elneny, who steered the ball to Smith Rowe 20 yards out.
Around the time of the initial clearance, De Gea had his heel trodden on accidentally by Fred, causing him to go down on his goalline, where he stayed with his back to play. It meant he was unable to react when Smith Rowe’s otherwise saveable shot was fired on target.
From the corner kick being taken to the shot finding the net, seven seconds elapsed, during which time referee Martin Atkinson did now blow his whistle to halt play.
Television pictures suggested Atkinson did not spot De Gea on the floor until the moment Smith Rowe struck the ball, as the official was facing away from goal in those moments to follow the ball.
Atkinson did blow his whistle shortly after the ball hit the net, wagging his finger to suggest he had ruled the goal out.
It would be another three minutes and 15 seconds before a definitive decision was made, with the goal awarded after advice from VAR.
Ultimately, since it was Fred who impeded De Gea, there was nothing in the laws to suggest the goal should be ruled out.
‘We could have been here all night’
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Arsenal boss Arteta to Amazon Prime afterwards. “But that is the decision from the referee and VAR checked it and it was a goal.”
His United counterpart Michael Carrick announced his departure from Old Trafford immediately after the match and that, coupled with the fact United won, meant he did not spend much time discussing the incident.
“At least I don’t have to talk about it too much now – we could have been here all night,” said the 40-year-old, who will be replaced in the dugout by the incoming interim manager Ralf Rangnick.
United midfielder Bruno Fernandes added: “Normally when the keeper goes down, we should stop the game but mistakes happen. Players make mistakes.
“I don’t know if it is a mistake from the referee. If it is, that can happen.”
‘I’ve never seen anything as extraordinary as that’
Former England goalkeeper Rob Green experienced something similar to De Gea when playing for his country’s B side against Belarus, who scored when he was down injured in 2006.
As part of his co-commentary duty at Old Trafford for BBC Radio 5 Live on Thursday, he also evoked a similar incident involving Paulo di Canio in the game between West Ham and Everton in 2000. In that instance the Hammers forward could clearly see opposing goalkeeper Paul Gerrard was down before opting to catch the ball and halt the game.
“I don’t think Smith Rowe knew,” said Green. “The guy who scored past me for Belarus was laughing as he put it in. Smith Rowe wasn’t, that’s for sure.
“It is the kind of thing that can happen from time to time. Di Canio caught the ball very sportingly but nobody really had the opportunity to do that this time. The ball was in the air, everyone was looking at it and Martin Atkinson was trying to get out of the way.
“Everyone else in the stadium could see De Gea was on the floor, with his back to the game and he had his ankle stamped on by his own team-mate. It is unfortunate.
“As an ex-goalkeeper, I am sitting here thinking ‘bit of common sense, guys, you can’t save the ball if you’re down injured with your back to the game’.
“I understand the clinical nature of refereeing and the argument that says there is nothing to stop it being a goal. But in the cold light of day, you look at it and think ‘what is the sporting decision?’ I think it shouldn’t have been allowed.”
If Green was speaking for the goalkeeper’s union, former England captain Alan Shearer was on hand on Amazon Prime Video to offer a striker’s take.
“My immediate thought was goal,” he said. “I didn’t hear the referee blow and I didn’t see a foul on the keeper. I think that happens in every game. The keeper goes down without a care to where the ball is and I don’t think he should be going down like that.
“If it had been a serious injury then there’s an argument that maybe Arsenal should have let United score – but a minute later, De Gea’s walking around and not limping.”
Former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg was alongside Shearer to offer the view from an official’s point of view.
“I’ve never seen anything quite as extraordinary as this,” he said. “Martin Atkinson was powerless. His feeling would have been that there was a foul but you can’t blow your whistle until the ball goes in the goal.
“There would have been more controversy if he blew the whistle first. If Jadon Sancho had won the ball [and cleared], I’m sure he’d have stopped play then.
“He didn’t see De Gea down. Martin isn’t looking at the keeper and it’s only when Smith Rowe is striking the ball that he looks and thinks ‘why is De Gea down?’ Then he will have thought there was a foul.”
The controversy at Old Trafford also evokes memories of an incident that happened at Elland Road in 2019 when Leeds carried on playing and scored through Mateusz Klich against Aston Villa, who had a man down injured throughout.
On that occasion, Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa decided his side should allow Villa to score an uncontested equaliser – a gesture that earned him a Fifa Fair Play award.
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