Nils Mackay
Data Scientist at Opta/Stats Perform since 2018 — football analytics blogger since 2016
6 min read

Why the most common arguments against the stop-clock are nonsense

It seems to be a weekly debate these days. Some important game ends up with the winning team wasting time at the end of the match and X minutes of stoppage time is added. Either the losing team thinks it’s not enough, or the winning team thinks it’s too much. Is it time for a stop-clock in the highest regions of football?

I’ve been a big supporter of the stop-clock in football for a couple of years now. I can’t even recall the number of times I’ve been frustrated with the amount of time-wasting — whether it is against the team I support or just in a game in which I am a neutral. To solve this, a stop-clock could be introduced that counts 60 minutes (rather than 90 minutes). This can also be 55 minutes, or 65 minutes. There are arguments to either make it shorter (to fight fixture congestion) or longer (more football == more fun!). I’m not going to go into these here.

However, recently there has been some push-back against the stop-clock from some prominent names here on Twitter. Pieter Zwart, chief editor at the major Dutch football journalism website/magazine, said “everybody who has given the idea of a stop-clock a think for more than 30 seconds will understand it’s a bad idea”. Similarly, Michael Cox, writing for The Athletic, argued against a stop-clock in a recent think-piece.

I’ve read all the arguments given and can’t help but disagree with almost all points put on the table. Therefore, I’ll attempt here to list the most common arguments given against the stop-clock and argue why I think they are flawed.

Is there even a problem? Why fix a problem that doesn’t exist?

Yes, there is a problem! As a big fan of the beautiful game, I'm frustrated - along with a significant portion of the football-watching population - by the time-wasting antics of professional players that we see week after week. I love football, I love watching football, but time-wasting (and the improper handling of time wasting by referees) is a major detractor from the overall enjoyment of the game.

Part of it being so frustrating to watch, is that it’s very effective. Ball-in-play time can easily be reduced significantly by the team in front if they employ time-wasting effectively. It has now become a competitive advantage, meaning that if anything it will become more widespread than it already is.

To be honest, I don’t think anybody who has watched football will disagree with me when I say: “time-wasting is a problem in modern football”, and I strongly believe something should be done about it.

But football is more popular than ever!

It might be! Just because more people are watching football now than 10 years ago, does not mean time-wasting is not a problem. A growing sport can still have flaws that need to be addressed. I wonder where this argument was when we were discussing implementing VAR, or any other recent rule change.

Ball-in-play time has actually not significantly decreased in recent years at all!

First of all, I would argue that even if time-wasting was already always this bad, it would still be worth tackling. We don’t need to see a downward trend to start eliminating one of the biggest flaws in modern day football.

On top of that, I believe this type of analysis is flawed in showing the impact of time-wasting in football. Time-wasting does not happen in all games. When a game is 3-0 there is no real need for the winning team to waste any time. Plus, as Michael Cox noted in his piece “the major factor in determining ball-in-play-time is not about timewasting but simply about [passing] quality”. A game without any time-wasting can have very little ball-in-play time (if the quality of play is low), and a game with a lot of time wasting can have very high ball-in-play time (if the quality of play is high). The difference time-wasting makes is that it significantly decreases the amount of ball-in-play time relative to the regular playing pace. For instance, in last year’s Champions League final, the amount of ball-in-play time in the 2nd half (of which Real Madrid was leading the most part), was a total of 7 minutes shorter than the 1st half.

This type of time-wasting will only happen in close games, and it will happen more in high-stakes games. In broad averages this might be washed out, in individual games it can nonetheless have a massive impact.

The referee can already add stoppage time to make up for any time-wasting!

The problem is they are currently not doing this properly. Nor can they! Referees have to focus on a bazillion things during a game — they simply do not have to spare attention needed for exact timekeeping. During the last World Cup we saw referees being asked to add more stoppage time. While this certainly led to longer matches, this did not magically fix the referees’ ability to accurately assess how much time should be added. Instead of 3 minutes being standard, going to 6 when time is being wasted — now 6 was the standard, going to 9 when time was being wasted. Longer games, sure. More accurate stoppage time, no.

In research I’ve done while working at Opta it is baffling how bad referees are at giving accurate amounts of stoppage time. Asking the referee to get their act together is not going to solve anything — they are already trying their best (whether you believe it or not).

What about the 4th official, maybe he can keep track of stoppage time?

Aha! So you want to take away the responsibility of keeping track of stoppage time to some external party. What then, is stopping us, from employing a 5th official if you will, whose sole purpose it is to handle the clock? In the end, 4th officials are also referees with other tasks than just keeping track of time. If you want to increase accuracy of stoppage time I’d argue we might as well do it properly.

Then, I’d argue that having 100% accurate stoppage time, is technically the exact same thing as having a stop-clock. If we’d add 100% accurate stoppage time for every stoppage of play, we’d not do anything different than introducing a stop-clock, except that a stop-clock is a lot clearer for everybody involved. After all, a stop-clock will show the amount of playing time remaining at all times during the game, where in the case of stoppage time people have to guess until it is announced in the 90th minute.

Referees should just be stricter in giving yellows/second yellows for time-wasting!

Yeah, they should! But they won’t. Add this to the list of “referees should not allow players to yell at them” and “referees should not allow players to stand in front of the ball after a free-kick is given”. While I agree with all those points, these things have been said for years yet no improvement has been made at all. And unless you want to end every match with 8 v 8, it’s not going to be easy to enforce these rules all the sudden. I genuinely feel a stop-clock is an easier and less intrusive change.

A stop-clock will break the pace of the game!

I understand this concern, but would argue that even when introducing a stop-clock, it’s essential to keep the current time-wasting rules. If you take too long to resume play, you should still receive a yellow, even if the clock has stopped. As mentioned, breaking the pace of the game can still be advantageous so the current time-wasting rules should still apply. The game will remain the same, the only difference being time-wasting becoming ineffective (and should thus decrease over time) and the referee getting a signal when he should blow the final whistle.

A stop-clock will open the doors for in-game commercial breaks!

As mentioned in the previous point, the focus should be on enforcing the same time-wasting rules as before. This means there won’t be longer breaks during the match than we see right now. I don’t see any difference in the opportunities this gives to commercial breaks. I do agree that this should be avoided at all costs, both right now and when a stop-clock would be introduced.

Some lower league/lower quality games will take forever

This is probably the only argument I deem worth considering properly. Some lower league games currently have very low amounts of ball-in-play time. Not due to time-wasting, but due to low quality of play. Introducing a stop-clock could significantly increase how long these games take. If they take 90 minutes now, they could take much longer going forward.

What the stop-clock would solve:

To wrap up, a short summary of the things a stop-clock would eliminate/make ineffective over night:

  • rolling on the pitch at every minor touch to waste time
  • taking forever to get of the pitch when substituted
  • taking forever to take a throw-in by not picking up the ball/giving it to a team-mate
  • taking forever to take a goal kick/laying on the ground for 20 seconds after a simple save
  • unfair advantage to teams that are good at applying these tactics over teams that choose not to
  • post-match discussions/moaning about whether the correct amount of stoppage time was given

and there's probably many I forgot here.

I hope that was useful/insightful. If more arguments are put forward, I’ll try to update this page and handle them here.