Often our fan’s response to a win is simple at face value; we got the points and onto the next one. Sometimes the points are thoroughly deserved. Maybe the team had just played exceptionally well and the fans can grab their next pint in peace. Or maybe a coffee, depending on where you live in the world (or in our Discord channel). Maybe the team was not at their clinical best, and we dug deep and got away with the three points. Fans should be aware that Jurgen Klopp’s men can not play to the highest echelons of talent each and every game. A poor game will come every now and then.
But, regardless of the final score, regardless of the form of either team, regardless of the noise the crowd provides, there is a crew of referees that are tasked with escorting the game from the game’s beginning to the game’s end. If the match’s conclusion arrives without a narrative regarding the match officials, it can generally be considered a good thing. And as much as fans name-drop the center referee in high-profile errors, we are in a new generation of instant information, communication, and review. The assistant referees, fourth officials, and VAR booth have just as much responsibility as that of the main man in the center of the park.
This weekend saw a string of contentious decisions, though not dissimilar to the rest of the match weeks across this Premier League season. Liverpool fans truthfully feel ill-fated when it comes to referee decisions over the course of the last couple of seasons. And, while numerous decisions appear to not go our way, rival fans still seem to push the Li-VAR-pool narrative whenever they can. Well, let’s take a look, shall we!
Compact, Contact, and Contentious
One grievance that Liverpool fans share over the last several months is the reluctance referees share with giving fouls for challenges against our tricky-footed speedsters along the wings. In a team where a large emphasis of attacking play comes from providing the wingers the ball with space to run and take on defenders with pace. Liverpool’s frontmen are keen to take on their defenders at every chance provided.
More so, they are prone to being in positions where they remain compact within the field and encourage contact from the defender so that they are able to turn on a dime. This will obviously lead to situations where the defender is forced to make a foul to impede the progress of the attacker. Even more ambiguous contact could be seen as fouls depending on what team you are rooting for during a particular game. But refs appear less than eager to blow the whistle on these sorts of plays.
Salah, specifically, is currently most victimized by the referee’s lack of interest in calling fouls. Paul Tomkins of The Tomkins Times (TTT) (article) divulges in the statistical analysis of the matter when sharing that Salah receives a foul called by the referee a single time over the average of 1.3 games. While leading the league in expected goals and touches inside the opposition half, only one foul is called every 100-120 minutes played.
Any spectator, fan or not, that watches Salah each week knows that this is far from the truth. At times, it appears that Salah is manhandled off the ball just to be told to get back onto his feet by the center referee. To put these statistics in perspective, Jack Grealish leads the league in called fouls by acquiring a call against the defender approximately once every 20 minutes…
Replays, Angles, and Heartbreak
This weekend fans were able to watch Luis Díaz score his second goal for the club. The goal came off sheer bravery as he headed the ball beyond Robert Sánchez into the back of the net. What resulted following was scary for all spectators. Sánchez leaped towards Díaz resulting in hefty contact and Díaz obtaining the brute force of the six-foot-six-inch goalkeeper. The goal stood and Liverpool gained a lead in what was a strong Brighton start beforehand. But no celebrations ensued following the goal as teammates rushed to Díaz who remained on the ground in what appeared to be excruciating pain. Díaz received treatment and was later able to return to the pitch and resume playing.
So what’s next? The referee must make a decision. A goal was scored while an extremely physical tackle was made. Let’s take a moment to review some rules of the game. New DOGSO or denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity determines that a foul inside the penalty area which results in the offensive player missing the goal will results in a caution for the defending player if an attempt was made to play the ball.
However, the goal was scored as it wasn’t technically DOGSO. Furthermore, the ball was well beyond Sánchez before he leaped out towards Díaz. So the referee must now determine if excessive force was used. If so, Sánchez would be sent off the pitch. Fans watching on television were provided the replay over and over. The more you watched it, the more you vicariously felt the physical pain that Díaz must have felt from the collision. To fans, it was clear as day what the decision would be. To rivals, it was clear as day what the decision would be.
It was less clear Mike Dean and his assistants on the pitch as once the goal was given, no car (yellow or red) was taken out of a Velcro pocket. But hey, it’s hard to see things so fast for some people. When we got to watch it slowed down and over and over, it was far simpler to make conclusions. Good thing VAR is in the game now!
Que Stuart Attwell. The following has been making its way around journalists and social media alike, a quote from a head referee of PGMOL, Chris Foy:
“PGMOL: “Stuart checked the challenge, a possible red-card incident is one of the four instances as we know where VAR will make checks, and the reasoning for not recommending a review was that the contact by Sanchez was more reckless in nature and not serious foul play.”
While it isn’t surprising that someone who has persistently made bad decisions against Liverpool in the recent past would come to this conclusion, it is still disappointing. Especially when it was so obvious that former Manchester United player, professional pundit, and forever Liverpool hater Rio Ferdinand stated it was a clear red card.
The levels of inconsistency seen among the referee decisions across the games are astonishing. It appeared as though the outcry from last season about offside has made more unanimous decisions regarding the line determined to be offside. But while improvements have been seen in this aspect, the overwhelming consensus is that decisions regarding handballs, excessive force, DOGSO, among other calls have become shambolic. Just take a look at Trevoh Chalobah’s tackle in the Chelsea vs Newcastle match that wasn’t called for yet another example.
These issues will continue to be the case until a precedent for decisions is created and all referees placed on VAR duty agree to follow suit. Another option that would create consistency is having a VAR unit of individuals who are responsible for all related decisions across each game. A regulated and consistent group of members to this unit would share responsibility for all VAR decisions. This would also encourage center referees to visit the pitchside monitor more often. The more this is encouraged, the center referee may not feel the obligation of changing their original decision.
Currently, when a referee is asked to go to the monitor, they are seen to likely overturn their original decision. With review being a more widely accepted practice, the ability to be unbiased and not swayed in one direction would be more attainable for center referees.
The variation of what is and is not determined to be a foul can only be deemed as failure on the PGMOL’s part to offer clear and consistent (and impartial) standards of refereeing. Until improvements are made, more games will be blown than whistles.