Why Referee Mistakes Matter

It takes all of us

Usually I write for American Scouser about tactics. I even previewed the Tottenham-Liverpool game tactically before kickoff. So when a game is decided by the decisions (and mistakes) of referees and officials, it’s always deflating. 

READ MORE: Tactical Preview: Liverpool vs. Tottenham Hotspur by Harry McMullen
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As I shared on our post-match show, the reason I got into tactics was because of how it feels to know what’s going on. When we don’t know, whether it’s football or relationships or politics, we can be tempted to fill in the blanks with our imagination. That’s a recipe for driving ourselves crazy with half-truths, misunderstandings and narratives that probably aren’t even true. By building a clearer relationship with how the game works, we can start to see things as they are, and that feels good.

So why am I now writing about refereeing mistakes?

Because they aren’t just annoying. They actually really matter.

Consequences for these mistakes

Every position in the Premier League table is worth $2.7m more than the one below it. Qualifying for the Champions League group stage is worth $15m; the Europa League equivalent is $3m. That disparity is multiplied with every game played in each competition. And of course, the cost of relegation is huge.

As the Premier League continues striving to be “the best league in the world”, the margins become razor sharp. Relegation candidates are beating Serie A champions to signings, midtable teams have elite level coaches, the volume of investment is reaching inconceivable levels. When a technology fail or a bad referee call decides a contest, the ramifications are massive. 

Rather than wading into conspiracy territory, I thought I’d step out of the current campaign and look at a case study in exactly how costly referee mistakes can be. That’s why we’re firing up the DeLorean and heading back to 2020.

2020/21: A Case Study

GW5: Jordan Pickford tackles Virgil Van Dijk, making no contact with the ball, resulting in a season-ending ACL injury for Liverpool’s key defender. 

Decision: Van Dijk’s armpit is offside, free kick to Everton. 

In the same game, with the game tied 2-2, Liverpool scored a dramatic injury time winner. VAR ruled the goal out for offside, which ex-PGMOL official Keith Hackett later confirmed was a mistake. 2 points dropped.

Total points lost: 2 

GW8: 1-1 at the Etihad, Manchester City are awarded a penalty for “handball” by Joe Gomez. Initially given as a corner, VAR somehow misses the “natural silhouette” of Gomez’s arm, which he is moving into his body when the contact is made. 

De Bruyne misses the penalty and on this occasion, the final result isn’t affected. 

Total points lost: 2

GW10: After correctly disallowing two Liverpool goals for offside, VAR awards a last minute penalty to Brighton. Brighton score and the game finishes 1-1. 

 Ex-ref Mark Halsey later confirms it was a mistake. 2 points dropped. 

Total points lost: 4

The final score is 0-0, Liverpool drop 2 points dropped. 

Total points lost: 6 

GW18: 1st vs 2nd as Liverpool play Manchester United. With 1min of added time in the first half, Sadio Mané – onside – latches on a ball clear through on goal. Referee Paul Tierney blows for halftime at 45:56.

Final score: 0-0. Another 2 points dropped.

Total points lost: 8

GW19: Liverpool are pushing to break the deadlock against Burnley when they concede a last minute penalty. Here, Ashley Barnes reaches out to flick the ball away, leaving it to make contact with Alisson’s hand. Note where the ball ends up – miles away from goal. The intention here is clearly to contact the goalkeeper’s hand and win a penalty. That’s exactly what happens.

Burnley win 1-0, and Liverpool drop another point. 

Total points lost: 9

At this point, midway through the season, Liverpool are 4th on 34pts. With the 9pts they should have won, they’d be top of the league on 43pts. Instead they are 6pts off the top and about to go on their worst run of the season. 

GW23: Liverpool take on Manchester City. Instead of being 2nd, one point off City, Liverpool are 10 points back and under pressure to win or concede the title race. 

Alisson makes two uncharacteristic errors and the game finishes 4-1 to City.

Total points lost: 9

GW25: Again playing Everton, now at Anfield, Liverpool chase an equaliser when this penalty is awarded. DCL kicks TAA in the head and is awarded a penalty, which he scores.

Liverpool were 1-0 down, so it’s hard to say it definitively cost points. But it’s frustrating given the resemblance this foul bears to that of Darlow on Mané, which went unpunished, earlier in the season.

Total points lost: 9

By the end of the season, Liverpool recovered to scrape UCL qualification. But they ought to have been in the title race into March, at which point we’re free to speculate what might have happened. Especially since Liverpool finished the season strongly anyway, setting the foundation for a quadruple charge the very next year.

What does all of this mean?

I’m not saying definitively that referees are corrupt, biased against Liverpool, chronically incompetent. Or that VAR doesn’t work, or the rules are unclear. 

I’m saying that this stuff matters. There are real consequences when officials make mistakes. Apologies are important and mistakes can happen. But it’s always the teams and players that bear the brunt of them. 

A player makes a mistake and curses at an official? A card and a fine. 

A coach makes a mistake and questions an official’s decision? A ban and a fine. 

A ref makes a mistake and costs a team points? An apology and a holiday. 

What can we do about it?

The consequences for players and teams have only become harsher in response to recent flashpoints. New rules regarding dissent from players and behaviour from staff in the technical areas came into the game this season, with the aim of protecting referees from abuse. The logic being that bigger consequences inspire better standards of behaviour. 

How about then, if a refereeing mistake costs a team points, the league should award those points upon review? If it costs a team financially, the PGMOL should be liable for compensation?

By the PGMOL’s own logic, bigger consequences for officials would inspire better standards. 

Of course, it’s unlikely this would ever happen. But a big reason the PGMOL continues to limp on like this is the lack of unity from fans. Even though every club is at risk of being affected by this, many of us seize the opportunity to troll our rivals – only to then feel the absence of solidarity when it’s our turn. 

Change has to start somewhere. So why not with us? 

Withhold sympathy this week and you’ll get no sympathy next week. Excuse referees this week and they’ll be excused next week. 

Just as this result should light a fuse for Liverpool’s season on the pitch, the controversy must light the fuse for change. We are the ones who must keep the flame lit. There have to be real consequences if we want to inspire better standards. 

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