Situated on the broadcasting gantry within Anfield’s main stand, Oliver Miller offers his view on Liverpool’s FA Cup 4th Round match against West Brom.
West Brom progress in the FA Cup at the expense of Liverpool on a night dominated by VAR
Four goals were scored, only three of them made it to the scoresheet, a penalty was not given then given and then missed – all in the opening 20 minutes. It was clear that it was going to be one of those evenings at Anfield. The Sunday Times ran the headline of ‘Video Games,’ and that was apt as the match was dominated by the newest of technological innovations in football. The video assistant referee (VAR) – Andre Marriner situated in a darkened room in a nondescript business park near Heathrow airport – was in overdrive in the first-half. “To VAR or not to VAR,” that was the question on everyone’s lips come the final whistle.
The limelight initially shone on Roberto Firmino who scored Liverpool’s opener within the first 5 minutes. A lack of communication between West Brom defender Jonny Evans and goalkeeper Ben Foster enabled Mohamed Salah to pounce on a Chris Brunt back pass. Foster – who otherwise performed very well – saved from the Egyptian but Firmino beautifully sent the rebound back over Evans and Foster with an instinctive touch of class.
Liverpool then truly lived up to the adage of being most vulnerable when you’ve just scored by conceding no more than 60 seconds later. Gareth Barry dispossessed Georginio Wijnaldum and Brunt threaded a first-time pass into Jay Rodriguez who ghosted away from Emre Can and Virgil van Dijk before sending an unstoppable shot into Simon Mignolet’s top corner.
Albion then edged ahead moments later thanks to a superb flowing attack orchestrated by Krychowiak, who beat Can easily and released Gibbs down the left. The full-back crossed for Rodriguez who finished from close-range. The type of defensive collapse that van Dijk was brought in to quell was apparent once again at Anfield. Jan Molby – sat alongside me – winced at the ease with which the visitors were able to glide through the Liverpool midfield and defence.
West Brom had stolen the spotlight but soon enough the VAR grabbed all the attention in dramatic fashion. It must be said that on all three occasions referee Craig Pawson lent on the support of his video assistant the correct decision was reached and that can only be a good thing but the manner in which they obtained is not up to scratch yet.
Long periods of standing around waiting for the verdict brought a halt to the ebb and flow of the game whilst the sudden stop in action led to a few players picking up muscle injuries. But most importantly is the fact that the 53,000 crowd at Anfield had little clue about what was ensuing. As BT Sport’s match commentator Jon Champion eloquently put it, “it’s a bit like the 53,000 fans in the stadium going to the theatre only to have the curtains pulled down on them at the crucial moment.”
The first incident involved Craig Dawson rising superbly above Firmino to head home a Brunt corner but it was eventually ruled out for Barry’s involvement from an offside position. If West Brom were unhappy with that – and they were – they would be apoplectic four minutes or so later when Salah went down under slight contact from the arm of Jake Livermore and Pawson once more indicated he was using the assistant. In fact he went further, jogging to the dug-out area – with ten Albion players all in tow and a handful of backroom staff there to greet him – to take a look at a replay before deciding correctly that the incident merited a penalty. With the delay now lasting four minutes and counting, Firmino took the spot-kick and struck the underside of the bar.
Controversy returned in the four – yes only four – minutes of stoppage time. Dawson drove a low shot from a wide angle towards the far post where it took a slight deflection off Joel Matip on its way into the net, with Jay Rodriguez poised in a potentially offside position. Again VAR came up with the right call – eventually – and resulted in West Brom going in at half-time three goals to one up.
The second-half was markedly more sedate – and crucially VAR-free. Liverpool struggled to break down a deep Albion defence protecting a place in Monday’s fifth round draw. By the 65th minute Jurgen Klopp had seen enough – on came Danny Ings, James Milner, and Jordan Henderson. Come the 73rd minute, the triple substitution had made an impact with Foster making tremendous saves in quick succession from Milner and Ings before – in the 77th minute – Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross was mis-controlled by Firmino and Salah pounced on the ricochet, slotting the ball home from 12 yards
Liverpool huffed and puffed but it was too little too late. Plenty of crosses and play on the outskirts of the West Brom penalty area but not enough goalmouth action. Liverpool succumbed to their first home defeat in 19 matches this season – Monday night’s ‘blip’ in South Wales might be a little more serious than first anticipated. A mixture of fatigue, sloppiness, and lack of control meant that Liverpool exited the only competition that they feasibly had a chance of winning.
The night dominated by television screens – a 7.45pm kick-off time on a Saturday evening was chosen as an experiment for the new broadcasting deal – deflected the attention from West Brom’s performance and their rather unexpected expansive approach. Liverpool were beaten by a member of the Premier League’s bottom three for the second time in a week – the matches coming up against difficult opposition in Huddersfield and Tottenham present them with opportunities to respond. Klopp – who is in favour of video assistance – continued his praise of the system, “it’s normal that it will change things but it will become smoother and more fluent in the future.”
The first-half on Saturday evening was certainly the exception rather than the norm when it comes to VAR. “It was a mysterious situation at times,” Alan Pardew said post-match. “As a football person on the sidelines, I wasn’t comfortable with the first half. As a coach, we have to change, we are going to have to get our players to mentally warm-up during the stoppages.” The score-line at the final whistle was the correct one – even if the scoreboard at Anfield had difficulty keeping up at times – the imperfections of the system, such as the length of time pondering a decision and the communication with the fans and broadcasters in the stadium need to be addressed but the technology itself is a must for football.