Refereeing has always been an integral part of football, whether we like it or not. When a decision goes in your team’s favour, the referee could be carried out of the ground on a sedan chair. When they make a decision that is to the detriment of your club, however, they might as well try to wear a fake moustache and walk with a cane in order to get away unnoticed. A lot of the time, refereeing is blown out of all proportion when you consider the fact that these are just human beings who will make mistakes from time to time, but when it means so much we get emotionally involved.
Refereeing had hit such a low that the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee seemed inevitable. Referees like Lee Mason, Jon Moss and Andre Marriner were too unfit to keep up with play, so the combination of that and the understandable nature of human error meant that giving officials another chance to take a look at in incident was the best way of improving things. The problem is, rather than use the VAR system to reach the right decision in a football match, Premier League referees seemed determined to use it in order to close ranks and protect the on-field official.
Supporters of all clubs will be able to point to countless moments when their side was screwed over by a referee and the Video Assistant Referee, such is the dire state of officiating in the United Kingdom. We are not trying to claim that there is anything exceptional about Liverpool. This is, though, a Liverpool blog, so it makes sense that we’re going to look at things through that lens and be coloured by what has happened from a Liverpool point of view. Refereeing calls are always going to be considered subjective, but some have been too ridiculous not to mention.
When VAR Got The Call Right & Wrong At The Same Time
During the 2023-2024 season, Liverpool travelled to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in order to take on…well…Tottenham Hotspur. The match was one that was dominated by refereeing decisions from the moment that the Video Assistant Referee, Darren England, asked the match official, Simon Hooper, to go to the monitor in order to reconsider his opinion to issue Curtis Jones with a yellow card. England’s belief was that the yellow card should be upgraded to a red on account of the fact that Jones made contact with Yves Bissouma in what was considered to be a dangerous fashion.
Jones can consider himself extremely unlucky in that instant, given the fact that he had been tugged back by another Spurs player and was forced to lunge for the ball and ended up going over the top of it. England actually went against the VAR protocol by showing a still image of the moment of impact as Hooper walked up to the monitor, thereby prejudicing his thought about what decision he should make. Remarkably, that wasn’t the moment that caused the most controversy in the match, although Liverpool later appealed against the red card being shown.
You might think that that is enough in terms of VAR controversy, but worse was to come. Joe Gomez got the ball in the Spurs box as Micky van de Vin clattered through the side of him, failing to get a touch on the ball. The assistant referee was close enough and neglected to flag it as a problem, whilst the match referee might as well not have been there. You would think that the Video Assistant Referee would at least be able to see that the Tottenham player failed to win the ball, but he did not offer any such thoughts to Cooper and Spurs escaped without facing a penalty.
van Dijk got sent off for this a few weeks ago 🤣 pic.twitter.com/k8CpdJicJZ
— MB (@MrBoywunder) September 30, 2023
The main moment of controversy came in the 34th minute when Mohamed Salah played through Luis Diaz, with the Colombian forward slotting the ball past Guglielmo Vicario in the Tottenham goal. The linesman’s flag went up, indicating that Diaz had been offside when the ball was played. Replays suggested that he was onside, but a VAR review occurred and the offside stood. Fairly quickly, it became apparent that something wasn’t quite right, up to and including the fact that there was no point at which viewers were shown the lines to demonstrate Diaz being offside.
Not long after, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited released a statement on the issue that said, “PGMOL acknowledge a significant human error occurred. PGMOL will conduct a full review. The goal by Luiz Diaz was disallowed for offside by the on-field team of match officials. This was a clear and obvious factual error and should have resulted in the goal being awarded through VAR intervention, however, the VAR failed to intervene.” It was later said that the officials looked at the incident, realised it was onside but thought that that had been the decision on the pitch so simply said, “Check complete.”
In the wake of the match, the footballing world lost its collective mind. Liverpool confirmed that they would be looking to find out what happened in order to stop such things happening again for all clubs, whilst supporters of other clubs, entirely predictably, decided to follow the standard route of ‘Liverpool = bad’ and made out as if it was all fine. Bear in mind that what happened was that the Reds scored a perfectly decent goal, which the Video Assistant Referee team confirmed was perfectly decent but they weren’t awarded it. That isn’t the same as thinking something is or isn’t a handball.
Fair to say I was really frustrated by what we saw unfold in the PL this weekend. Why Liverpool are being criticised is beyond me. It’s not about the who, it’s about the general standards! Put tribalism to one side, it’s about the integrity of our sport. pic.twitter.com/HRXCyqYm9n
— Harry Symeou (@HarrySymeou) October 2, 2023
Thankfully, there were some sensible reactions to the situation. A number of fans realised that what had happened wasn’t comparable to something where a subjective decision went against a team but was instead a breakdown in communication between the match referee and the Video Assistant Referee. In the wake of the goal not standing, Simon Hooper appeared to be told what had happened, but VAR protocol says that once the free-kick for the offside was taken, nothing could be done about it and the match therefore played out as normal, with Liverpool eventually losing 2-1.
To muddy the waters further, it later transpired that the VAR, Darren England, as well as the Assistant VAR, Dan Cook, has only just got back from the United Arab Emirates the previous day. They, along with Michael Oliver, had been in the home country of the owners of Manchester City, who Liverpool would’ve leapfrogged into first with a win, in order to referee a match between a match between Sharjah and Al-Ain. Whilst tiredness is the main reason pointed to as the problem of their involvement in a match in the U.A.E., it certainly doesn’t look good that they were de facto being paid by Man City’s owners for their quick sojourn.
Alexis Mac Allister Sending Off
For most of Jürgen Klopp’s time in charge of Liverpool, the club had regularly finished at the top of the Fair Play League for bookings and red cards. By the end of the game against Tottenham, we had received four red cards for the season, which was more than any other campaign under the manager. One of those red cards was issued to Alexis Mac Allister in Liverpool’s home game against Bournemouth, with the midfielder having gone in for a tackle against Ryan Christie. It was a 50-50 ball that Mac Allister was unlucky not to win outright, with his follow through tapping Christie on the ankle.
It wasn’t a high challenge, nor was Mac Allister out of control as he went into it. There was nothing dangerous about it and no one watching apart from the match referee, Thomas Bramall, will have thought that it met the threshold for a red card. It was assumed by everyone watching that the Video Assistant Referee would overturn it, but what most people didn’t realise is that the VAR was Paul Tierney, a referee from Greater Manchester who Jürgen Klopp had had run-ins with in the past. At the end of the 2022-2023 season, Klopp said in a post-match interview:
“We have our story, history with Mr Tierney. I really don’t know what this man has with us, I really don’t know … always will say there is nothing, and it’s not true. Cannot be. I have to say it cannot be. I don’t understand it. I am really not sure if it’s me because how he looks at me, I don’t understand it.”
Ever since Klopp spoke out about Paul Tierney the officiating towards Liverpool has been nothing short of disgraceful.
This is the reason Liverpool and Klopp are being targeted
— WeGo (@epalyHarcourt) October 1, 2023
He was issued with a £75,000 fine and a two-match ban by the Premier League, but Liverpool continued to be refereed by Tierney more than any other referee. It also seemed to result in the referees closing ranks and giving the Reds even more ludicrous refereeing decision than previously had been the case, including the red card shown to Mac Allister. Liverpool chose to appeal it and had it over-turned on appeal, demonstrating the manner in which it was an idiotic decision from Bramall. Obviously nothing happened to the referee nor the VAR, who worked together again for Arsenal’s home game against Fulham the following week.
Jordan Pickford Ends Virgil van Dijk’s Season
The 2020-2021 campaign was largely forgettable for Liverpool, if for no other reason than the fact that the health crisis at the time meant that it was mostly played behind-closed-doors. The Reds were hoping that they would be able to defend their Premier League title, but a feisty Merseyside Derby all but put paid to that idea. Having failed to clear the corner sufficiently, Jordan Pickford came careering out of his goal in order to put a challenge in on Virgil van Dijk. The small-armed Everton goalkeeper launched himself into the Dutch defender in a scissor motion, crunching his outstretched knee.
The injury left the defender out of action for 254 days, with Peter Crouch referring to the tackle as a ‘leg breaker’ and Tony Cascarino making a comprising between it and the tackle from Roy Keane that ended Alf Inge Haaland’s career. The on-pitch officials ruled that it was offside, meaning that no penalty was possible. It was thought by many that the offside call also explained why the Video Assistant Referee didn’t recommend that the former Sunderland man be sent off. However, it was later believed that the VAR, David Coote, could still have suggested he be shown a red.
— CharlieBrewster (@hanlytime) October 1, 2023
Instead, the VAR, perhaps confused by having to decide on whether van Dijk was offside and therefore whether or not we should get a penalty, didn’t make any recommendation to the referee over Pickford’s challenge. Liverpool received another injury towards the end of the match and Everton finally did get a red card when Richarlison fouled Thiago Alcântara. Jordan Henderson thought that he’d scored the winner in the 92nd minute, only for the Video Assistant Referee to decide that Sadio Mané was offside. That was in spite of the fact that no one else watching could see how the decision had been reached.
Marcus Rashford’s Old Trafford Goal
If we’re honest, no one sensible expects to get much when they go to Old Trafford. The home of Manchester United Football Club has been where referees have lost their heads for years, with Alex Ferguson having such an incredible hold over them that they have barely dared to give a decision against the home team. With that in mind, then, we probably shouldn’t be all that surprised that the Video Assistant Referee failed to intervene when Divock Origi was clearly fouled in a tie against the Red Devils in October of 2019, only for Marcus Rashford to score as a result.
In the wake of the match, Jürgen Klopp was understandably furious about the incident. The on-field referee, Martin Atkinson, was relatively close to the action and decided not to blow for a foul, whilst the VAR simply stuck with his decision and felt that it wasn’t a ‘clear and obvious error’ by the official. This was in spite of the fact that video replays showed that Victor Lindeloff kicked Origi from behind and failed to get anything on the ball. For their part, the PGMOL fell back on the idea that the Video Assistant Referee is ‘not there to re-referee the game,’ which is obviously nonsensical.
Old Trafford 2019. Utd take the lead against Liverpool, Origi fouled and loses possesion 10 seconds they break and score. No foul, the ref. Atkinson.
— Karl Guimerans (@Karl939) May 17, 2022
In the end, the Reds left Old Trafford with a 1-1 draw but fell just shy of Manchester City’s record of 18 wins in a row in the Premier League. It didn’t make any difference to Liverpool’s incredible start to the season, winning 26 of our first 27 matches on our way to winning the top-flight title for the first time since 1990. Whilst it was undeniably a subjective call, it showed the major issue with VAR and its implementation by the Premier League. Rather than using it to reach the correct decision, the English top-flight have effectively decided that it’s just about protecting the man in the middle.
England Captain Only Shown A Yellow
One of the things that most infuriates football fans is a lack of consistency from officials. It also often feels as though it is one rule for certain players and a different one for others. Mohamed Salah, for example, is manhandled every single week and rarely gets anything at all from the officials. It is often difficult not to feel as though Liverpool are on the end of plenty of much poorer officiating decisions than any other club. In fact, Paul Tomkins, a Liverpool supporter who runs his own site, has done a huge amount of research that shows that, actually, we are treated differently by officials than other big clubs.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of that came during the 2021-2022 season, which was when Liverpool travelled to London to play Tottenham Hotspur. Andy Robertson had the ball when England captain Harry Kane jumped in on him, with his studs showing and his foot clearly higher than it should have been. The referee issued him with a yellow card for what was very clearly a red card challenge, but there was no suggested intervention from the Video Assistant Referee. It was the challenge that Bramall thought that Mac Allister had committed against Bournemouth but got the response that tackle should’ve received.
Had Robertson’s leg been on the ground, Kane would’ve broken it. He was fortune that the Scot was jumping in order to evade his challenge. It is believed that officials were satisfied that Kane’s tackle wasn’t a red because Robertson’s jump meant he avoided serious injured. That is obviously bonkers, with Liverpool’s frustration only worsening when Robertson was later sent off for a poor challenge of his own. Whilst there was no debate over that being a red card, the sense of there being one rule for the England captain and a different one for the Scotland captain was clear.
In the same match, the VAR decided not to tell the match referee to overturn a decision not to give Diogo Jota a penalty when Emerson Royal clattered into the back of him when he was in the penalty area. It was about as blatant a penalty as you can get, but the match referee didn’t give it on account of the fact that Jota ‘stopped.’ Quite why the Video Assistant Referee didn’t at least as the ref to take another look is a difficult one to explain, until you realise who the official was in charge of the match. The main referee was, of course, none other than Manchester’s Paul Tierney.
Tyrone Mings’ Studs In Cody Gakpo’s Chest
Towards the end of the 2022-2023 campaign, Liverpool were aiming to win every match in order to keep the pressure on both Manchester United and Newcastle United for a top four spot. One of those matches involved us playing Aston Villa at Anfield on the 20th of May. Whilst finishing in the top four was still a long shot, it was very much a live proposition at the time that Unai Emery’s men turned up. As half-time approach, the ball went towards Cody Gakpo and the Dutch international won it with his head, only for him to be poleaxed by the arrival of Tyrone Mings.
Was Tyrone Mings fortunate to avoid a red card for this challenge on Cody Gakpo? 💥😳 pic.twitter.com/WA4jkD7JAF
— SPORTbible (@sportbible) May 20, 2023
The Aston Villa defender challenged for the ball and smashed his studs into Gakpo’s chest, leaving a mark on the Liverpool forward. The Video Assistant Referee reviewed the footage in order to decide whether the yellow card that Mings was issued with was sufficient. It was decided that it was, in spite of the video footage clearly showing it was closer to common assault than a genuine attempt to play the ball. The most worrying thing from a fairness point of view was that the VAR that day was Michael Oliver, who is a supporter of Newcastle United, one of the clubs we were trying to chase down for a top four spot.
When The Cameras Weren’t Set Up To Spot An Offside
Arsenal welcomed Liverpool in the Premier League in October 2022, with Bukayo Saka racing clear of the Reds’ defence in order to cross the ball for Gabriel Martinelli to open the scoring. It was just 58 seconds into the game when the goal was scored, with video replays seeming to suggest that Saka was offside when he received the ball from the Gunners’ defender Ben White. Remarkably, the camera that showed Saka to be in an offside position was just a tactical one, meaning that it wasn’t correctly calibrated to be able to make the call accurately.
I think everybody is forgetting that martinelli’s goal vs liverpool stood when saka was clearly offside in the build up.
the excuse ? they couldn’t draw lines on a still image pic.twitter.com/H5LzsSxQou
— P.S.Y.C.H.O.X 🇲🇦 (@Psychoxero) October 3, 2023
Hawk-Eye is the technology provider for the cameras that are used to decide offside, with five of them based around the pitch at the Emirates. The cameras are all time-synced in order to be as accurate as possible, with the Video Assistant Referee setting the kick-point on White before looking to see whether Saka was onside at the time. In an incredible turn of events, Saka did not appear on any of the calibrated cameras, meaning that it was impossible to say for certain whether he was onside or not. As a result, the VAR couldn’t make a clear determination and the goal was allowed to stand.
Rodri Handball v Everton
Ok, so this one isn’t technically a Liverpool VAR call, but it is worth including in the list because it very much affected things for the Reds. Everton were hosting Manchester City at Goodison Park and were desperate for a result in order to help them in their relegation battle. As the ball was pumped into the Manchester City box, Rodri, the City midfielder, appeared to control the ball with his arm. This was in spite of the fact that there was no-one anywhere near him at the time. During the build-up to Rodri controlling the ball with his arm, Richarlison had been offside, but that was reportedly not considered to be a factor.
Premier League clarify that the VAR team didn’t think there was conclusive evidence that the ball hit Rodri more in the red area of the arm than the green. Nothing to do with offside pic.twitter.com/h6QhS6SEaW
— Simon Bajkowski (@spbajko) February 26, 2022
Manchester City were 1-0 up at the time, but the failure to award Everton with a penalty in spite of the obvious handball meant that the match finished that way. In the wake of the full-time whistle, the Premier League said that the Video Assistant Referee couldn’t say definitively that the ball had hit Rodri on a part of his arm that would’ve resulted in a penalty being awarded. More importantly, Manchester City finished the 2021-2022 campaign one point clear of Liverpool, seeing them win the Premier League title by a single point for the second time during Jürgen Klopp’s Anfield tenure.