Video Nasties: VAR Isn’t The Problem, The Way It Is Used Is

A number of crucial decisions went against Liverpool in their 2-2 draw with Tottenham
12:18, 20 Dec 2021

The only consistency in modern Premier League officiating is inconsistency. There were two horrendous challenges in Tottenham Hotspur’s thrill-a-minute 2-2 draw with Liverpool on Sunday afternoon. The second, a needlessly forceful kick from Andy Robertson on Emerson Royal, was initially a bookable offence until Paul Tierney was called over to review the VAR monitor. The Liverpool full back was then sent off.

In the first half, Harry Kane had flown into a tackle without control and with his studs showing on the ill-fated Robertson. For that, the England captain received a yellow card. But crucially, despite Tierney appearing to be filtering messages in his ear, there was no review of the incident on the screen. These two diverging applications of essentially the same law highlight a problem in the way the game is being officiated.

Liverpool had further cause for anger in that frenetic first half, when Diogo Jota appeared to be brought down by Emerson in the box. The call was far more borderline than either of the previously-mentioned tackles. The challenge was an innocuous one in comparison, and we have seen a spot-kick both given and not given for similar. But the fact this incident was also not reviewed concerned Jurgen Klopp.

Speaking afterwards the Liverpool manager, who had been booked himself during the game, was understandably fuming. “We have a VAR sitting there and he thinks have a look again at Robertson again. Fine that’s what he is there for. But what did he do in that situation? And then there is the penalty situation with Diogo Jota.”

Klopp made a number of salient points, and more impartial observers than the Liverpool coach took issue with the way the game was handled. Alan Shearer, speaking on Match Of The Day 2, called for ex-referee Mike Riley, the general manager of the refereeing body, to show greater accountability when his officials fail. “If Mike Riley is watching these decisions today, he cannot come out and say ‘the system is working well’. Just come out and say ‘they were wrong’. I never hear anyone say ‘yeah he got it wrong’. It’s not acceptable, Mike Riley has to take responsibility and sort it out.”

These calls for the referees to explain their decisions in a public forum are nothing new. Even long before the days of the loathed VAR monitor popping up at grounds across the country, many have advocated for officials to undertake a manager-style post-match interview. The pushback from refereeing authorities is also understandable, particularly in the social media era in which such an approach invites horrendous abuse. But we would not need to hear from referees personally if the rules, and their application of them, were consistent. Between games it can be hard to gain such uniformity. A strict official might send a player off for a challenge another would deem no more than a booking. But consistency within a game is crucial.

Paul Tierney’s job, as is the job of every official in any sport, is to set parameters. Working within this theory, the Kane tackle is the moment those parameters would be clearly established. If that tackle is a booking, and goes without a VAR review, then only challenges of a greater severity can even be reviewed. In these parameters it is understandable why Jota’s penalty claim was not reviewed, the tackle was innocuous and the referee allegedly told Klopp afterwards he felt the forward had played for it. But then by this logic, if the game was governed by the baseline of Tierney’s reaction to the most severe incident, Robertson’s challenge cannot then be reviewed.

Tierney essentially broke his own rules to review a tackle that was severe, but not as severe as Kane’s earlier foul. Game-to-game clarity is crucial, but harder to achieve. But there is no excuse for applying the law differently within the same game. 

Individual officials should not be hung out to dry, and no one is advocating that. Search “Paul Tierney” on Twitter and you can already read all manner of things no human being should be subjected to. But as Shearer rightly said, it is the responsibility of Mike Riley as the figurehead of English refereeing to be clearer on both the rules and their ideal application.

Fans are quick to blame VAR, as if it is a sentient being rather than a tool to be used by referees. The problem isn’t the screens it is the way in which they are used, or sometimes not used. It is about trust from fans, managers and players in the way games are officiated. We can rebuild it. We have the technology.

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