While Liverpool managed to get back to winning ways at home to Sheffield United on Saturday, the mood was somewhat dampened by the Reds becoming unwilling participants in another advertisement of Premier League officials’ incompetency.
Refereeing calls which range from controversial to downright atrocious have popped up in abundance across every gameweek so far, and it doesn’t look like any corrective measures are on the horizon on the FA’s part. The rules and what constitutes a handball or foul still remain infuriatingly nebulous.
Referee Peter Bankes’ penalisation of Eric Dier against Newcastle a couple weeks ago probably epitomises the whole handball situation perfectly. The Spurs man was punished for a handball inside the box, having raised his arm as he jumped, despite facing away from the ball and being quite clearly oblivious to his surroundings. Arguably the greatest indictment of the rules as they stand was that Bankes had little choice in awarding the penalty, which granted Newcastle a point that they hardly merited.
The current handball law which penalises any player with their hand in an ‘unnatural position’ is ridiculously parochial, and fails to account for all kinds of mitigating circumstances that may arise, Dier’s being the prime example. How can you punish someone for being susceptible to the laws of aerodynamics?
It also goes without saying that players will start to capitalise on this ridiculous rule. You can’t fault players for being opportunistic – they are professionals and there are no prizes for honourable play. It’s already happening, in fact. Liverpudlians benefited from the rule when Sadio Mane pretty much picked out Moussa Sissoko’s flailing arm in the 2019 CL Final, setting us on course for victory.
If this continues, we will see the entire footballing paradigm change, almost certainly for the worse. Wingers will look to find outstretched arms rather than teammates, simply because of the higher probability of returns. Matches will be punctuated with incessant handball appeals and VAR reviews. Is that what we want for the future of the game?
But the handball situation is far from the only problem. On Saturday, Fabinho was somehow penalised for winning the ball, resulting in a Sheffield United penalty. VAR released a statement declaring that they had not checked to determine if the challenge was a foul, but rather if it had occurred outside the penalty area. The question is – why?
To rub salt into the wounds, Harry Maguire managed to get away with headlocking Cesar Azpilicueta inside the box that very same day. VAR did not so much as check the incident, in spite of Chelsea’s remonstrations. Juxtaposing the two penalty incidents and their conflicting outcomes truly makes for good comedy material.
It’s not a case of favouritism either. Anthony Martial’s dismissal against Tottenham for a slap also grabbed the headlines and sparked controversy – particularly because Eric Lamela stayed on the pitch despite committing an identical infringement. It seems that consistency cannot even be applied within the same game.
It remains unacceptable that the Premier League’s standard of officiating still fails to live up to the standard of football on display, especially with the benefit of infinite replays. Before the introduction of VAR, refereeing errors could be chalked down to human error. Controversy was accepted, embraced by some, even, as part and parcel of the game. But if we are to sacrifice fluidity and suspense in order to accommodate VAR, then I don’t think impeccable refereeing is too big an ask.
This is VAR’s second year on the scene and while some of the rough edges have been smoothed out, we can only hope that this isn’t the finished product. Fans and footballers alike will only tolerate this teething period for so long. We will need to see actual, appreciable change in the rules and how they are implemented come end of the season – otherwise it might be time to bid goodbye to this experiment.