Sunday, April 21, 2024

Latest Howard Webb “explanation” only drops Premier League refereeing into deeper mess

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In the final seconds of the potentially crucial Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield on March 10th, with the score standing at 1-1, referee Michael Oliver did not award the home side a last-gasp penalty after City winger Jeremie Doku slammed his studs into the chest of Alexis Mac Allister into the box. Sitting in the VAR room, Stuart Attwell checked the situation briefly and confirmed the on-field decision.

The moment understandably sparked debate. And while the majority of voiced opinions said the penalty should’ve been given, there was some understanding for the officials from those who don’t see it as quite that clear, mostly because Doku did touch the ball too.

And just as the noise died down, with even the most passionate Liverpool supporters filing the controversy under “refereeing mistakes” and moving on, PGMOL chief Howard Webb saw it necessary to provide an explanation, and, rather needlessly, brought a lot of the attention that had mostly evaporated, back to the problem.

“If the referee gives it on the field, it would have been a check complete by the VAR and equally, having not given it, it’s also check complete,” Webb said in the latest edition of the Premier League’s Match Officials Mic’d Up.

“You hear Michael Oliver say the balls in between two players going together. The ball is too low to head. Doku, lifts his foot to play the ball, and he does make contact on the ball.

“And yes, we know there’s some contact on Mac Allister as well, Mac Allister comes into him, Mac Allister is not really playing the ball either. So, I understand why it’s split opinion.

“I think it would have been ‘check complete’ either way, not wanting to to re-referee the gaming situations that are not really clear which is what we think the VAR is is for in this situation. The VAR stays out of it. I think that is what we would we would expect. You want to to know with clarity, with certainty that you’re making the right decision. You know, you don’t always have sufficient information in the moment to make that decision.

“Clearly, Michael [Oliver] didn’t have it in this situation. And then the VAR looks at it and doesn’t see a clear and obvious situation. You see something that’s pretty subjective and therefore stays out of it, and the feedback we’ve had from people within the game is that this is a pretty subjective situation, it’s split opinion.

“So on that basis, the VAR, you know, working to that high threshold kind of followed the kind of the right course in not getting involved.”

There are some elements of truth in what Webb says, which only makes his full statement fishier in this case. It’s true, of course, that the VAR official needs to judge the on-field decision as a “clear and obvious error” to step in. However, there is also a vital piece of his statement that simply isn’t true, a factual error, if you will.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that Mac Allister WAS playing the ball, and nothing else, and Webb’s claim otherwise practically insults the intelligence of everyone who saw the situation and tried to apply reason for what had happened. Mac Allister certainly didn’t seek to impale his chest on Doku’s studs. There was plenty of intensity in the challenge as well, and the Liverpool midfielder was very lucky not to have his ribs broken. The ball was indeed too low for him to try and head, which only means it made perfect sense for him to try and control it with his chest. Doku raised his foot quite recklessly and caught him.

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There was no malicious intent from the City winger and no reason for a red card, but it was a penalty and the decision not to award it, both from the on-field referee and the VAR, should be called what it was – a mistake.

Webb’s words have not only failed to explain doubts away, but they’ve also made the question marks around the red card awarded to Liverpool’s Curtis Jones in that frightfully awful affair in North London back in September even bigger. On that occasion, Jones also got the ball first and only then did his studs catch Tottenham Hotspur’s Destiny Udogie on the ankle. Then, the VAR did get involved to change the on-field decision as referee Simon Hooper initially gave Jones a yellow card. A few minutes later, one of the most controversial moments in the history of VAR occurred as Liverpool’s Luis Diaz had a perfectly valid goal disallowed for non-existent offside position, due to a failure in communication between Hooper and Darren England in the VAR room.

The officiating in the Premier League has been a subject of criticism, ridicule even, for a long time now, and when he was appointed to lead the PGMOL, Webb was widely expected to bring a much-needed dose of integrity to the organization. However, it now appears he was actually appointed to act rather as some sort of PR chief when the referees need damage control regarding their ever-dwindling reputation.

To be clear, it isn’t always Liverpool who end up on the wrong end of these atrocious decisions – there’s no conspiracy against the Merseysiders. It’s just incompetence.

City themselves were rightfully incensed when Hooper ruined their chance of a late winner against Spurs on December 3rd, by pulling the play back for a foul on Erling Haaland when Jack Grealish had the ball and was through, facing only Guglielmo Vicario in the Spurs goal. Arsenal, especially their manager Mikel Arteta, were fuming when a Newcastle winner against them was allowed to stand, despite Joelinton obviously fouling Gabriel Magalhaes to assist Anthony Gordon. Nottingham Forest manager Nuno Espirito Santo was also angry when Brentford striker Ivan Toney scored against his team after displacing the ball before taking a free-kick. Brentford boss Thomas Frank, in turn, couldn’t believe Arsenal forward Kai Havertz wasn’t awarded a second yellow card for a clear dive before scoring the winning goal in that game.

The list goes on and on.

Probably the biggest downside to Webb’s behaviour after this latest conundrum is the indication that stems from it, the indication that the problems STILL aren’t taken seriously, that blunders are still being defended, and what little hope of change there may be is disappearing fast.

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Veselin Trajkovic

Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.



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