Thursday, April 25, 2024

Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Liverpool: Talking points as VAR controversy engulfs English game again (Video)

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Tottenham Hotspur inflicted Liverpool with the Reds’ first defeat of the season as Son Heung-min (36′) and a late Joel Matip own-goal (90+5′) settled what should’ve been nothing more than a thrilling contest of two in-form sides, but controversy surrounding the ever-falling officiating standards in the Premier League put the football shown at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in the back seat.

The only goal for the visitors was the work of Cody Gakpo, but they ended the match with nine men on the pitch after Curtis Jones (26′) and substitute Diogo Jota (69′) both received their marching orders from referee Simon Hooper.

VAR – questions and feeble explanations

There were a couple of questionable calls from the officials in this game, and then there was one which was made wrongly with the PGMOL admitting as much afterwards. So let’s start with that one, as it’s being talked about the most.

The ruled out Diaz goal

It happened in the 33rd minute. Mohamed Salah managed to get the better of two defenders and slipped the ball through for Luis Diaz to chase. The Colombian winger was off and Pedro Porro wasn’t fast enough to stop him, and he found the far corner with a skillful shot past Guglielmo Vicario in the Spurs goal.

Diaz’s celebration was cut short as the linesman raised his flag for offside, and the VAR was called into action.

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The video paused at the moment when Salah is playing the pall towards Diaz showed a pretty obvious mistake by the assistant referee, but just as everyone who had seen the image thought the goal would be given – it wasn’t. The check was completed very quickly, and the offside call was inexplicably confirmed, even though Liverpool should’ve been a goal up from that moment on.

How and why remained a complete mystery for a while. The PGMOL issued a quick statement, admitting a “significant human error” had occurred, and promised an inquest into the circumstances that led to it. However, the inquest and the subsequent explanation they gave only cast further doubts about the whole affair. Apparently, Darren England, who sat in the VAR room, believed the goal was given by the on-pitch officiating team, that the flag hadn’t been raised at all, and told Hooper that the decision stood. Also, it transpired that three of the officials in this match, England included, had done officiating duties in the United Arab Emirates only some 48 hours before.

This explanation obviously produces more questions than answers. How is it possible that the VAR official, as well as his assistant, did NOT see the raised flag? How is it possible that both of them failed to notice Liverpool players stopping their celebrations, or Hooper instructing the home team to set the ball up to take a free-kick, rather than kick-off from the centre of the pitch? Were they even watching the game? And most importantly, why didn’t they tell Hooper to stop the game and give the goal immediately after Spurs took the free-kick? There was obviously a horrible mistake, possibly a hole in the communication, culminating with an inexplicably missed opportunity for a late correction. And, of course, there is the question of giving permission to the officials in question to work in the UAE two days before this match in North London.

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The rest of the calls aside, this one certainly poses questions about the suitability of Darren England to perform the duties he’s been tasked with, whether through ineptitude, laziness or something more sinister.

As things stand, Darren England and Dan Cook, the assistant VAR, have been taken off the matches Nottingham Forest vs Brentford on Sunday, and Fulham vs Chelsea on Monday. But if that’s the extent of the punishment for their failures and they’re back officiating in the Premier League next week, it simply isn’t good enough. It only sweeps the problem under the rug until the heat dies down, and it’s likely that fresh controversy will happen again very soon.

The Jones red card

England and his assistant certainly weren’t lazy when Jones committed a foul on Yves Bissouma that resulted in his 26th-minute expulsion. Hooper initially gave the foul and booked the Liverpool midfielder, but he was then sent to the pitch-side monitor with a view of a possible red card. And with referees known for always changing their decision in such situations in the Premier League, the outcome had obviously been decided for Hooper even before his review of the footage.

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First and foremost, it should be said that this incident wasn’t quite as straightforward as the ruled-out Diaz goal. Jones obviously went for the ball and got to it before his studs made contact with Bissouma’s ankle. His leg then simply rolled over the ball, without any chance of him controlling its movement at that point, and hit the Spurs midfielder in a way that could’ve resulted in serious injury.

And while most of the neutrals believe the foul did not warrant a straight red card and that Hooper’s initial verdict was correct, there are some who believe otherwise.

The Jota double

Be that as it may, Jota came on from the bench at halftime to replace Gakpo, with the Dutch forward apparently picking up an injury while netting the equalizer. In the 68th minute, Jota was booked for his second foul of the game, if foul it was as Destiny Udogie actually grazed him with his studs, then tripped on his own foot and went down. A minute later, Jota did commit a bookable offence as he made a late tackle on Udogie and caught the foot of the Spurs left-back.

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With Liverpool already a man down, and with the softness of the first booking in mind, there was surely grounds for Hooper to let Jota off this time with a warning. However, the referee apparently succumbed to the pressure applied by the Spurs players close by, as well as the noise from the stands, and whipped out both cards in a flash, sending Jota to follow Jones for an early shower.

While this was the least controversial decision of the three, the fact that it went against a heavily aggrieved team while it could’ve been handled differently is not as easy to digest as it would’ve been, had it not been for the previous blunder(s) of the officiating team.

The game

In the first half, the game played out exactly the way it was expected to. Both teams played attacking football, and there was plenty of action in front of both goals. Spurs had a slightly bigger possession percentage, but Liverpool were just as dangerous going forward, arguably even more than the home side.

Obviously, Diaz should’ve been the player to break the deadlock for the visitors, but Spurs looked very lively down the left flank where Richarlison frequently got behind the back of Joe Gomez to cause real problems for the Liverpool defence. And Son’s goal was a direct result of one such moment, as the Brazilian broke down the flank again and squared it for the South Korean to put away from close range.

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Liverpool, meanwhile, attacked from both sides, with Salah and Diaz looking very lively while Gakpo often dropped deeper to help in the buildup. But in the stoppage time of the first period, the Dutch international was on-hand inside the box to take advantage of a fine cross by Dominik Szoboszlai, headed back across by Virgil van Dijk. He turned and fired past Vicario to set the score back level. The Merseysiders certainly didn’t let it show they were a man down for 20 minutes before the break.

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Spurs entered the second half with a bit more determination and finally started benefiting from their numerical advantage. Liverpool, however, still didn’t let them have it all their way and were still very much in the game, right until Jota’s second booking. But from that point on, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp abandoned all previous plans, changed his decisions regarding the substitutions he had prepared and pulled all his remaining attackers – Salah and Diaz, as well as the troubled Gomez, out of the fray, to make way for defenders Ibrahima Konate and Trent Alexander-Arnold, and midfielder Wataru Endo.

The visitors were now arranged in a 5-3-0 formation and kept mostly within 35 yards from Alisson Becker’s goal. It obviously meant Spurs were now dominating the pitch much more easily, pushing forward in search of a winning goal. And yet, it wouldn’t come as easily as they hoped it would.

Speaking of Alisson, the Brazilian goalkeeper made some stunning saves to keep the score level, and yet, it all fell apart for Liverpool in the dying seconds when Porro whipped a sharp low cross across the six yards and Matip tried to clear, only to slam into his own net. It was a heavy blow for Liverpool to cap off a frustrating match, but especially for the Cameroonian centre-back who had played an excellent game up until that moment.

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Looking ahead

These three points have got Spurs sitting second in the Premier League table now, one point behind leaders Manchester City, who surprisingly lost to Wolverhampton Wanderers on the same day, and level with third-place arch-rivals Arsenal, who beat Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium comprehensively.

With no Europe or Carabao Cup to worry about, Ange Postecoglou’s team have a full week to prepare for their trip to face Luton Town at Kenilworth Road.

Meanwhile, Liverpool will have to shake off the woes of this game as quickly as possible. On Thursday, they welcome Belgian side Union Saint-Gilloise at Anfield in the Europa League, and three days later, a difficult trip to Brighton awaits.

Still only a point behind Spurs and Arsenal and a point ahead of Aston Villa, who destroyed Brighton at Villa Park, Liverpool are fourth.

A faint hope remains that this level of officiating, widely perceived as a new low for the Premier League, will not be ruining football games in the future. Not only did it hurt Liverpool badly, it also put a very good Spurs performance out of the spotlight to make way for controversy and ineptitude.

Shame, really.


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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