I spent a lot of last season mystified by the refusal of referees to give Liverpool penalties in an ever-increasingly ludicrous fashion. By the end of the season it got to the point where the Reds were averaging one horrific decision against them per match.
The World Cup has brought the issue into closer focus, and has highlighted how often English referees simply refuse to make a decision; essentially “bottling it”, but that pejorative term is maybe unfair in some cases. This is something I was saying before the World Cup, but the data from Russia backs this up.
I hope I don’t have to focus on penalties next season, but it’s worth just tying up the past season’s data, and looking at how VAR might change things; albeit not this coming season, with the Premier League vote going against using it.
I noted about how Liverpool are the only major Premier League club to need to get its penalties away from home (just c.40% awarded at Anfield in the past five seasons, whereas most other clubs get c.66% at home), as those at Anfield are just not given anymore (the myth of the Kop winning them is being overcompensated for by referees, who also are more likely to award penalties to British born/raised attacking players.) As I’ve noted before, Spurs won more Premier League penalties at Anfield than Liverpool last season, and Everton won as many, from one single attack. The odds of that being fair and just are astronomical.
As of last night, in the World Cup so far there have already been a record 20 penalties awarded, beating the previous highest of 18, with an astonishing 28 games still to play in Russia. That means 0.7 penalties per game.
In the Premier League last season there were 79 penalties, down from 106 the previous year; with 79 being one of the lowest totals in a decade. The total number of games in a Premier League season is 380, which means 0.2 penalties are awarded per game; or once every five matches.
In other words, the World Cup – often due to VAR – has seen more than three times as many penalties as you’d see in the Premier League. While I haven’t watched every game, I think almost all of the VAR decisions have been correct. And if it gets some wrong, then that’s still an improvement on getting loads wrong.
Liverpool – the 2nd best attacking side domestically – won just three of those 79 league penalties in 2017/18, and no opponent was sent off against the Reds, despite some absolute stonewall claims. Indeed, the Reds comprise 5% of the Premier League’s teams, yet won just 3.8% of its penalties; conceding 7.6%. This is just plain wrong in logical terms. Statistically, Liverpool were one of the better defensive sides and one of the best attacking sides.
Liverpool also had Sadio Mané controversially sent off (but got lucky once, with Simon Mignolet at Stoke) and conceded six penalties, which as I’ve noted, goes towards making it the worst in the club’s history in terms of “penalty balance” (i.e. penalties for and against compared with goals for and goals conceded).
I am convinced that in the final ten league games of the season, Liverpool should have seen Newcastle’s Jamaal Lascelles sent off for a blatant hack at Mo Salah who was in on goal (although what looked a penalty would have been a free kick by VAR on the edge of the box); won at least two penalties at Old Trafford from the four claims; won a penalty at Crystal Palace after Mané was kicked in the ankle before he belatedly threw himself to the ground (so a penalty, as the foul preceded the dive – what comes first takes precedence); another stonewall one at the Hawthorns when Danny Ings was taken out Gridiron-style; one for blatant handball against Stoke, and another for holding Mo Salah in the box; and three in the final game against Brighton, for blatant handballs and a foul on Salah.
That’s one beneficial red card (albeit in the last minute of a game already won) and nine penalties, in just 10 games, that the Reds merited but were not awarded. More of the bad decisions against Liverpool have come at home this season, and many of the worst decisions against the Reds came at the Kop end.
Handballs are a weird thing, mind. In total, 18 handball penalties were awarded two seasons ago, but only six last season.
Refs are just playing it safe, as if you have to punch the ball now; awarding a handball penalty in just 1.5% of all matches (two of which were to Man United at Old Trafford, although otherwise they won only one additional penalty all season – albeit conceding only one – which could have been trebled for the fouls in their box against Salah and Mané, and for the foul on Sergio Aguero soon after. Those were three stonewallers)
Weirdly, Liverpool conceded two handball penalties against Roma, neither of which were deliberate or with unnatural arm positions (contrast that with the Stoke and Brighton non-decisions in front of the Kop), although Trent Alexander-Arnold did have his hands up when a penalty (wrongly) wasn’t given against the Reds in the tie. Liverpool had more luck at Anfield in some of the other European games, mind, and certainly rode their luck against City with two calls that VAR might have given against the Reds; certainly Sané’s disallowed goal.
Man City aside, whose penalties came almost exclusively from British-raised Raheem Sterling (which is odd considering the talents and pace of Leroy Sané, Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and Kevin de Bruyne), the top sides were largely ignored by referees.
My hunch is that, aside from smaller clubs having more British attacking players (who dive or fall in a way that is more of a flop than a back-arched movement), refs, as well as mistrusting foreign “dark arts” (that are just as prevalent with Brits, but we are still seen as purveyors of fairness), are often happier to give penalties in lower-key games, or to smaller clubs against the bigger teams, to show strength. Remember, we live in an age of bias-paranoia. Everyone is obsessed with how biased other people are.
The widespread perception from fans in general is that the smaller clubs get fewer beneficial decisions, yet five of the six clubs to win the most penalties were all mid-table or lower table sides, some of whom were rubbish at attacking. Penalties awarded is not the only metric to judge ‘decision merit’, but it’s the easiest one to check.
I feel that refs are under immense pressure – ramped up by social media hysteria – to show that they are not intimidated by the big clubs (and even more so by the Kop), but VAR would force them into making unavoidable decisions, rather than fudging it by just waving play on as it’s politically expedient.
I would ask any neutral reading this and thinking I’m just a whingeing Red (there’s that bias again!) to watch the Reds’ final 10 league games of the season and see those decisions. I would also admit that Liverpool have had beneficial periods in the past when it comes to getting decisions, often with a British core to the attacking side of the team (2013/14 in particular).
And Liverpool almost certainly won some dodgy penalties in front of the Kop in the 1970s, but a) refs were under less scrutiny back then (and the scrutiny they faced was from the fans in the stadium, who were the only people to see the game), and b) what happened 40 years ago should not be used against Liverpool now. (Just as Graeme Souness kicking people 40 years ago, when the game was generally dirtier – and most teams had some hatchet-men – should not mean Sergio Ramos gets carte blanche to do illegal judo moves and elbow the Reds’ keeper; hatchet-men are no longer allowed.)
VAR wouldn’t always get it right, of course, but in time it would lead to a crackdown on fouling in the box – freeing up Liverpool’s super-quick and skilful but non-native attackers from the kind of manhandling they are receiving – and see just awards for the obvious decisions that referees either miss because they are not looking, or avoid because it’s easier to not make a decision (for fear of getting it wrong). As I’ve said before, a decision not given is never set in stone or written in black-and-white; decisions given go down in the record books. They are more “solid” mistakes, in psychological terms, if got wrong.
Of course, if Liverpool still had Martin Skrtel then it would be disastrous if VAR was brought in, given his fouling at set-pieces over a number of years. But again, you can’t punish Liverpool now for what someone did years ago. Skrtel should have been punished at the time, and back then, Liverpool got lucky. But luck is different to systematic bias-driven thinking, which in this case is clearly shown by data and empirical evidence (find the video clips!) to be a bending-over backwards bias, or some type of “compensation bias”.
Otherwise, it makes sense to want VAR to protect Liverpool’s under-protected front-line. Remember, this was arguably the most exciting front three in the whole of Europe last season, scoring 88 goals between them, and yet they won just two league penalties, one of which was on the opening day.
The West Brom game in the FA Cup – where VAR was used – showed how I think it would ultimately benefit Liverpool greatly, as long as the decisions aren’t going to take three minutes each time and kill the flow of Jürgen Klopp’s fast-pace game (and the atmosphere inside grounds).
Although the Reds weren’t at their best (or full-strength that day), and deserved to lose, VAR still ruled out an offside Kop-end West Brom goal, and more pertinently, gave a penalty to Mo Salah, who otherwise only got them in Europe from August onwards – for the kind of clear offence that he was otherwise denied all season long.
Some of the other big clubs may get more penalties too, and while I think the game is already unfairly rigged towards the big clubs (financially), you can’t have referees with prejudicial agendas. (And Liverpool are a less-rich big club, too; ranking 5th financially from the Big Six.)
The officials have to referee what they see, whether it’s at Anfield or anywhere else, and whether it’s in the first minute or the last. Just apply the laws – the most brilliant example of which was the Atletico Madrid player getting sent of nine minutes into the Europa Cup semi-final at The Emirates, for two clearly bookable fouls. I reckon 95% of referees would have bottled that, thinking it too early. But he was right.
Referees are under pressure to not ruin the game, but let the rules apply. If someone takes off their shirt or runs into the crowd, it’s a booking; don’t think about the emotion of the situation, because that’s being prejudicial. Players know before the match that those things are yellow-card offences, so they must be yellow-card offences.
The same offences should not be treated differently because of the different players involved or the different contexts. A penalty is a penalty is a penalty. There are grey areas, of course, but what bothers me is when black-and-white situations are treated differently by different refs, and there’s zero consistency. They should not be weighing up how it “looks” to the wider public to give a big team a penalty in the last minute if it’s a clear penalty. If a youngster on his debut commits a red card offence, don’t be kind because it feels harsher than if it was a gnarly old pro. It’s a red card. Some common sense needs to be used, but not if the rules are in clear violation.
And if refs miss something, VAR – hopefully in 2019/20 – should be on hand to quickly point it out. If they give a penalty and it turns out to be a dive (like Neymar the other day), go back and overturn it. Get to the right decision, even if it takes an extra 30 seconds.
So I’ve no doubt that Liverpool would win more league games with VAR, based on what I saw last season; but hopefully referees just start to think less about the ramifications and blowback from giving the Reds clear calls and VAR becomes less of a necessity. I’m not asking for any favours from the refs – just to give what the cameras clearly showed were clear penalties.