When it seems as though it's the officials and not the players or managers deciding matches as often as not, there's really little point left in discussing those players or the tactics involved. It was hardly a surprise, then, that following Sunday's game against Everton a number of Liverpool's players were more interested in talking about the officials who had decided the match's outcome than they were in talking about the match itself.
"We should be taking away the three points rather than just one," was Steven Gerrard's blunt assessment after watching Everton gifted a point in stoppage time by way of a wrongly disallowed goal. "There is no offside and it's difficult for me to explain it. The only person who can explain it is the linesman."
Those who didn't watch the match might initially be inclined to mark down such sentiment as unfounded. After all, fans and players and managers complaining about officials is hardly a new thing, and most of the time when such complaints are made it's over relatively minor—and unavoidable—moments of human error that in the end have less to do with how the match turned out than players and tactics.
This wasn't one of those cases. And most damning of all were Gerrard's recollections of his discussion with the linesman following the match:
"I asked him after the game if it was offside and he said 'I think so'. That's not good enough. If every decision in this league is based on 'We think so' then we're in trouble. The linesman got it badly wrong, and the benefit of the doubt is supposed to go to the attacking player anyway."
Clearly, if all the linesman could say following his decision was "I think so" rather than "I know so," the benefit of doubt in this case didn't go to the attacking player. It also will only fuel speculation—speculation that will further be fuelled by the lengthy delay between the goal being scored and the linesman deciding to signal offside—that had the player who scored been anyone but Luis Suarez that benefit of the doubt may have indeed gone to the attacker as it should have, something that would turn the matter from one of rank incompetence into something far worse.
After a week where Everton manager David Moyes accused Luis Suarez of ruining football through diving, attempting to influence how the match officials would call the game and any events involving Suarez, it doesn't add up to a pretty picture. What's worst for the league is that even in the absolute best light of—that of basic, garden variety incompetence—it can hardly be encouraging for anyone concerned with the integrity of the game when linesmen are deciding the outcome of a match by disallowing legitimate goals in stoppage time because of "I think so" or "maybe."
It also doesn't help appearances when the day's most egregious example of such instead came from Moyes' own captain Phil Neville, a walking all-English stereotype of sorts who threw himself to the turf at Goodison Park because, in his own words, "I thought Daniel Agger was going to come in and take me out."
Gerrard's take on matters was hardly more forgiving when it came to Neville and his manager than it had been when he discussed the officials: "His manager did every paper, every radio station and every TV channel talking about Luis Suarez and then his captain, who is meant to be setting an example, blatantly dives."
It wasn't just Liverpool's match that ended in controversy and accusations of official incompetence on a Sunday that will go down as something of a black eye for the league. Elsewhere, the officials also played a major role in the outcome of the match between Chelsea and Manchester United when Mark Clattenburg sent off two Chelsea players—one of them in hugely controversial fashion—while his linesman ruled an offside goal by Chicharito legal to provide United with the winning margin.
Making matters worse, following the match Chelsea lodged an official complaint that Clattenburg had used a racial slur while talking with Mikel John Obi and on another occasion used language that Juan Mata considered "inappropriate." To say that it's disgraceful that all of this and not the players and tactics are what the fans are left to discuss following what should have been an exciting day of Premier League action headlined by a pair of marquee matches is something of an understatement.
Perhaps, if one is looking for a silver lining, then these very visible and painfully blatant failures of the officials to do the jobs they're meant to in a league that presents itself as the best in the world will mean the league, Football Association, and media will be forced to take the issue of competent officiating and video review to ensure said competent officiating—issues that on Sunday ruined a pair of important matches beamed to millions of fans around the globe whose interest pays the salaries of those directly involved with the game—seriously. Unfortunately, that they will do nothing while this conversation is repeated time and time again in the coming weeks and months and the fans grow increasingly frustrated seems the most likely outcome.