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Match Officials Admit “Contact” in Build-Up to Manchester United Goal

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There was a foul but not a significant enough foul to overturn the referee and VAR in England is fundamentally broken.

Manchester United v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Another season, another disappointing performance by Liverpool at Old Trafford, and at times it really feels as though no matter how good this team gets, this opponent and this venue is one they’re fated to struggle against.

If you’d asked the fans, though, there was one thing worse than the dire performance by the Reds on Sunday afternoon. There was match referee Martin Atkinson, who put in his own dire performance—one that wasn’t helped by VAR.

“This is an issue we have to discuss,” was Jürgen Klopp’s reaction to the role VAR played—or didn’t play—in the eventual one-one draw. “The ref thinks, ‘Let it run, we have VAR.’ But then VAR says it can’t be overruled because it was not clear.”

It’s been a major problem with the attempts to implement a video assistant referee system in the Premier League, and despite the success of VAR at the 2018 World Cup, it appears in England at least to have taken a clear and obvious step back.

Much of that is down to the officials—not just the referees but the linesmen—appearing to abdicate their job, knowing they have VAR there to correct any errors. Then, the standard set by VAR is so high that nothing is overturned.

Even in situations where there is no ambiguity, like offsides and hand balls, it leads to issues like linesmen allowing play to continue on marginal offsides when if there is a goal it will be reviewed—but not if the play leads to a corner.

Teams cannot score directly from an offside play thanks to VAR, but they can earn a corner they can score from, and the officials are allowing plays they previously would have blown dead as offside continue because they now have VAR.

A tool meant to improve the game, to make it more fair and accurate, and a tool that moreover has been implemented well in the past, is instead serving as a major point of frustration and contention for fans, players, and managers.

And on Sunday, an already poorly officiated match was made worse for Liverpool by the role of VAR in ignoring a foul ahead of Manchester United’s goal when play was allowed to continue but the foul didn’t pass the clear and obvious threshold.

“VAR decided that it wasn’t a clear and obvious error to not award the foul,” read a statement from Game Match Officials Limited. “VAR isn’t re-refereeing matches—there is contact but VAR was comfortable it wasn’t enough to disallow the goal.”

There was a foul. But it wasn’t a significant enough foul to overturn the referee’s decision. But the referees and linesmen now frequently allow play to continue following borderline incidents because of the existence of VAR. So it goes.

In the end, of course, Liverpool didn’t play well enough to put all the blame for Sunday’s dire draw and dropped points on the officials, on Atkinson and VAR, but clearly there is something wrong with the latter’s implementation in England.