In a controversial moment in Saturday’s Merseyside Derby, Jordan Pickford made a dangerous challenge, badly injuring Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk in the process. Most observers seemed to agree it was a tackle worthy of a red card. Yet despite the suggestions of serious foul play and a lengthy video assistant referee review, the Everton goalkeeper avoided red and remained on the pitch.
So what actually happened with the VAR check on Pickford’s challenge? And, furthermore, why does it matter?
Unpacking the Possibilities
One of two things could have happened in the Pickford incident: either VAR official David Coote reviewed the tackle for a straight red card after VAR ruled “No Penalty – Offside,” and decided the tackle did not constitute a straight red, or the official neglected to complete this review, instead failing to realize that a red card for serious foul play could be given even when the ball is not in play.
Though both of these options are human error, they differ in root cause if not in outcome. In the first instance, the VAR official would have made a subjective error, which is arguable: he would have decided, with his best judgement, that the foul did not call for a sending off (and regardless of dead ball vs in-play situation, VAR cannot award yellow cards).
The second, however, constitutes a process error, with the VAR official failing to complete the necessary review at all (neglecting to choose to review rather than making a decision that may be incorrect). It’s worth noting that these reviews can and should be requested by the match official, so Michael Oliver, who saw the challenge and is aware of VAR protocols, is directly involved in these review decisions. This specific element of the controversy might lend support to those who want more transparency in communications between officials, as is standard in rugby where officials’ discussions are broadcast.
Initially, reports were conflicting, as Dale Johnson of ESPN (known for his Twitter-based VAR threads unpacking the complexities of calls that can befuddle the average football fan — or pundit) reported he had it confirmed that the second option, a non-review, had occurred (or: process error). However, The Athletic reported three hours later that the play was reviewed and a “no red card” decision made (or: subjective or arguable error).
These conflicting reports could have resulted from complexity of phrasing and complexity of the situation itself or because of differing reports, as the tackle was reviewed for a potential penalty and the question is thus whether it was also reviewed for serious foul play.
It appears there were conflicting reports initially: a senior Premier League official first told Liverpool FC that no check had been made, but Mike Riley of Professional Game and Match Officials, Limited (POGMOL) later emailed the club that the incident in fact had been reviewed for a red card.
Finally settling the matter, The Times reported on Monday in no uncertain terms that it was in fact the former, a process error, which occurred after they attempted to get to the bottom of the issue:
“The Times made its own enquiries on Saturday and was initially told no check for a red card had been made. Further correspondence indicated that VAR did look at the incident for a possible penalty, but once it became clear Van Dijk was offside that is when the check was completed.
“Then, it was suggested that while Coote had seen the challenge, he was preoccupied with the offside decision and did not look at the tackle in detail.”
This conclusion — process error rather than subjective error — makes sense given that VAR protocols in place this season tell us that had the tackle been reviewed for a red card for serious foul play, center official Michael Oliver would likely have consulted the pitchside monitor, as VAR protocols state that “for subjective decisions, e.g. intensity of a foul challenge, interference at offside, handball considerations (position, intent etc.) an ‘on-field review’ (OFR) is often appropriate.”
Fans should expect the use of pitchside monitors (OFR) for these decisions in the 2020/21 season because PGMOL issued a specific guidance for their use in red card decisions.
This increased use has been widely noted thus far in both Premier League and Carabao Cup matches, and the fact that Oliver did not consult the pitchside monitor on Saturday suggests that the red card review indeed never took place.
While the wording suggests subjective human error here, as well — Coote is stated to have been “too preoccupied,” a description which seems to intentionally focus one one man’s error — rather than piling the blame solely on Coote we need to recall that Oliver, the head match official, has the means and responsibility to both call for a red card review and to confirm that such a review has taken place.
It is unclear how much communication between Oliver and Stockley Park is available to the rest of the officiating team (assistants Stuart Burt and Simon Bennett, and assistant VAR Lee Betts), but if channels are open to all members of the officiating team, then these three officials should also be expected to be aware of VAR protocols, and to be able to catch and correct process errors and oversight.
Virgil Van Dijk was down injured for over three minutes, with the challenge taking place late in the fifth minute, at 4:58, and the ball back in play at the end of the eighth minute, at 7:55. This stoppage should have provided the officials with enough time to catch this error. Instead, Oliver spent the final moments speaking to Pickford and Van Dijk as resumption of play waited on the injured player to leave the field of play and not discussing any VAR review decisions with off-pitch officials.
Liverpool will feel all the more aggrieved as Richarlison later received a dead ball red card for serious foul play for his dangerous tackle on Thiago, which occurred moments after the whistle blew for a foul on Sadio Mané. That cards could be given after play had stopped, then, was clearly understood by the officiating team.
A Process Error, Then — Why Does It Matter?
For fans, it might not: the outcome is the same, as Pickford avoids a red card whether it was a subjective error or a process error. Indeed, avoiding either post-incident error certainly makes no difference to the seriously injured Virgil Van Dijk, as the tackle that endangered him will have taken place regardless of the outcome.
It does have serious implications, however, for VAR as it exists in England at present. Subjective human error, even when it seems obvious, is unavoidable; all humans make mistakes, and none of us would enjoy having our worst workplace errors feature prominently in the sports pages (as referees’ have in the past, and will continue to do). That the quality of officiating could be improved is certain, and a continued pattern of error by one official is worth addressing, with many pointing out in the wake of Saturday that Coote has been omitted from games in the recent past due to human error.
We should not, however, spend our time railing against Coote. It’s important to note the institutional roots of these continued errors: Coote does not pick himself. Referees are chosen and assigned, and can only perform to the best of their abilities.
That continued errors occur and are not addressed is an issue, and when these errors are in process rather than caused by subjective decisions, fans and clubs should worry. When patterns of subjective errors take place, fans can and should call for better-quality in officiating. What that would look like — training, recruitment, etc. — will vary, and should be discussed and acted upon.
When process errors take place, though, they suggest that there is not enough understanding, communication, and checks in place to make sure VAR protocols are followed. More individuals than just the VAR official are involved in an error in process, as every official at work on the day can be presumed to have failed to call for the necessary review to take place. This is concerning.
VAR protocols tell us that match validity is not in play when these errors take place: “In principle,” the Laws of the Game state, “a match is not invalidated because of...”
- malfunction(s) of the VAR technology (as for goal line technology (GLT)
- wrong decision(s) involving the VAR (as the VAR is a match official)
- decision(s) not to review an incident
- review(s) of a non-reviewable situation/decision
Because these “safeguards” are put in place, clubs are powerless to challenge clear errors that affect the outcomes of games (as we saw when Hawkeye failed in a “one in 9,000 matches” tech error that cost Sheffield United a clear goal). As such, it’s important that protocols are followed on a basic level on the day.
If nothing can be done to correct errors after the fact, it is incredibly important that all efforts are taken to avoid preventable patterns of error that create new possibilities for officiating injustice that did not exist prior to VAR.
While opinions will be divided about how offside and handball rules are adjudged, and how we can improve officiating quality for subjective fouls, we can certainly all come together to call for the bare minimum: that officials understand and adhere to the protocols they are meant to enact. On Saturday, this certainly didn’t happen.