Sport

The Premier League: What’s going wrong this time?

Omicron surge puts Premier League in dangerous territory

The Premier League seems like it will continue for now. And I don’t think that is the right decision. While the Omicron variant starts to take over from Delta for the general public, cases are starting to rise again for football clubs as well. Over half of the planned Premier League fixtures were cancelled last weekend. Aston Villa’s game against Burnley was postponed two hours before it was supposed to kick off. That just creates huge uncertainty for managers having to prepare players for matches they might end up not playing, players who don’t know if they will test positive in the next round of testing, fans who don’t know if the game they’ve paid good money for is even going ahead. It’s also placing undue pressure on players who have only just returned from injury. Chelsea had to rush both N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic back to playing within two days of returning to training. Tuchel ignored advice to only play Kante for 45 minutes to not risk aggravating the injury. So, managers may have to deal with a two-pronged attack of a COVID outbreak in their squad and a potential injury crisis trying to cover the COVID absences.

I can understand the desire to want to carry on. When we were all in lockdown, having the football back was a great thing for the fans. Even if we couldn’t go to the games, we could still watch our team and support them from afar. But having the fans back in stadiums has taken football back to its magnificent best. The atmosphere was back, the low roar that can rise to a crescendo before breaking like a wave. To lose that again would be bad for fans, who have had to work through a very tough 18 months or so, possibly losing loved ones or having been furloughed etc. Football can be a release from the stresses of everyday life. But it’s also bad news for the clubs who still rely to a large extent on matchday revenue to make up most of their earnings. The clubs lower down the pyramid rely on this revenue stream even more, and would be in real trouble if it was cut off again. I jus think that it will become increasingly obvious to everyone that a circuit breaker shutdown of the season is necessary. Not for very long, just enough to bring the situation back under some control.

What has happened to the Premier League’s referees?

What on earth has happened to the standard of refereeing in the last few weeks? It seems like it has gone backwards and slipped back into the problems we saw last season and the season before. Particularly this weekend, where we saw horrible inconsistency across two of the games that were able to played. First of all, how on earth did the VAR not recommend that Paul Tierney go to the review area? One look at a replay of that incident would have shown the right course of action would have been to show Harry Kane the red card. Kane didn’t jump into the challenge but he was late, his studs were showing and the only reason Andy Robertson didn’t end up with a very serious injury was because he tried to avoid the tackle by jumping over Kane. And yet, for Robertson’s red card, the VAR recommended that the referee go to the review area. The correct decision was made in that instance but why was the procedure so different for the two incidents when they should have been exactly the same? Not to mention that Liverpool should have had a penalty. Diogo Jota was clearly fouled by Emerson Royal in the box. Jota may have been anticipating the contact, but the contact was still made.

And then there was the nonsensical decision not to award Newcastle United a penalty in their game against Manchester City. Just because Cancelo came away with the ball does not mean that Ederson did not massively mistime his challenge and take Ryan Fraser out. In the penalty area. Fouls are given for fouls off the ball all the time. That was a clear foul, obstruction in the penalty area that happened away from where the ball was. Just because another player comes away with the ball doesn’t mean that you can take someone out. If Ederson hadn’t come out for the ball, he wouldn’t taken Fraser out. Fraser could have pressed Cancelo to try and force a mistake, to win the ball back high up the pitch and maybe create a goalscoring opportunity. A player was illegally impeded in the penalty area by the goalkeeper. That is a penalty kick.

The technology behind VAR is not what is to blame here. The technology works extremely well. The people using the technology have taken a step back from where we were in the summer. We had just had a great international tournament where both the referees and the VAR worked well. Quickly coming to decisions without huge delays to look over endless replays. The referees were efficient in their decision making on the pitch, and VAR worked to get to the right decision when they needed it. The Premier League referees lurch about from one set of mistakes to the next. One week, there are four ‘soft’ penalties given, social media blows up, the pundits all rip on the referees. And they seem to take that and run in the complete opposite direction. Soft penalties one week, no penalties at all the next, even if they are blatantly obvious.

Something I think all football fans need to understand is that being a referee is not easy. At all. Referees are in a situation where someone is always going to disagree with their call. Because any call they make inherently disadvantages one of the two teams. But the one thing we want to see above all else is an interpretation of the rules that most people can agree with (by no means an easy task) and consistency when applying the rules of the game. Rules that are not being consistently applied at the moment and haven’t been for the last few weeks. And for one of the biggest sporting franchises in the world, watched by billions of people, that simply isn’t good enough.

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