Liverpool fans have always been rather an irritating lot. The combination of hubris and inconsistency, as well as constant bleating about “heritage” and history as though somehow this renders the modern success of rivals such as the Manchester clubs less worthy, lead to popular conceptions of this group as probably the fan base other fans most love to hate – “football supporters think you are either tiresome, cringeworthy or both.”
So it has been particularly enjoyable not only to watch the draw that Spurs battled to in front of the Kop last weekend, but also the whingeing that poured through social media in its aftermath from fans, players and manager alike. Other than maybe Barcelona, few football supporters come at things from such a moral high horse and, as with Barcelona it is great to see them get their comeuppance once in a while. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why all their players end up moving there.
Therefore let us examine forensically the two controversial incidents from the match, through some of the most common refrained heard from excitable Liverpool fans in the few days since.
1. “Kane was offside the moment Dele passed the ball”
The implication of this is that the moment the ball left Dele’s foot, the referee should have blown for an offside against Tottenham. This is simply factually wrong and demonstrates a lack of understanding about the offside rule and even Klopp was guilty of this mischief in his post-match press conference where he said:
“… there is a new rule, I don’t know exactly? I don’t know who played the pass but in the moment the ball left the foot of the Tottenham player, Harry Kane is offside.”
It is true that Kane was in an offside position when the ball was passed, but this is not the same as actually being offside. For the latter to be the case, Kane actually has to play the ball – in other words, had the ball not come off a Liverpool player, Kane would only be offside at the point when he received the pass and played. There is absolutely no requirement of the referee to call an offside before this point and it would be wrong to do so – players are constantly in offside positions through the match, which is why the rule was clarified to only include situations where a player in an offside position is “interfering with play”, and why today players who are in an offside position but not anywhere near the ball are not called for offside.
(Incidentally Klopp should know better and actually gets away with murder in a lot of his post-match comments, but let’s leave that for another day.)
Case for Liverpool: 1/10
2. “Kane was interfering with play at the point when the pass was made”
This charge has slightly more legs, but only slightly. Clearly, Kane is in an offside position but the referee deemed him not interfering with play. These are the situations which come down to referee’s opinions and it seems questionable to assume that Lovren necessarily struck the ball because of an awareness of Kane being behind his shoulder. If you look at the replay, Lovren seems to be all over the place and there is more than enough space for the referee’s opinion to be that Lovren played the ball purely because that was his instinct, not because of any perceived goal-side threat. In such situations one assumes that a seasoned referee’s opinion and read is as good as anyone’s – certainly VAR would not have resolved this question one way or another.
Case for Liverpool: 4/10
3. “Lovren was not playing the ball on purpose”
At this point we have to accept that after the pass commenced from Dele, it ended up being (mis)played by Lovren and quite possibly by another Liverpool player also, first. Therefore the question is whether Lovren played the ball on purpose as per the official rules on exemptions for offside, which state:
“A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save by an opponent) is not considered to have gained an advantage.”
First, let us be clear that the purpose of this wording is designed to make sure that this exemption does not apply to completely accidental deflections and rebounds, the kinds of things where a ball hits the back of someone’s head inadvertently and so on. It is not supposed to cause a nuanced consideration of how professional footballers at the top level play.
In this situation Lovren clearly went to strike the ball and, due to being a simply terrible footballer (as we saw at Wembley earlier in the season), mis-kicked it. It was not an inadvertent deflection, just a crap piece of play. As such, it takes quite contorted logic to try and make the case that the exemption does not apply. Yes, it does not fall under the initially intended rule designed to exempt offsides from back-passes, but yes it falls under the strict laws of the game – the ball did not continue towards the Liverpool goal due to an accident.
Leaving this to the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) in their official statement, it seems pretty clear:
“The interpretation of “deliberately” kicking a ball considers whether a player has intentionally tried to kick a ball – it does not consider whether the ball ends up where a player may have wanted to kick it.”
Case for Liverpool: 3/10
4. “Kane dived for the penalty”
Now onto the meat and drink of the incidents. Subsequent to the event, Kane has both admitted that he drew the contact, whilst Karius – and this is quite important – admitted that contact was made. In these circumstances, under the current refereeing environment, any challenge which a goalkeeper makes where they fail to get the ball is a poor challenge. To be clear, any time where a goalkeeper comes for a ball and fails to do so properly, leaves them exposed by definition to having committed a bad challenge – the very definition of a foul.
As that well-known Tottenham fan Jamie Carragher said on Monday Night Football (focusing principally on a similar incident involving Delafeu and Courtois):
“When goalkeepers come out like a train, like he has – like Karius has – I’ve got no sympathy whatsoever. If he’s complaining about it, don’t come out like a lunatic … It was a poor decision to come out; Karius’ was as well. If there is a problem with attackers leaving their legs in there, then goalkeepers need to do something different.”
My mind harks back to last season’s FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham and Chelsea, when Son’s mistimed sliding tackle gave away a penalty in much the same situation. A goalkeeper who, in missing the ball when coming out for it, makes contact with an attacking player, has committed a foul as per the rules. End of.
Case for Liverpool: 2/10
5. “Jon Moss was not sure about the decision”
This charge is linked in part to the slightly bizarre moment when the referee appeared to ask the fourth official for extra information, then did not bother to pursue this line of enquiry. The BBC’s transcript of the conversation with the linesman did seem to indicate some confusion, but the PGMOL statement also seems to put this to rest, noting that the conversation over whether Lovren had touched the ball was misrepresented:
“Eddie Smart, having identified that Kane was in an offside position, correctly sought clarification on whether Dejan Lovren had deliberately played the ball. His question created some momentary confusion when Eddie asked if ‘Lovren’ had touched the ball. Moss knew a Liverpool player had touched the ball but not that it was Lovren.”
There was also some manufactured controversy over why Moss had asked the fourth official for anything when he was not entitled to do so since VAR was not in action, but this is quite a sideshow which Moss has in any case admitted was “misguided”. Importantly though, he followed through on his own original opinion, as he is supposed to do.
I hate to break the news to Liverpool fans but the vast majority of refereeing decisions in a match are matters of opinion. They are not only entitled to act on such opinions but are indeed paid to do so. It is perfectly obvious that in complicated situations, referees are not going to be 100% sure of what happened but their job is to go with their instinct and the point of a seasoned professional referee is that they get these things right most of the time – as they did in this case.
Case for Liverpool: does not even justify a response
6. “Lamela dived for the penalty”
More meat and drink. To be honest this incident has barely been even controversial amongst the commentariat and much of the initial reaction seemed to be due to poor camera angles about what had happened, possibly informed by lingering bias against “latin players” and their record in this. But a closer inspection, as was done on the BBC’s MOTD2, shows it was actually a pretty hefty kick up the backside by Van Dijk on Lamela, and as Mark Lawrenson (another well-known Tottenham fan) put it clearly there:
“Don’t get me wrong, Erik Lamela does extremely well and he’s very very clever. He just gets himself into a position where as Van Dijk is going to kick the ball he kicks the back of his leg, and yes that’s a penalty. Is that not a foul anywhere else on the pitch? So it’s a pen.”
The threshold Lawrenson describes is of course important: the rules a are specific in saying that there should be no higher or lower threshold for what constitutes a foul within the penalty box as outwith. Again, however clever Lamela has been in positioning, if Van Dijk had undertaken such a piece of contact on the half way line, it would have been given as a foul and a free kick. A poor challenge is a poor challenge anywhere. Not being intentional is not an excuse; nor is the fact that Lamela appeared to go down heavily (although again from certain angles the kick seems more substantial that it did at first anyway).
Frankly, if the first penalty had not caused so much furore it is doubtful that the second incident would really cause any controversy whatsoever. ESPN’s Ali Moreno was one of many commentators who felt it was bizarre that it was even being talked about; whilst on The Football Ramble’s Luke Moore noted that:
“… if Liverpool fans want to complain about that, I suggest they complain as well in turn about the VAR penalty they were awarded when Salah hit the ground like a ton of bricks with minimal contact, and that was overturned and awarded as a penalty.”
I am not fan of whataboutery, but glasshouses and stones comes to mind. The foul component of the kick on Lamela is pretty indisputable.
Case for Liverpool: 2/10
7. “Lamela was offside when Llorente played the ball”
Now we get to the least discussed point of the whole episode, but ironically the one with the most grounds for questioning. Looking at the evidence, Lamela is probably offside by the width of a human foot, so I will not argue otherwise. However in the overall scheme of things, this kind of decision is well within the typical margin of error in football matches at the highest level and the very fact that people have barely mentioned it speaks in part to an acceptance that small errors like this are not abnormal and typically even themselves out over the course of a season. If Liverpool fans really want to moan though, this is the part they have most grounds to.
Case for Liverpool: 5/10
So much for the technical analysis. Now, far be it for me to let popular support influence how one views decisions, but it is worth looking at the professional commentators and punters, and their opinions of what went on. Clearly, the PGMOL has given its own opinion that Jon Moss was correct – although Liverpool fans have been heard to allege that “of course they will protect their own!”, cue much eye-rolling. But Dermott Gallagher, seasoned referee and watching in the Sky TV studios, said the same thing:
“In the debrief after the game, they’ll be told that they made the big, match-changing decisions correct on the day.”
I will be fair and note that Mark Clattenburg, another pundit through his column, disagreed. Let’s see what everyone else thinks – the “court of public opinion” as Harriet Harman would call it:
Note: “LOTG” refers to the opinion that the decision was technically correct as per the laws of the game, but that the strict application of the laws in this case made a mockery of the spirit of the rules.
Overall, a case of all is fair in love and war …