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Ken Early: Referees using VAR to make decisions they feel the game needs

Liverpool vs Tottenham: a brilliant game, or an out-of-control disciplinary mess?

Last weekend was the moment when many of us who would never dream of paying attention to Formula One realised that this dullest of all sports has somehow become a big deal again with a new generation of fans.

Suddenly everyone was talking about the dramatic end to the F1 championship. To cut a long story short: after 57 laps, with one lap remaining, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton was miles ahead and seemed certain to win the race and with it the title. But then somebody crashed, and in the ensuing confusion race director Michael Masi made a controversial sequence of decisions that effectively erased Hamilton’s commanding lead and allowed his rival, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, to overtake him at the death and snatch the title.

To the casual fan it felt a bit like a football game in which one team is leading 5-0 with five minutes to go, only for the referee to announce “next goal wins”. Turned out it also felt that way to Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “Michael, that was so not right,” he insisted on the race radio. “Michael, what was that?”

The sarcasm of Masi’s reply suggested Wolff’s bleating was as music to his ears: “Toto, it’s called a motor race. We went car racing.”

The curious thing was that most lovers of F1 seemed to think this stupid outcome, with its obviously confected late drama, was fantastic fun and the best thing that had happened in the sport in years.

There were exceptions though. One young fan from London took to Twitter with his concerns. "I'm new to F1 and it's been amazing to watch Lewis and Max battle it out," wrote Harry Kane. "I'm no expert on it but I feel like there's some bizarre rules that give an unfair advantage like today? Why should Hamilton be penalised for somebody else's crash?"

Sports entertainment trash

Here was England’s football captain proving that he knows enough about sport not to be fooled by the mere appearance of excitement. Kane understands that when the thrills are created by the selective enforcement of rules, we’re not really witnessing genuine sporting drama. We’re just gobbling up narrative-driven sports entertainment trash.

Yet here we were, one week later, and that same Kane was agreeing with Sky's post-match interviewer Geoff Shreeves that Tottenham's 2-2 draw with Liverpool had been a magnificent football occasion and a tremendous advertisement for the English game.

The only dissenting voice was Jurgen Klopp, cast in the role of Wolff. Asked by Shreeves to agree that it had been a terrific game, Klopp looked disgusted. "That's not what I saw. I saw a big fight."

The Liverpool manager did not try to defend the apparent villain of the match, Andy Robertson, who had been sent off after the VAR encouraged match referee Paul Tierney to take a second look at his hack on Emerson Royal. Klopp was angry because Tierney had taken a more lenient view of an earlier bad foul by Kane on Robertson, and ignored a strong Liverpool penalty claim when Royal barged Diogo Jota.

You could see his point. Faced with video evidence of Kane ploughing studs-up through Robertson, the refereeing team appeared to have concluded that the England captain hadn’t meant it.

Kane’s post-match interview was an insight into an aspect of the elite sportsman’s mentality, specifically the reality-distortion field that enables them to ignore any discouraging or inconvenient fact that conflicts with their preferred worldview.

“I thought it was a strong tackle, but I thought I won the ball,” said Kane, who had missed the ball with his boot, but “won” it with his hand as he followed through. “Even Andy on the pitch said, ‘Oh, you just caught my foot, I don’t think it was a foul.’ Obviously I think sometimes when you slow stuff down in football it makes it look maybe worse than what it is, but that’s what VAR is there for.”

Is that really what VAR is there for? Because in the Premier League, it increasingly looks as though VAR is a tool that allows referees to make the decisions they feel the game needs. Sending Kane off after 21 minutes might have been technically the right decision, but people would have complained it had “ruined the game” and no referee wants to be accused of that.

‘Letting it flow’

Sure, the Emerson barge on Jota would be a foul in any other league, but this is the Premier League and we don’t award penalties as easily as that (except when we do). Why enforce the rules when it feels so much better to lean into the league’s marketing mythos of “letting it flow”? Jurgen, it’s called a football match. We went footballing.

True, attentive viewers might be left with an impression of unfairness, but in that respect there are bigger things than refereeing decisions to worry about. Lacking a consistent and transparent Covid policy regarding such issues as vaccinations and postponements, the league has allowed a situation to develop where teams such as Leeds United are actually being punished for getting players vaccinated and keeping the virus out of their team. Leeds have had to keep playing (and losing) through a debilitating injury crisis, while other teams – such as Tottenham – have been afforded a pause to reset and recharge.

Conte’s team clearly showed the benefit of the drilling they’ve done during what effectively amounted to a mini pre-season. The intensity and energy of their play recalled the Pochettino glory years. “You know, when you’re playing against top sides and you’re fighting for points all over the place, sometimes there’s gonna be strong tackles,” Kane said afterwards, and though his foul on Robertson showed the worst of that approach, the challenge by Harry Winks on Naby Keita that set Spurs on their way to the opening goal was the best of it.

Spurs’s laser focus on exploiting Liverpool’s soft centre and high defensive line suggested a new tactical shrewdness, and they would have won the game if their finishing had been as sharp as their ideas.

So the match finished 2-2, a result heavily conditioned by refereeing errors and the unbalanced fixture list. At least nobody was seriously injured. A brilliant game, or an out-of-control mess? Luckily for the Premier League, as for that other global sports content mill Formula One, most people can’t tell the difference.