Who had the worse “injury-hit” Premier League season: Manchester City or Liverpool?

This is the third blog in a three-part series examining Liverpool’s injuries this season. The first investigated the direct impact of injuries on Liverpool’s squad; the second analysed the repercussions for Liverpool’s attack; and the third is a comparative piece looking into whether Liverpool’s injuries are (not as bad as / equal to / worse than) their main competitor’s, Manchester City.


For this comparison, I will be focusing on the first 28 Premier League games of the 2019-20 season for Manchester City and the 2020-21 season for Liverpool. This is to allow for direct comparisons between the data and teams. Plus, drawing the line before Matchday 29 has the added benefit of finishing just before the Premier League was suspended last season amidst growing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, which would skew the data because of the 3-month break between games. These particular seasons were chosen as they represent the worst points tallies for either team over the past four years.

The key factors to analyse were the injury scores for both teams (as a collective, but also on an individual level), as well as the effect these injuries had on the make-up of each team’s starting XI. Relevant players are those who played at least one minute or more during the analysed season, although there were two exceptions:

  • Second and third choice goalkeepers were included as long as they featured on the bench on two or more occasions
  • A player who had spent the entirety of the analysed season injured (thus playing zero minutes) but had played at least one minute or more in the previous season was also included

The data was collected from one source (Transfermarkt) to allow for a consistent comparison.


Below is a graph showing the cumulative points tallies for Manchester City and Liverpool throughout the first 28 Premier League games of their respective seasons:

What the graph shows is that while both teams fared similarly across the first 16 games of the season, from the New Year onwards there was a strong divergence. Manchester City maintained their form to finish on 57 points from 28 matches (2.04 points per game) whereas Liverpool faltered, accumulating just 43 points from 28 matches (1.54 points per game).

Yet both of these tallies represent a drop-off from previous seasons. In Manchester City’s case, the Citizens had 11 fewer points than at the same point during their Premier League winning season in 2018-19. For Liverpool, they were 36 points down on their championship winning form in 2019-20. As was highlighted in my previous piece, Jurgen Klopp’s side has been plagued with injuries. But did a similar situation occur for Man City and how does this compare to the Reds?


Below is a table detailing the breakdown of minutes missed to injury (full games only) by both squads during their respective seasons:

Players with no injuries (as recorded by Transfermarkt) are highlighted in green, while a darker red connotes missing 50+% of the season to injury.

What it shows is that Liverpool had more players sidelined with injury than Manchester City, missing 163 matches in total compared to 107. Even factoring in the differing squad sizes still puts Jurgen Klopp’s side on top, with a player missing on average 20.8% of the season compared to 15.9% for Pep Guardiola’s men.

Liverpool also beat Manchester City in terms of how severe their injuries tended to be. Below is a graph detailing the severity of the injuries suffered by both teams:

While Man City had the most serious injury through Leroy Sane, who missed all 28 games due to an anterior cruciate ligament rupture suffered in his right knee before the season began, the majority of their injuries were minor. In comparison, Liverpool has had a higher concentration of medium to serious injuries that has led to lengthy spells on the sidelines for a whole host of their players.


In a previous piece, I argued that not all injuries are equal. Their impact on a team is due to a variety of factors, one of which is importance to / involvement in the team. However, another key factor concerns which position those injuries occur in. If you have a concentration of injuries in one position, this will cause a greater effect than if the injuries were spread out across positions.

Below is a gantt chart detailing a player overview for Manchester City. Not only does it show who started, came off and came on during a match, but also who was an unused substitute and who missed the match due to injury or another reason.

Here is the same chart for Liverpool:

In both teams, we can see that the injuries were most concentrated in defence. For Man City, they lost Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy, John Stones and Oleksandr Zinchenko for numerous games throughout the season. This spread the injuries between centre-backs and full-backs. For Liverpool, however, all of their serious defensive injuries were suffered by their three main centre-backs – Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip.

Additionally, each team suffered a serious injury to one of their forwards (Leroy Sane for Man City and Diogo Jota for Liverpool). Yet while Manchester City escaped relatively unscathed in midfield, Liverpool has not been as lucky. Three of Klopp’s midfielders have missed 40+% of the season to injury. This is reaffirmed when breaking down the injury scores for both teams by position – goalkeeper, defence, midfield and attack.

Liverpool has a higher average score than Man City for three of the four positions except amongst the forwards. Though it is important to note that the injury score for the forwards is inflated by one serious injury each (Sane for Man City and Jota for Liverpool). If you remove both of these injuries then the average scores are roughly the same at 0.064 for City and 0.036 for Liverpool. It shows that, bar these two injuries, the forwards for both teams have stayed basically injury-free throughout their respective seasons.


Given that both teams suffered their highest concentration of injuries in defence, let’s evaluate the impact of these injuries on the defensive make-up of both teams. Below is a table comparing the respective starting defences for Man City and Liverpool for each Premier League game:

The thick horizontal black lines connote the loss of a defensive player to serious injury, one that left them sidelined (or will) for at least ten successive games. Man City lost Laporte in Matchday 4, meanwhile, Liverpool lost van Dijk during Matchday 5, Gomez before Matchday 9, and Matip during Matchday 21.

What is most striking is that Pep Guardiola drafted in defensive midfielder Fernandinho to plug the hole in defence. The Brazilian would go on to start 20 successive games at centre-back, providing a stable figure in City’s backline while Laporte recovered from his knee injury. Though his partner would vary between Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones, Eric Garcia and fellow midfielder Rodri, having a consistent figure at centre-back undoubtedly helped City to steady the ship and come out of the situation relatively unscathed.

On Merseyside, Jurgen Klopp was not able to find a player who could offer the same kind of stability that their rivals had. Liverpool have had 16 different centre-back partnerships in the league so far this season, compared to City’s eight (excluding the two games with three centre-backs). Most notably though, they haven’t had one central figure throughout, a far cry from last year where van Dijk played every single minute of every Premier League game. Gomez, Fabinho and Henderson took it in turns to share the burden, but each suffered injuries that prevented them from providing the same kind of stability as City had with Fernandinho. That does not mean Liverpool has not had a consistent figure in their defence. Andy Robertson has only missed five minutes so far. Yet, as a full-back, he does not have as big an influence on the defensive organisation of the back-line as one of the centre-backs.

The ramifications of this for the rest of the team have been well-documented. In my previous pieces I highlight the “domino effect” these injuries have had on the other positions. While Man City were able to contain their issues to their defence thanks to their outstanding depth, Liverpool did not have the same luxury. The season-ending injuries to their three main centre-backs left them drafting in youngsters Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips, as well as recruiting stop-gaps in Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies during the January transfer window. Yet they were often paired with either Fabinho or Henderson, taking away their midfield output. As a team, Liverpool has struggled to fill their voids in the middle, with Klopp now realising that it is better to play his midfielders in their preferred positions and allow what defenders he does have to form a partnership together for the remaining ten games of the Premier League season.

There is a lot to be learnt from what happened to Liverpool this year. From rotation to having adequate cover at every position, the way a club deals with the unfortunate reality of injuries has probably never garnered as much coverage. It is something that affects every team, but not all teams equally. Understanding that distinction is important when discussing who has had it “worse”.

Other Liverpool Articles

What has happened to Liverpool’s attack?

One reason to explain Liverpool’s significant drop-off in points this season is the lack of goals scored by Jurgen Klopp’s side. During the first 27 matches of the 2019-20 Premier League season, the Reds found the net 64 times. This year, they have managed it on just 47 occasions – a decrease of 26.6%. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to work out that, as a team, you need to score goals to win a game. Therefore, delving deeper into Liverpool’s attack both this season and last season is crucial for understanding how to rectify their recent goalscoring problem.


Though Liverpool boast one of the most potent attacking trios in world football in Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, it is inaccurate to argue that the team overwhelmingly relied on their goals last season. In the first 27 matches, the forwards scored 60.9% of the team’s goals, with the midfield (23.5%) and defence (12.5%) making up 36% of the rest. In terms of percentages, this was quite a healthy mix. The forwards were still producing the goods, yet they had support from their teammates. This kept the attack unpredictable. In defence, though the majority of goals came from Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold, both Joel Matip and Andy Robertson also found the back of the net. Meanwhile, in midfield, every single player scored at least a goal, highlighting how the goalscoring burden was shared collectively.

Fast forward to this season and we have a completely different picture. Out of the 47 goals scored by Liverpool so far, 76.6% of them have come from the forwards, compared to 8.5% from midfield and 8.5% from defence. That means while 36% of the goals were from either the midfield or the defence last season, just 17% have come from those positions this year. This demonstrates how the goalscoring burden has firmly been shifted onto the frontmen of Salah, Mane, Firmino, Divock Origi and Diogo Jota.

We can see this trend illustrated in the graphs below. Firstly, in the goals scored by Liverpool from each position across the first 27 matches of both the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 Premier League seasons.

Secondly, in the percentage make-up of Liverpool’s goals across the first 27 matches of both seasons.

While the defence and midfield’s goalscoring output has decreased compared to last season, the forwards have not increased theirs, which explains why Liverpool has scored less goals this year. So, although the Reds are becoming increasing reliant on their frontline to find the back of the net, it is not due to those attackers scoring more goals.


Yet an overreliance on the forwards for goals was not necessarily a problem in the first half of the year. The frontmen scored at least one goal or more in Liverpool’s first 15 matches, helping the team achieve nine wins, five draws and just one loss, picking up 33 points along the way to sit atop the Premier League table. In fact, Salah and co. were even performing better than they were the previous season, evidenced in the graph below showing that the forwards’ collective goals per game score during the 2020-21 season remained higher than in 2019-20 for most of this year.

However, in the 12 games since Christmas, Liverpool’s forwards have hit a rough patch. They have only scored at least one goal or more on just four occasions. Compounding matters, in the eight matches in which they have blanked, the team has only managed to score one goal from elsewhere – Curtis Jones’ opener against Sheffield United on 28th February. Its effect on results has been clear. During this period, Liverpool have won just three times, drawing twice and losing seven matches. The Reds have picked up just 11 points, equating to an average of 0.92 points per game, a far cry from the 2.20 points per game the team was managing before Christmas. Instead of leading the league, Liverpool now find themselves in seventh, four points off a Champions League position with eleven games to go. We can see this drop-off in goalscoring output by the forwards in the graph below.

This drop-off in form highlights the problem of over-relying on your forwards to score goals; it becomes an unsustainable situation. When the frontmen hit a rough patch (which they inevitably will) and start blanking, teammates in other positions will find it difficult to step in and fill the gap.

Last season, Liverpool did a better job of covering for their forwards when they misfired. In the six matches the forwards failed to score in (across the whole 38-game season), the rest of the team found the net in 50% of them. This season, it stands at 12.5%. So not only does Klopp find himself dealing with a situation in which the forwards are now blanking more often (29.6% of games vs. 15.8% last season), but the midfield and defence are struggling to plug the gap (scoring in 12.5% of those blanks vs. 50% last season).


Perhaps this drop-off in form is understandable given Liverpool’s injury record this season. Klopp has had six players sidelined for 40+% of the year: Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita and Diogo Jota. Some of these players scored important goals last season. For example, van Dijk had five, Oxlade-Chamberlain had four and Naby Keita two. Meanwhile, Jota had made an instant impact after his summer move from Wolves, scoring five times in nine league matches before picking up a knee injury in a Champions League group match. His absence, in particular, appeared to dent Liverpool’s momentum heading into the crucial winter period.

But while it is easy to examine the direct impact of injuries on the champion’s goalscoring problems, it is possibly the indirect impact that has had a bigger part to play. I wrote an earlier piece trying to quantify this very impact on Liverpool’s season by investigating the domino effect it has had on the squad. The lengthy lay offs for van Dijk, Gomez and Matip have caused the most disturbance due to the implications this has had for the defence and midfield.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has struggled to match his goals and assist tally from last season, while Andy Robertson has tailed off after a strong start. Without a stable defence and the team’s three main centre-backs, the responsibility has fallen on Trent and Robertson as the remaining stalwarts of last season’s champion-winning backline. It is unclear, however, how *exactly* this has affected Liverpool’s two full-backs this season.

In midfield, though, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have been utilised heavily as centre-back cover in the absence of van Dijk, Gomez and Matip, decreasing their midfield output. This has had to be filled by newcomer Thiago and academy product Curtis Jones, who have scored and provided just one goal and one assist between them. In fact, while Liverpool had nine midfielders find the back of the net last season, this year only three have. Of the three positions, the drop-off in goalscoring output from midfield has been the most pronounced. 

What effect this has had on the forwards is harder to ascertain. The drop in creative productivity from both Trent and Robertson would be the obvious argument, given how often the fullbacks would assist the forwards, yet it is difficult to gauge whether their drop is due to fewer chances being created or fewer chances being scored. The same loss of goal production from midfield would also be a contributing factor. Recently, Liverpool has not looked like a team capable of scoring, suggesting the problem is due to what chances (or lack of) are created by the team as a whole.


While injuries may be the root cause for the majority of failings this season, the players available still have agency to positively affect games. Zooming in on the forwards, some have done this better than others. Mohamed Salah, for example, has increased his goals per game score (GPGS) from 0.50 last season to 0.63 by scoring 17 league goals. In comparison, he is miles ahead of second-place teammate, Sadio Mane, who has found the net just seven times. This signifies a huge drop-off in goalscoring output from the Senegalese forward, who managed to score 18 goals last season. It has meant Mane’s GPGS has dropped from 0.47 in 2019-20 to just 0.26. Given Liverpool need goals, rectifying Mane’s fall in GPGS should be a high priority.

Below is a graph detailing this difference in GPGS for Liverpool’s frontmen, as well as for the team’s midfielders and defenders.

Their output post-Christmas has been particularly stark. While all of the forwards have struggled, Salah has still spearheaded 66.7% of them. Out of the six goals the forwards have scored during this period, four have been through Salah, with Mane and Roberto Firmino finding the net just once each. When discussing the forwards, however, it is important to note that Salah has the added benefits of being on penalties, which makes up 35.3% of his total this season. Though the Egyptian would still be ahead of Mane without them (11 goals vs. 7), it is often overlooked how helpful being on penalties can be to end a goalscoring drought and start gaining momentum again. Without that luxury, Mane is particularly struggling this season and his confidence looks knocked.


Once you start delving into Liverpool’s attack this season, you realise that the problems are pretty extensive. A lack of goals from defence and midfield has caused an overreliance on the forwards to deliver, who were overachieving on this front until their post-Christmas slump. In particular, Salah has largely carried the team through his goals this season, while Mane has struggled to hit his goalscoring heights of last year.

However, for the forwards to get over their recent dip in form, they need help from their teammates. Liverpool must start becoming more unpredictable in their attack. Set pieces, in particular, have almost been forgotten. No centre-back replacement, whether it be Rhys Williams, Nathanial Phillips, Ozan Kabak, Fabinho or Jordan Henderson, has scored from this position this season. Meanwhile, the midfield has produced just four goals and five assists between them. Though injuries are undoubtedly the root cause of the majority of Liverpool’s problems, the team must realise their potential to positively influence matches from attack. Injecting some hunger and fight back into their play is a must. It does not have to be all doom and gloom. This season is tough, but there is still plenty to play for with eleven games remaining.

Are injuries really to blame for Liverpool’s drop-off in points this season?

With 33 fewer points than they had after 25 league matches last season, it is an undisputable fact that Liverpool has experienced a significant drop-off in form in the Premier League this year. One reason often used to explain this disparity is the impact of injuries on the Liverpool squad. The Reds lost talisman Virgil van Dijk to a season-ending ruptured cruciate ligament in Gameweek 5, while his centre-back partner Joe Gomez endured a season-ending patella injury between Gameweeks 9 and 10 whilst on international duty. Yet the Premier League champions have also suffered long-term injuries to other players in their squad, including Thiago Alcantara, Joel Matip, Diogo Jota and Kostas Tsimikas.

However, whether injuries alone can explain Liverpool’s drop-off in form is open for debate. Many argue that injuries are “part and parcel” of any season, thus, Liverpool are not in a unique situation. Manchester City being without Aymeric Laporte, Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero, for example, is often used as the counter. So, I’ve set out to see whether there is evidence to support or disprove the narrative that Liverpool’s drop-off is principally due to their injury problems. Though this blog piece is unlikely to provide a definitive answer – it will always be a subjective opinion – I hope it will delve deeper into the issue than other articles have been able to.

It will be a two-part series; the first (this one) will consist of a direct comparison of Liverpool this season to last season to measure the impact of injuries on their squad; the second will be more of a comparison of Liverpool’s situation this season to another team’s, like Manchester City, to determine whether Liverpool’s situation is unique or not.


Most analyses into Liverpool’s injury crisis have been quite superficial, focusing on minutes played or average number of players injured per game. While these measures are still important and helpful, to really investigate and understand the impact of injuries on a squad, we need to go deeper.

It is true that all teams have injuries to deal with across a season. However, an injury to a player that typically spends 75% of the season on the bench is far different to an injury to a player that plays 60+ minutes in 75% of the team’s games across a season. Therefore, to understand the impact of an injury, we need to understand the importance of each player to their team. Being able to quantify a player’s importance is crucial to then measure and compare season-to-season or team-to-team.

For me, there are two important factors to consider: (1) availability; and (2) utility.

Availability refers to how available a player is for selection. It can be worked out by taking the total possible minutes a player could play compared to the total possible minutes in a season and then converting it into an availability score. This is where injuries become important. If a player is sidelined for four matches, it means their availability score will decrease. Yet, injuries are not the only reason why a player may not be available, it could be due to suspension, personal reasons or a youth player playing for one of the youth teams. However, as injuries are the principal focus of this piece, all other reasons will be counted under “other” and kept separate from the analysis.

Utility, on the other hand, refers to how often a player is used when available for selection. It can be worked out by taking the total number of minutes played compared to the total available minutes the player could play and then converting it into a utility score. This helps separate bench players from the starters. For example, if you have 100% availability, but only play 25% of minutes, your utility score will be lower than a player who may only be available 75% of the time, but plays 75% of minutes when they are.

Therefore, the equation for working out a player’s importance to a team is:



This method is easily applicable to all teams and could be used to measure all sorts of aspects, such as injuries, suspensions, or varying importance of players. Central to its success though, is how it conceptualises a team. Each team has a score of 11, reflecting the eleven players needed on a pitch to play football. How each team makes up their score of 11 will be different though, depending on the formation they use. For example, most teams now play a 4-3-3. This splits the score into four parts, which make up the value of 11:

  • The goalkeeper counts for 1
  • The defence counts for 4 – 1 for LB, 1 for RB, and 2 for CB
  • The midfield counts for 3
  • The forwards count for 3

In a 4-4-2 formation, this would be slightly different. The defence would still count for 4, but the midfield would also count for 4, while the forwards count for 2.

In a 5-3-2 formation, again, this would be different. The defence would count for 5 – 1 for LB, 1 for RB, and 3 for CB – while the midfield counts for 3 and the forwards count for 2. This allows a team’s formation to be taken into consideration.

Under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool most consistently play a 4-3-3, so that will be the formation used in this analysis.


Below is a gantt chart showing Liverpool players’ minutes for the 2019-20 Premier League season:

Dark red blocks represent missing the match because of an injury; light red blocks represent missing the match for another reason (suspension, personal reason, or rest); yellow blocks represent being an unused substitute; and grey blocks represent a player playing for a different club or youth team. Any minutes played by a player are quantified inside a green block.

Below is a gantt chart showcasing the same data but for the 2020-21 Premier League season (up to first 25 matches):

This data was then collated and converted into further tables. Below is a table comparing Liverpool players’ importance last season vs. this season. It includes each player’s availability score, utility score and overall importance/involvement score.

What it shows is that ten players have decreased in importance/involvement from the 2019-20 Premier League season to the 2020-21 one. Three of the ten have moved to different clubs: Dejan Lovren (Zenit St. Petersburg), Adam Lallana (Brighton & Hove Albion) and Harvey Elliott (Blackburn Rovers – loan). Of the remaining seven, three are “nailed-on starters” – Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez – while four are “bench players” – Adrian, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Divock Origi. While the declines vary in severity, the biggest drops are seen in van Dijk (-0.835), Oxlade-Chamberlain (-0.353) and Gomez (-0.322).

On the flip side, twenty players have increased their importance/involvement from last season. Though the reasons may vary, the most obvious ones are new arrivals – Thiago (+0.403) and Diogo Jota (+0.223) – and players stepping up in others’ absences – Nathanial Phillips (+0.246) and Curtis Jones (+0.385).

This is shown more clearly when putting Liverpool players’ importance/involvement scores for both 2019-20 and 2020-21 Premier League seasons in graph form:

And the differences between their scores for both seasons:

However, this table does not tell us whether the decline or increases are due to injuries. Thus, below is a table showing Liverpool’s injury burden last season vs. this season. It includes a player’s overall unavailability score, and then breaks it down into two further scores: (1) injured score; and (2) other score.

What this table shows us, then, is that Liverpool’s injury burden increased significantly from the 2019-20 season to 2020-21. Last season, they had an injured score of 2.921. This season, their injured score doubled to 5.880 (+2.959). While we cannot argue that this is the worst score this season – or ever – as I have not analysed each team yet, it is clear that Liverpool definitely have had a more severe injury problem than they did last season.

Again, this can be shown more clearly by converting Liverpool players’ injured scores for both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 Premier League seasons into graph form:

In fact, Liverpool have eight players with scores over 0.400, which means they have missed 40+% of this season already (8+ Premier League matches). These players are: Virgil van Dijk (+0.800), Joe Gomez (+0.680), Naby Keita (+0.600), Joel Matip (+0.560), Diogo Jota (+0.560), Kostas Tsimikas (+0.520), Thiago (+0.480) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (+0.440). In comparison, Liverpool only had two players last season with scores over 0.400: Joel Matip (+0.526) and Xherdan Shaqiri (+0.526). Though it must be noted that last season’s scores are calculated based on a full 38-game season, whereas this season’s scores have been calculated based on 25 matches.

Yet looking at the difference in the players’ scores from 2019-20 season to 2020-21 paints an even worse picture (this has been shown in the graph below). Whereas Matip’s difference is low (+0.034) because he has had lengthy injury spells in both seasons, the staggering differences for van Dijk (+0.800) and Gomez (+0.680) show just how much Liverpool have suffered at the back. To lose your two main centre backs to season-ending injuries within the first 10 games of the season would be devastating for any team. To showcase just how much this has impacted Liverpool’s season, I’m going to delve deeper into the make-up of Liverpool’s starting XI.


Below are four tables, showcasing the make-up of Liverpool’s starting XI from the 2019-20 Premier League season to 2020-21:

What the tables show most starkly is the drop-off in defensive output from Liverpool’s defenders. During the 2019-20 season, their defenders had an importance/involvement score of 3.923, with the remaining part made up of James Milner filling in at full-back in the absence of either Andy Robertson or Trent-Alexander-Arnold. During the 2020-21 season so far, despite having three more defenders, the defence’s importance/involvement score dropped to 2.805. This does not reflect Liverpool changing formation to a 3-4-3, but rather the fact that Fabinho and Jordan Henderson have had to step in consistently at centre-back in the absence of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip.

When you account for this fact and include Fabinho’s, Jordan Henderson’s and James Milner’s minutes played in defence (shown in the tables below), it shows how much the midfield has had to fill in for the defence’s injury problems. In fact, 80.7% of Fabinho’s involvement this season has been at centre back, whilst it stands at 38.7% for Henderson. However, this still has the knock-on effect of taking away two of Liverpool’s most involved midfielders from their preferred positions. Fabinho’s involvement in midfield is down 77.9% on the previous season, while Henderson’s has decreased by 29.1%.

Here is the above table in graph form:

And who has stepped in to fill the void in midfield? Newcomer Thiago and academy product Curtis Jones mostly. On the face of things that might not seem like a problem, but that is a lot of responsibility to place on a new arrival – even if he has won countless prestigious trophies – and a 20-year-old, especially given the importance of the midfield for successfully maintaining the press in Klopp’s system. Midfielders under Klopp must be quick, dynamic and willing to run. Jones does fit that profile and has delivered great performances this season, but he is still largely inexperienced and inconsistent. Alternatively, Thiago does not typically fit the mould of a Klopp midfielder. He was brought in to unlock low block defences through his bold range of passing. Relying on him to run and fill the void of the likes of Fabinho and Henderson appears misplaced. Thus, finding a solution that would maximise the midfielders Liverpool do have available seems like the more sensible tactic moving forward.


When delving deeper into this Liverpool team, it becomes clear why they have struggled to hit the heights they did last season. Injuries seem most certainly the biggest factor for this, with Liverpool’s injured score doubling to a worrying 5.880. Given my next piece in the series will compare Liverpool’s 2020-21 season to another team’s, it should become apparent whether this score is in the freakish realms or just another injury-hit season. For now though, the argument that Liverpool’s season has been derailed because of injuries appears to stand strong.

The defence, in particular, has taken a battering. The loss of talisman Virgil van Dijk could not be more damaging. Liverpool not only lost a player who was 100% available last season, but who played 100% of the minutes possible in the Premier League. To have that sort of importance/involvement on a team (i.e. a perfect score) is rare. So to lose a player like that, five games into the season, was always going to be a tough ask to rally against. This was then further compounded by the loss of Joe Gomez, and the recurring injury problems of Joel Matip. Though the defence has tried to step up in their absence, the majority of defensive output was left to Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to make up, at the expense of their output in midfield. This then left Thiago and Curtis Jones to fill in their voids in midfield. An analogy of dominoes falling one by one in quick succession seems a fitting way to explain the first 25 matches of Liverpool’s 2020-21 Premier League season.

Constrained by commercial interests, the UEFA knockout rounds have become a bit of a nightmare

Holding a continental competition in the middle of a global pandemic was always going to be difficult. Yet, with eight matches already moved to neutral venues for the first knockout rounds of both the Champions League and Europa League – and more expected to come in the coming weeks – UEFA’s solution has only served to create a nightmare. Constrained by TV commercial interests, the legitimacy and fairness of the two competitions are now in question.

On Tuesday evening, RB Leipzig fans will be watching their team take on Liverpool in the first leg of their UCL Round of 16 tie. Except, instead of the match taking place in their home stadium (Red Bull Arena in Leipzig, Germany), the game will be played at Puskas Arena in Budapest, Hungary. The reason for this move is due to UEFA’s COVID-19-related regulations. If a team does not receive a travel exemption from either the host or returning country, an alternative venue must be found for the match to take place. This regulation has affected eight knockout matches so far, seven of which include an English team.

For the Champions League, it affects the following matches:

  1. RB Leipzig v Liverpool (moved from Germany to Budapest, Hungary) – 16th Feb
  2. Atlético Madrid v Chelsea (moved from Spain to Bucharest, Romania) – 23rd Feb
  3. Mönchengladbach v Man City (moved from Germany to Budapest) – 24th Feb

For the Europa League, it affects the following matches:

  1. Molde v Hoffenheim (moved from Norway to Vila-real, Spain) – 18th Feb
  2. Real Sociedad v Man United (moved from Spain to Turin, Italy) – 18th Feb
  3. Benfica v Arsenal (moved from Portugal to Rome, Italy) – 18th Feb
  4. Wolfsberg v Tottenham (moved from Germany to Budapest, Hungary) – 18th Feb
  5. Arsenal v Benfica (moved from England to Piraeus, Greece) – 25th Feb

The implications for RB Leipzig, Atlético Madrid, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Molde, Real Sociedad, Benfica, Wolfsberg and Arsenal are that they now do not have a home leg. While this may not seem like a big deal currently because there are no crowds at matches, there is still the issue of travelling. For these teams, what was then a match that would have required no travelling, now involves up to a 3,200-mile round trip. Firstly, this adds another burden to players in an already jampacked season. Secondly, it creates an unfair playing field.

This latter point is of particular concern given the continuation of the away-goal rule. Is it fair to allow the “away” team to enjoy this benefit in a neutral stadium where the “home” team is not playing at “home”? In isolation, no. However, it would also be unfair to suspend the away-goal rule for games played in a neutral stadium if the rule continues to stand for ties that have been unaffected.  

The fairest solution for all then would be to just play one game in a neutral venue without the away-goal rule, utilising a similar format that was used to complete both UEFA competitions for the 2019-20 season. Yet UEFA seemed reluctant to employ this strategy due to TV constraints. Companies spend huge sums of money to win the broadcasting rights for the knockout stages. If each tie were reduced from two matches to one, it would represent a significant loss in revenue. UEFA only employed the single-leg format as a last resort last season to avoid the entire competition being permanently cancelled.

It is another example of commercial interests taking precedent over the legitimacy and fairness of UEFA’s two flagship competitions. How the format plays out over the next three months as countries continue to grapple with coronavirus is anyone’s guess. But it will lead many spectators to place an asterisk against the two teams that do go on to win the respective trophies, whether justified or not.    

VAR referees are intervening less in games, but is this still problematic?

In January, I wrote a piece highlighting the significant increase in the average number of penalties awarded during the 2020-21 Premier League season. If we continued at the current pace (0.40 penalties per game), we were on track to see 152 penalties given across the full 380-game season, representing a 66.7% on the last season (92 penalties) and a 42.9% increase on the Premier League record from both the 2009-10 and 2016-17 seasons (106 penalties). Interestingly, however, this rate has decreased in recent weeks to 0.35. While it fits with the declining trend across the season from an initial high of 0.72 in Gameweek 2, the previous decline could be explained by a relaxation of the handball law. So, the recent deviation from the average raised the question: what might be causing it?

Dale Johnson, ESPN’s expert on laws and regulations, offered a possible explanation in his weekly VAR thread. He pointed to the fact that since December 26th, there have only been seven VAR interventions in 62 games, working out as a frequency of 0.11 (~one in 10 games / one a weekend). This represents a huge decrease in frequency compared to the period up to December 26th, in which there were 67 VAR interventions in 134 games (0.50 = one every other game, or five a weekend). He suggests that while other leagues have managed to maintain a consistent application of VAR (i.e. the Bundesliga), the Premier League has “lurched from regular intervention to barely a touch”. This change of approach has contributed to the recent decline in the number of penalties awarded, but is this inconsistency problematic?


Below is a graph tracking the average number of penalties awarded in the 2020-21 Premier League season across each gameweek. The blue line represents the average when including every gameweek (up to Gameweek 22). The orange line represents the average when excluding the first three gameweeks, which coincided with the stricter interpretation of the handball law. Finally, the red line represents the average from Gameweek 16 onwards, which coincided with the change of approach to less VAR intervention.

What the graph shows is that each change has led to fewer penalties given. The current average is 0.35 when including every gameweek, yet 0.30 from Gameweek 4 onwards and 0.21 from Gameweek 16 onwards. This may not sound like much but across the remaining 165 Premier League games, this could represent a difference of 23 penalties as:

  • An average of 0.35 would see another 58 penalties given
  • An average of 0.3 would see 50 penalties given
  • An average of 0.21 would see just 35 penalties given


The problem with an inconsistent application across a season is that there are winners and losers, teams that will have had an advantage because of the higher frequency of favourable decisions earlier on in the season. This is because VAR intervenes in match-changing situations (red cards and penalties), which could be the difference between winning, drawing or losing a game. Recognising the incredible power referees and VAR have on the outcome of a game is thus an important part of any debate on its future application. ESPN keep a league table of VAR overturned decisions for the season, but it would be interesting to see this broken down further into two periods (before December 26th and after) to investigate the impact this change has had on the final league table.    

Note: The issue of offside is not relevant to this discussion as the use of technology is applied consistently – the VAR referee does not choose whether to use the technology. If a goal is scored, it must be checked for offside.  


Yet there is a counter argument to explain the reasoning behind the move toward fewer VAR interventions. Referees are “learning on the job”, wrestling madly to find the sweet spot for “clear and obvious” – the point at which VAR should intervene. In the first part of the season VAR was clearly being too fussy, but now we are back to a high bar of intervention. They have effectively overcorrected the problem and ended up with the same result: unhappy fans. Now that is not to say that fans won’t ever not complain about VAR, but on either end of the spectrum there is a sense of injustice. That is what inconsistency brings. So while VAR officials may be intervening less in our football matches, the problem of VAR has not gone away.

Tomas Soucek’s red card against Fulham optimised this problem. Even though VAR is intervening less in the game, it and the matchday referees are still not reaching the right outcome. The vast majority of people would not have complained if Soucek was not shown a red card, and hopefully the West Ham midfielder will win his appeal. There needs to be some common sense applied to the process, or a better balance, because as of yet, we have neither.

Have we cheapened the penalty kick?

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of penalties awarded in the Premier League this season. Many journalists and analysts have raised the issue, arguing that a combination of the revisions to the handball law and the introduction of VAR have caused this spike. While I agree that they have contributed to the increase, I believe the biggest factor is how referees have to interpret fouls in the box under the IFAB Laws of the Game. As our perception of what constitutes a foul gets broader, the standard for awarding a penalty becomes lower, culminating in an increase in the number of penalties awarded per season.


It is an undisputed fact that the number of penalties given in the Premier League this season has increased significantly. In 183 matches (up to 22nd January), 73 penalties have been given, which works out as an average of 0.4 per game, meaning we are on course for 152 penalties across the whole 380-game season. This represents a 66.7% increase on the 92 penalties given last season and a 42.9% increase on the Premier League record of 106 penalties given in both the 2009-10 and 2016-17 seasons. Below is a chart showing the spike in penalties:

Credit: Anna Woodberry / Data taken from: https://www.myfootballfacts.com/premier-league/all-time-premier-league/premier-league-penalty-statistics/ (accurate to 22nd January – 183 matches played in 2020-21 season)


Possible reasons:

  1. Revisions to the handball law?
  2. Introduction of VAR?
  3. The criteria for giving penalties under the IFAB Laws of the Game?


Dale Johnson, ESPN’s expert on regulations and VAR, has argued that “a small number of the penalties in England can be put down to the handball law in the early months, but it certainly doesn’t account for the number of penalties we now see”.

At the start of the 2020-21 season, Premier League referees were ordered to implement a strict interpretation of the handball laws, which led to a spate of generous handball decisions. These included Eric Dier’s against Newcastle, Joel Ward’s against Everton and Victor Lindelof’s against Crystal Palace. However, since the Premier League decided to relax this strict interpretation at the end of September, the average of penalties per game this season has reduced from 0.46 to 0.4, indicating that while revisions to the handball law have played some part in the increase, as Dale rightly points out, this alone cannot explain the increase.


Another possible factor is the introduction of VAR, which has led to nine more penalties awarded in the Premier League this season (18 given and 9 rescinded). Although it is worth pointing out that five of those were due to the strict interpretation of handball. This suggests that VAR is having a minimal impact on the increase of penalties.

However, analysis into the role of VAR has only focused on its direct impact: the number of penalties it has awarded or rescinded. Its mere existence also provides an indirect impact – a safety net for referees. The on-field referee can be less concerned about giving “howlers” because VAR is there to correct “clear and obvious” errors, such as (1) overturning a decision if there is NO contact and the referee thought there was; and (2) overturning a decision if there IS contact and the referee thought there was not. To investigate the indirect impact of VAR, we would need to examine whether the on-field referees are giving more penalties than they were in previous seasons. If they are, it would support the argument that the introduction of VAR had indirectly led to the increase in penalties by creating an environment where referees feel more confident awarding penalties. But is this the only reason that could explain the rise?


On any given matchday you will hear pundits, players and fans complaining that the game has gone “soft”. Nowadays, it seems that if a player goes down with minimal contact, they have a good chance of winning a penalty. This is supported in the data. The number of penalties had increased from an average of 0.18 during the first 14 years of the Premier League to 0.25 during the second 14 years of the Premier League, equalling a 38.9% increase. This indicates that there has been a general trend towards more penalties given even before the dramatic increase this season. Could this be due to changing attitudes towards what constitutes a foul?

Credit: Anna Woodberry / Data taken from: https://www.myfootballfacts.com/premier-league/all-time-premier-league/premier-league-penalty-statistics/ (accurate to 17th January – 177 matches played in 2020-21 season)

I believe an important factor that has received barely any mention from pundits and journalists is how penalty kick offences are defined in the IFAB Laws of the Game. Under their interpretation, “a penalty kick is awarded if a player commits a direct free kick offence inside their penalty area or off the field as part of play as outlined in Laws 12 and 13”. A direct free kick offence is when “a player commits any of the following offences against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless [a foul that requires no further disciplinary action], reckless [a yellow card offence] or using excessive force [a red card offence]:

  • Charges
  • Jumps at
  • Kicks or attempts to kick
  • Pushes
  • Strikes or attempts to strike (including head-butt)
  • Tackles or challenges
  • Trips or attempts to trip

This means that any incident that occurs in the box, which would be given as a foul outside of the box, is a justifiable penalty under the Laws of the Game. This applies even for the lowest level of fouls where a direct free kick is given but it does not warrant a yellow or a red card, deemed “careless” play – “when a player shows a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or acts without precaution”. The penalty given against Andy Robertson for Brighton would fall under this category. This means the criteria for awarding a penalty is now extremely wide.


Earlier I argued that the introduction of VAR has indirectly led to the increase in penalties as it has created an environment for on-field referees to feel more confident about giving penalties. This is especially true for penalties people would argue are “soft” – ones that fit that careless category and result in a foul but no further disciplinary action. Thus, referees now give more “soft” penalties for two reasons: (1) under the Laws of the Game it is a legitimate decision – whether we agree or not; and (2) because they now know VAR will correct the few occasions they do get it wrong.

What we are left with then are more penalties being awarded for minimal contact and when the referee does give it, VAR cannot overturn the on-field decision unless they show that (1) there was NO contact when the referee thought there was; or (2) that the offender TOUCHED the ball when the referee thought they had not. So, although VAR gets a lot of criticism when “soft” penalties are awarded (or not), it is actually the on-field referee’s interpretation that has the biggest influence on a decision standing or being overturn, and the majority of the time they are simply implementing what the Laws of the Game wants them to do.


What the introduction of VAR has done then is highlight how broad the standard for awarding a penalty is. Any incident that occurs in the box, which would be given as a foul outside of the box, is a justifiable penalty under the IFAB Laws of the Game. Therefore, even if VAR was scrapped – which many have called for – on-field referees should still be awarding the penalties they are because they are deemed direct free kick offences. Therefore, the question we should be asking ourselves is do we want THAT many penalties given per season?

My problem with penalties is that they basically give the attacking team a goal due to their high conversion rate. 83.1% of penalties have been scored this season (just over 4 in 5). It is no wonder teams and players are more likely to go down in the box if it means they have a direct shot at goal with only the goalkeeper to beat. Given the reward for winning a penalty is so high, shouldn’t the criteria for winning a penalty also be higher? Having a higher standard for awarding a penalty, such as for clear goal-scoring opportunities or yellow- and red-card offences, could reduce the incentive for attackers to go down easily when minimal contact is made. Instead, indirect free kicks could be given in the box for the lowest category of fouls, those deemed “careless” under the Laws of the Game. These changes would involve a radical rewording of how penalties are defined in the Laws of the Game, but I believe it would be a worthwhile one to halt the growing trend towards more penalties.

Four-Point Plan to Improve VAR and the Officiating Process in Football

“Minimum interference – maximum benefit”. That is the philosophy underpinning the Video Assistant Referee’s (VAR) application in football, with its pioneers hoping that while “it will not achieve 100% accuracy, it will positively influence decision-making and lead to more correct, and fairer, judgements”. Yet VAR consistently dominates in-match and post-match discussion for the wrong reasons, with fans, players and pundits expressing their disdain over its application. From frustrations over its forensic analysis of offsides and handballs to its overreliance on slow-motion replays, many believe VAR has disrupted the spirit of the game in favour of excessive officiating.

Instead of spending time complaining, however, it is time everyone involved in football has an open debate about how we can achieve a fairer balance between the sport itself and the processes and laws that govern it. This blog attempts to kickstart discussion by highlighting a provisional four-point plan to improve VAR and the officiating process in football. Though it is constructed primarily through the lens of the Premier League, I believe these four proposals could be consistently applied across domestic leagues and across all regional and international competitions. At the very heart of this four-point plan is the determination to install more spirit of the game into the process so that fan enjoyment and player and management buy-in are prioritised.

What makes VAR so frustrating?

Before analysing each proposal in-depth, it is important to understand why VAR is so frustrating for fans, players, and managers. The main problem lies with the VAR process, which feels cumbersome – slow, complicated, and therefore inefficient. Though we all want to see correct decisions made, it should not take ages to reach them. Football is a fast-paced sport and VAR needs to compliment that style, not be a hindrance. Also, there are still too many inconsistencies with subjective decisions, whether that concerns which incidents are sent to the Referee’s Review Area (RRA), or what VAR and the referee finally decide as the outcome. Though you will never remove inconsistencies completely, it should be the governing bodies’ aim to minimise them as much as feasibly possible through VAR. At present, they are falling short of our expectations.

The other problem concerns its wider impact on football. The excessive officiating of offsides, handballs and fouls in the box, creates a feeling that the spirit of the game is diminishing. The game feels pedantically policed rather than free flowing. This is not so much a criticism of VAR as it is simply implementing the laws of the game as stated by FIFA. However, VAR faces the brunt of fan and player frustration in these situations even though attention should focus on whether current interpretations of these incidents align with how we want football to be played.

We do not want to see numerous penalties given when the large majority of these are considered “soft”. We do not want to see defenders give up on the art of defending because it is physically impossible to keep their arms out of the way of every pass or cross. We would prefer to see more goals from open play, but this is also difficult now, given that a striker could be adjudged as being offside simply for having a larger shoe size. The balance between the spirit of the game and the laws heavily favours the latter at present. Proposals aimed at improving VAR and the wider officiating should try to rectify this, striving for a more equal balance that sufficiently takes the spirit of the game into account.    

This four-point plan thus recommends: (1) softening the defensive handball law; (2) incorporating a margin of error/attacking allowance in offsides; (3) reforming the VAR process – independent VAR officials, automatic pitch-side reviews for subjective decisions and a replay/time limit; and (4) broadcasting the communication between officials. The first two concern changing current laws of the game and their implementation by VAR, while the final two are aimed at making the VAR process more transparent, consistent, and fast. All four are necessary to allow VAR and the on-field officials to arrive at “more correct, and fairer, judgements”.   

Softening of the Defensive Handball Law

The handball law has become a particularly controversial topic in the 2020/21 season following FIFA’s insistence that the Premier League apply defensive handball more strictly to bring it in line with other European domestic leagues and competitions. Under FIFA’s interpretation, arms only make the body “naturally bigger” when by your side, because that is how your arms sit. Therefore, if your arms are away from the body, even if it directly correlates to how you may be moving (jumping, running, etc.), it is considered making the body unnaturally bigger than it actually is and a penalty can be awarded if the ball strikes your arm. This is enforced even when the incident results from a deflection off another player, signalling a “zero-tolerance approach” to defensive handballs in the penalty box.

Throughout the first few game weeks of the Premier League, this stricter interpretation led to numerous penalties. Some, such as the ones given against James Ward and Victor Lindelöf against Everton and Crystal Palace respectively, caused outrage and resulted in the Premier League tweaking its handball interpretation on September 30th. There is now a supposed “corridor of subjectivity” in which players will have their movement taken into account. Referees should now consider whether: (1) there is an ability to react; and (2) the arm is in an expected position given the player’s action.

However, both Joe Gomez and Max Kilman were penalised for handball offenses against Manchester City and Leicester City respectively in gameweek 8 following this slight relaxation, even though one could argue that one or both could have been waved away under the new interpretation. The incidents thus highlight whether this “slight tweak” has actually changed how defensive handballs are interpreted by officials, and if not, what should be done instead. FIFA’s “zero-tolerance” approach to defensive handballs makes it impossible for a defender to react naturally to pressure in the box. While we all want more goals, this should not be achieved at the expense of the art of defending. FIFA’s defensive handball interpretation does just that. It disproportionately punishes defenders for having their arms in “natural” positions when moving in the box.

To address this, softening the handball law should be a high priority. There are two potential ways to do this, both of which come with their own advantages and disadvantages. The first solution is to expand the definition of what constitutes a “natural arm position” so that it includes natural movement relating to jumping, running, etc, as well as a player’s ability to react. This would offer defenders more insurance in the box. However, this would instil a higher subjective element to handballs which officials would have to accommodate. This could lead to a less consistent application of handball again.

As FIFA seem to prefer upholding a level of consistency, the alternative is to look at mitigating the outcome so that players are not disproportionately punished for unavoidable handballs. Awarding a penalty for accidental handball feels like too extreme an outcome when the ball is not goal bound. Instead, indirect free kicks could be given for handballs in these situations. This still gives the attacking team an advantage without gifting them a direct shot at goal with only the goalkeeper as the line of defence. Indirect free kicks are an underutilised aspect of the game and could provide a creative solution to the handball problem, allowing officials to maintain a “zero tolerance approach” without disproportionately punishing defenders. The potential disadvantage to this could be the development of the “tactical” handball foul in the box, as defenders would prefer to give away an indirect free kick than a penalty. Nonetheless, it is worth investigating whether the potential benefit outweighs this consequence.

Incorporating a Margin of Error/Attacking Allowance in Offsides

Along with handballs, offsides have also been under the magnifying glass this season following a rule change that now sees the shoulder/upper part of the arm count as a goalscoring element. Sadio Mane and Patrick Bamford are two players who have had their goals disallowed under this interpretation, with crosshair technology indicating that they were millimetres offside. However, it is not the rule change that has fans, players and pundits frustrated but how offsides are perceived and implemented under VAR.

Offsides are viewed as “factual decisions” that are based on the evidence provided by fully calibrated offside lines. Under this crosshair technology, the decision thus goes down to the millimetre and does not require input from the VAR official unless they are judging whether a player has blocked the goalkeeper’s line of vision. Though offside technology is heralded by FIFA as the best available, there are three systemic issues which makes it questionable to trust and believe it on such tight decisions.

Firstly, there are subjective aspects of the application of the offside technology, specifically the exact parts of the attacker’s and defender’s bodies nearest the goal. It falls under the VAR’s responsibility to determine these measurement points and various officials may arrive at different parts. Secondly, the availability of the definitive camera angle showing (1) the exact moment of pass; and (2) all the relevant body parts, can never be guaranteed. The VAR must choose the first frame where the pass has definitely begun and the nearest body part to goal in the available footage. While in some cases it may be correct, in others it may not (some defenders will always be obstructed by the camera, for example), thus how can one definitively say a goal is onside or offside? Finally, it typically requires excessive forensic analysis to arrive at a conclusion, which takes on average 3-4 minutes – too cumbersome for fans, players and managers.

These three issues build a feeling that the guiding principles of offside have been lost under VAR. While it was brought in to mitigate wrongful calls by lines-people, its purpose was not to make everyone pedantic about offsides. Historically, there was an unwritten rule that the benefit of doubt must go to the attacker, which fits with the want of having more goals from open play. It comes down to whether you believe the attacker is seriously gaining an advantage in situations where they may be a few millimetres offside, which could be the difference between having a size 9 and a size 9.5 football boot. Many would argue they are not.

To restore balance back to attackers, a margin of error could be built into the system. Though FIFA rejected the Premier League’s proposal to incorporate one, the Dutch Eredivise is using a 10cm margin of error in their domestic league. This corresponds to the lines of the attacker and the last defender touching, as the lines are each 5cm thick. They work this with umpire’s call – i.e. whether the linesperson originally gave it as offside or not. While this margin of error should be adopted by all domestic leagues, I believe umpire’s call could be problematic given that lines-people are being told to keep their flags down and let play continue until the phase is over. Home advantage, “big six” advantage or an unclear view could negatively impact their ability to make a fair call. Instead, adding an automatic benefit of doubt to the attacker would put the sport back in line with its older offside principle while still maintaining consistency in application.

Though this would ease some frustration with offsides, it would not make the process any quicker. Nonetheless, FIFA is working on a semi-automated offside system which will slash the decision time by approximately 75 per cent. It will more accurately calculate the exact moment of the pass through the mapping of each player. Therefore, offsides will automatically be signalled to the VAR rather than after a 3-4 minute wait; although the final decision will still fall to VAR officials as there remains the subjective element of deciding whether such player is active in play. This new system coupled with the incorporation of a margin of error/attacking allowance could make offsides feel less frustrating and unjust.

③ Reforming the VAR process – VAR officials, the standard for pitch-side reviews and a replay/time limit for decisions

VAR officials as independent advisors

Currently, VARs are match officials whose appointments are announced for each game week as part of the refereeing team. This means one week a match official may be the on-pitch referee, and the next they could be reviewing incidents from Stockley Park. Utilising referees in this rotation raises questions about whether the VAR process is truly independent and objective. This is compounded by the threat of exclusion from officiating the following gameweek if you are adjudged to have made a serious error – as the on-pitch referee or the VAR.

By using referees, we have created an environment of fear and upheaval that leaves VARs lacking the confidence and authority to evaluate incidents objectively. This lack of separation between the two spheres has contributed to the inconsistency in the decision-making process. VARs appear scared to send certain incidents for review and on-field referees appear reluctant to stick with their original decision and overrule the VAR.

Therefore, VAR as a system would work more effectively if the VAR officials were not current referees. While understanding the laws of the game is essential, previous experience officiating matches is not because it is not needed to review incidents independently. Rather, it is important that VAR officials have this separation from on-field referees as it gives them the freedom, confidence, and authority to make an accurate assessment without fear of retribution.

In addition, both the on-field referee and the VAR require different expertise and skillsets. The on-field referee is responsible for managing and officiating the game in real time. They are the ones that must make the big decisions in a split-second. On the other hand, the VAR official is there to judge offsides and cases of mistaken identity, and then to ensure that a red card or penalty has not been missed or harshly given by the referee. Therefore, for subjective decisions, the process would be more consistent if the VAR was viewed as an advisor or overseer rather than the decider. This would hopefully lessen the headline-grabbing performances by VAR as well.

Expand the number of VAR officials overseeing each game

In addition, an argument can be made for expanding the number of VAR officials overseeing each game. At present, there are two VAR officials – the VAR and Assistant VAR (AVAR) – plus a Replay Operator. The AVAR is there to assist the VAR when needed. However, the incident involving Jordan Pickford and Virgil van Dijk in the Merseyside Derby provides the perfect example for why a larger and less hierarchical team of VAR officials is required.  

During that particular incident, there were three separate elements to be investigated by VAR: (1) whether van Dijk was onside or offside; (2) if onside, whether there was a penalty to Liverpool; and (3) whether Pickford should have been sent off for his tackle on van Dijk? The post-mortem is not clear but it appear David Coote (the VAR) did not analyse the potential red card for Pickford, either due to a lack of time or because there was a miscommunication/misunderstanding as to whether it was relevant. This was a major failing for the VAR process and the officials operating it, highlighting that perhaps the current system is ineffective in dealing with complex incidents that comprise of various elements.

To resolve these shortcomings, there could be three “VARs” who can be used simultaneously to analyse different aspects. For example, when a goal is scored, one could check for offside (if needed), the other could review the attacking phase for a foul, and the final VAR could continue monitoring play. Utilising one VAR to review each aspect not only saves the time taken to make a decision as they can be reviewed simultaneously, but it also increases the probability or arriving at an accurate interpretation because they can devote their attention to just one aspect instead of being overwhelmed. This would help ensure complex situations are reviewed in an effective and efficient manner.

Automatic Review of Penalties and Red Cards on the RRA

The “high bar” standard used to decide whether an incident is sent to the RRA refers exclusively to subjective decisions – fouls in the build-up to goals, red cards and penalty decisions. Under the current interpretation, the incident must be “clear and obvious”, i.e. “is there any clear evidence that this should/shouldn’t be given?”. The VAR is thus looking for evidence that the on-field referee has definitely got it wrong, instead of observing the incident independently. This places doubt in the minds of VARs, who are clearly lacking in confidence – or authority – to advise more incidents to on-field reviews in the RRA. This is in spite of the fact that the Premier League Shareholders agreed to an increased use of the RRA for subjective decisions ahead of the 2020/21 season following calls from fans and pundits the previous year.

This is the wrong position to take given that we want to see the on-field referee taking ownership of subjective decisions. For this to occur, subjective decisions must be automatically referred to the RRA. The pace and intensity of football is too fast and relentless for the on-field referee to form a good understanding of every incident that happens in real time. They base their decisions on a gut reaction which could be due to an unclear view of the incident. Therefore, they need the VAR to tell them when an incident requires a further examination.

However, at present, sending incidents to the RRA has a feeling of confirmatory bias, that is, the on-field referee always sides with the VAR’s conclusion. In fact, only once this season has an on-field referee overruled the VAR and stuck with their original decision. This could indicate that the system is working, as only “clear and obvious” errors should be sent to the RRA. But this in itself is subjective, as the reversed penalty decisions against Aston Villa and West Brom in game week 9 showed, with fans and pundits arguing whether both situations met the “clear and obvious” threshold for review.

To make the RRA work more effectively and consistently, the “high bar” standard should be removed to give the VARs the freedom to send subjective decisions for review. If the on-field referee gives a penalty or a red card, these should be automatically reviewed by themselves in the RRA, while any missed incidents also should be sent to the RRA by the VAR official. This would allow the on-field referee to take ownership of major match decisions and should make the review process more consistent, removing confirmatory bias by placing emphasis on an independent assessment of the situation, rather than grading the referee’s original decision.

Incorporate a Replay or Time Limit

A consequence of sending subjective decisions for automatic review in the RRA could be that more time is lost during a match. Until the change is implemented, it would be impossible to determine how much this could be but there are two solutions that could help mitigate this by restricting the amount of time officials spend looking at incidents. You could either incorporate a replay or time limit into the decision-making process. A replay limit could consist of three replays – one in slow-motion to identify point of contact and two in real-time to check for intensity. Alternatively, the referee could be given a 30-second time limit to review incidents in the RRA, at which time if a decision is not reached, a penalty or red card cannot be awarded. Both would cut the amount of time used on VAR during matches, while also easing the perception that officials are overanalysing incidents. This would help make the VAR process faster and clearer for spectators and players.

Broadcast communication between officials

The final part of our four-point plan to improve VAR and the wider officiating in football concerns broadcasting the communication between officials. This has been called for by fans, managers, and pundits for many seasons now and would certainly (1) help make the decision-making process more transparent; and (2) help spectators and players understand the logic and reasoning behind certain decisions. Other sports such as cricket and rugby have managed to include referee communication into their game successfully and football would be no different. While it is certainly true that refereeing decisions are subject to intensified scrutiny, a significant proportion of the criticism comes from a lack of understanding of why a certain decision has been given. The officiating bodies should be striving to bridge this gap between referees and spectators, which will help alleviate some of the pressure on the matchday refereeing teams. Shielding them only serves as more ammunition for conspiracy theories regarding corruption and incompetence. It is time referees and spectators formed a more mature relationship, and broadcasting communication between officials will help achieve this, as well as keeping spectators up-to-date with developments and what the VAR and the on-field referee may be reviewing. It will engage spectators in the process and create a more favourable perception of VAR in the long run.