The Officiating Conundrum
The deciding factor in Saturday’s Merseyside Derby was, without question, the excessively influential role played by the referee, Craig Pawson. Not that this particular official is an outlier in terms of being any more or less competent than anyone else handling matches in the Premier League; he is merely symptomatic of the way regulating games of football has drifted over the years. The rules of the beautiful game have become overly complex, moving away from providing a necessary framework which allow matches to proceed fluently and fairly, towards being an active impediment to flow and enjoyment.
The most obvious example of this growing trend has been the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) over the last few seasons - a tool ostensibly brought in to provide additional support for the officials physically present on the pitch, in order to eliminate serious real-time officiating errors. Instead, VAR has thrown up a new layer of controversial decisions for supporters to feel aggrieved with, done nothing to dispel suspicions of partiality and reduced the instantaneous delight a fan feels in seeing their team score a goal, arguably the most important aspect of the game.
VAR, sadly is here to stay, as the prevailing winds in the regulation of football blow in the direction of an increasing desire to mechanise the game to the nth degree: from the maddening tendency to rule out goals scored from open-play for the most hair-splitting of offsides, to the rewarding of penalties for marginal contact, or defending players simply being unfortunate. The officials on the pitch are relentlessly drilled into this type of rules interpretation and now - just in case they miss an opportunity to punish the slightly mistimed challenge, the inadvertent handball, or a player possibly being an inch offside - VAR is there to overcorrect further.
It is the role of the matchday officials to prevent dangerous, or persistent fouling, clear cheating (intentional handball and diving) and taking unfair positional advantage (the reason for the creation of the offside rule), whilst doing their utmost to refrain from creating an unbalanced contest by sending players off. Seeking perfection in arbitrating something as inherently chaotic as football - with human involvement - is tantamount to chasing El Dorado. VAR has so deftly demonstrated that when the attempt detracts from the enjoyment of spectators, then the cure is worse than the sickness.
Pawson failed in this at the weekend. Ashley Young committed two offences, was booked for both and the Blues were abruptly reduced to ten men with more than an hour to play. At that point, what was ostensibly an sporting contest intended to bring entertainment to the viewer, devolved into one of attack versus defence, with the visitors focused on preserving the goalless stalemate. By the laws of the game, Young deserved to go, but the punishment for Everton was out of proportion to the player’s offences. His first booking, for a professional foul was deserved, but the referee could have used a little latitude in the second instance, which was a mistimed tackle.
The veteran fullback was foolish to go in the way he did on a yellow, but in today’s environment there is little allowance given for error. Pawson was clearly in more charitable mood later in the game, when Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konate took out a breaking Beto in midfield, with no intent to play the ball. The referee’s arbitrariness made a farce of the supposed efficiency and attempt to regulate the game perfectly, as ultimately it came down to one random man’s interpretation of an event. A more relaxed, less dogmatic approach to on the pitch rulings is a vague hope, but one that would affect the game to a less drastic degree.
As expected, Sean Dyche put out the same team that had trounced Bournemouth 3-0 at Goodison a couple of weeks earlier. The way Everton set up to play came as little surprise also: a compact 4-4-1-1 formation, with Abdoulaye Doucoure up almost alongside lone striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, the intent being to soak up pressure and to break on the Reds. The first part of the plan worked very effectively, as Liverpool enjoyed the lion’s share of possession (74% during the first period), but failed to create any significant chances, accruing a mere 0.52 xG (Expected Goals) tally from eleven attempts - just one on target - by the end of the half.
Vitalii Mykolenko, often derided as substandard by Blues fans, showed once again that when given a mostly defensive role, he can excel. Mohamed Salah may have ended up being awarded the Player of the Match gong by virtue of his two goals – one from the penalty spot and an unmarked tap-in deep into added time at the end of the game – but was largely kept quiet by the Ukrainian. Everton’s central defensive pairing of James Tarkowski and Jarrad Branthwaite continue to improve their understanding and complement each other well. The experienced ex-Burnley warhorse puts his body on the line, as shown by him blocking four shots, whereas the youngster uses his pace and an impressive reading of the game for one so relatively tender in years, leading the team with eleven ball recoveries and tying Mykolenko with three interceptions.
In midfield, seemingly everyone’s desired tandem of Amadou Onana and James Garner were a mixed bag. The Belgian continued his recent good form and although his numbers were nothing exceptional, his athletic presence blocked off Liverpool in their efforts to play through the middle and he alone of the visitors showed composure in possession, with a 75% pass completion rate. Perversely - and this is one of those occasions in which the raw statistics do not tell the full story – Garner struggled in his preferred central position. He was generally starved of the ability to impact the game, enjoying relatively few touches, passing poorly when given the opportunity (a dismal 51.9 completion percentage) and seemed confused as to which opposition players he should be picking up, or pressing. As a result, he was often marking empty space, being easily bypassed and perhaps over-eager when on the ball.
Unfortunately, for all their defensive resilience, the Toffees utterly failed to execute in transition. When playing an essentially counterattacking strategy, it is vital to move the ball quickly and accurately when shifting onto the offense. Instead, Everton were careless in their passing, players demonstrating a poor first touch and too often running into blind alleys, or coughing up the ball too easily. As a consequence, a number of initially promising breaks sputtered out without challenging the Liverpool defence unduly. At one point, around the half hour mark, the TV coverage showed a passing accuracy percentage of 48.0 for the visitors, which confirmed the eye test. Devoid of a genuine attacking threat, the game became one of frustrating the hosts, hoping that something favourable occurs, and this was only exacerbated with Young’s dismissal.
Dyche was put into a difficult position by Young’s error and the referee’s decision to issue marching orders to the defender in the 37th minute. After making it into the dressing room still level at the interval, he chose to remove both wingers, Jack Harrison and Dwight McNeil, replacing them with new right back Nathan Patterson and adding a third centre back, in Michael Keane, shifting formation to a 5-3-1. Obviously, the Blues boss had decided to dig in for the point and initially this appeared to be paying off.
Despite Liverpool dominating possession to an overwhelming degree, the visitors managed to keep the Reds at arm’s length until they finally cracked in the 75th minute, Keane needlessly giving up a handball penalty, which Salah slotted home calmly. Calamity seems to follow the defender, who can play a generally sound game, but with an unforced error lurking around every corner. The team really has to make an effort to bring in a more reliable third centre back in January, as neither Keane nor Ben Godfrey are of the required standard, but are just an injury to one of the starters away from featuring, which should scare every Blues fan.
The Toffees gave up any hint of an attacking threat with the changes. Although the two wide men had been ineffective - as had Everton’s other major progressive player, Doucoure - with just the Malian midfielder offering any support to Calvert-Lewin and possessing no width whatsoever, the team became predictable and lacking an out ball. With the striker isolated and seeing precious little of the ball, the decision to replace him with Beto after an hour was a sensible one. Dyche did go for it after the visitors fell behind, throwing on Arnaut Danjuma and Youssef Chermiti, but Everton’s efforts to attack were easily dealt with, as evidenced by a meagre second-half xG of 0.04 from three long-range attempts.
Whether the manager was right to try to shut down the game with 45 minutes to go is a moot point. With eleven versus eleven Everton were offering some threat, even if they weren’t taking advantage, but at Anfield and a man down, retaining a more offensive team would likely have resulted in a heavier defeat. As it is, the Blues have lost a game that few expected anything from, by a relatively excusable margin, got out of it intact (minus the suspended Young, which may be a bonus, as Dyche was showing every sign of selecting him at every opportunity) and can look ahead to the weekend trip to West Ham United without having had their morale dented too much.