Thursday, 18 January 2018

A Step Too VAR? How Video Technology Can Perpetuate Further Injustice

It was an historic moment. Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho had the ball in the back of the net, and wheeled away in celebration only to find the flag raised. On any other day, this would have dashed his hopes of doubling The Foxes’ lead and putting the FA Cup third-round replay against Fleetwood to bed. Not on this occasion: this was a fixture in which the ‘video assistant referee’ was being trialled, and Mike Jones duly informed on-field official Jon Moss that the goal should stand. Cue celebrations from Iheanacho, but also from most of the wider footballing community.

Were these celebrations premature? Certainly Iheanacho’s were not – he and his teammates were left standing around while Mike Jones pondered the tight call, and it was not until after the referee gave the signal that muted hugs and high-fives ensued. What of the jubilation further afield, where this intervention of VAR was lauded as the ushering-in of a shining new era for football? Unfortunately, those piling on the superlatives do not appear to have fully considered the consequences of the system. Some standard criticisms are well-rehearsed: amongst these is scepticism as to how well games will flow when they are prone to be interrupted by referrals, and it has to be said that the working of the technology in this instance did nothing to alleviate those concerns. However, it is a less talked-about consequence of the technology that provides the real sticking point.

Here is the issue. Imagine, for a moment, that Kelechi Iheanacho did not take on the early shot after running off the back of his marker, but instead opted to control the ball and work an even better shooting position by looking to go around the goalkeeper. By this time, the referee would have responded to his assistant’s flag and brought back proceedings – at this point, VAR is of no assistance. Unless the ball has actually been put in the back of the net only to be (initially) ruled out for offside, an assessment of the linesman’s call is out of the question: to take the scenario where Iheanacho looks to round the keeper, the referee can hardly order all of the players to return to the exact positions they were in at the point play was stopped in order to see how the passage would pan out. Not knowing for sure that a goal would have been scored, even though the finish would surely have been a formality, the officials cannot award the goal even once the incorrectness of the offside call has been established. Taking the keeper out of the equation is just as valid as the deft chip the Nigerian actually opted for, and would almost certainly have resulted in the same outcome, but this is disregarded under VAR – one gets the benefit of the technology, and the other does not.

There are two potential responses to this problem: one looks to dismiss it, the other to solve it. The solution that might be proposed is a modification of the situations in which the referee blows his whistle. Indeed, Graham Poll alluded to this as a consideration when giving his opinions in the immediate aftermath of the goal being awarded – the suggestion was that in his position as a referee in a match including VAR, John Moss should have made sure he delayed his blowing of the whistle until after it had become clear whether or not Iheanacho would score. In this way, the game would never be stopped prematurely on the basis of an incorrect decision from an assistant referee, and where the decision did turn out to be correct the ‘goal’ could be chalked off without much difficulty. However, neat as this sounds, it does not solve the problem. Bearing in mind that the vast majority of offside decisions are correct, how long does the referee let an attack run for before he acknowledges the flag? What even constitutes an ‘attack’ which he should let run in the first place? In 2013/14, Liverpool travelled to The Etihad to take on Manchester City. They took an early lead, and looked to have carved out a great opportunity to double it when Raheem Sterling was put clean through on the counter. Such was the high line of the hosts, this occurred on the halfway line: the offside flag was erroneously raised. There is no obvious answer as to what a referee assisted by VAR should have done in this scenario; on one hand Sterling was clean through and the play should have been allowed to unfold, with the offside call left for assessment afterwards, but on the other hand receipt of the ball on the halfway line could hardly be said to constitute an attack. Had Sterling been offside, as the linesman believed, allowing the move to continue would have meant allowing an entirely pointless break half the length of the pitch. There are no workable criteria on which to judge when and for how long the referee delays acknowledgment of an assistant’s flag, and this solution duly fails.

With no solution, proponents of the technology have to look to simply dismiss the issue that is posed by the possible variation in circumstances surrounding offside calls. The principal line of argument is that, while some would-be goals will inevitably still be disallowed, VAR nonetheless reduces injustice by correcting the situations where a goal immediately follows a stray offside flag and consequently lowering the total number of wrongly disallowed goals. It would be churlish to suggest that this argument is completely without merit. Certainly, it is at least arguable that a scenario where some wrong offside calls are corrected is preferable to one where none of them can be changed. However, this is not as inevitable a conclusion as it sounds. The current situation, though it produces immense frustration on a fairly regular basis, can at least say that it makes all teams and all match events equally susceptible to suffering unfairness by way of refereeing error. This equality is, perversely, a form of fairness: it acknowledges human error as an inescapable part of the game, and ensures that these errors are not channelled into a few specific areas. Video technology, meanwhile, produces a further category of unfairness by only functioning to correct errors of a particular type. It has been shown that this flaw is inherent – were there an effective way for VAR to eradicate all refereeing mistakes, there would of course be no controversy. Given this, it has to be asked whether it is a welcome addition to the game. A match where one valid goal is mistakenly flagged for offside and another stands is a cause of great consternation to fans; a situation whereby one mistaken call was corrected and another was left to stand would surely provoke even more outrage.

This is not a fatal blow to the case for video technology. There are undoubted benefits of VAR, and if it was to be brought in on a more permanent basis then fans and players alike would no doubt adapt to it before long. However, the problem of offside goals at least gives cause for consideration: there is a danger of getting swept away on the wave of hype generated by Iheanacho’s goal, when really it showcased the flaws with video assistants as much as the advantages. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City: Post-Match Analysis

Few games sum up what it is like to support Liverpool better than the classic that played out when the runaway league leaders, Manchester City, came to Anfield.  Fans felt joy, frustration, elation and then panic as the game unfolded – ultimately they came away very happy indeed, as Klopp’s men held on for a win that deprives City of their unbeaten record in the league and fires Liverpool into third place. Familiar defensive frailties reared their heads, but it was the attackers’ day. The front three, supported by a strong showing from the midfield, were all exceptional; this was reflected in the sheer class of each of the four goals, which were worthy of winning any football match.

Liverpool went into this game in the knowledge that they had a fighting chance. Manchester City’s unbeaten run would undoubtedly have been daunting, but Klopp’s side are putting together quite a string of results themselves: seventeen undefeated before this game. Further, City are the sort of side Liverpool love to play against – only the very best offensive teams back themselves to come to Anfield with real attacking intent, and this leaves space in behind of the kind which Mane and Salah simply love to exploit. There was something of a question mark over whether this weapon would be quite as effective without Coutinho to pick out the explosive runs, but it is fair to say this question was answered emphatically. Inside ten minutes, Liverpool had the lead: it was another of the pacey players, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who scored it. Firmino’s typical pressing presented the ball to the midfielder in the attacking third, and his driving run caught City on the back foot. Nobody was quick enough to close him down, and his strike from distance rifled past Ederson and into the bottom corner. On any other day it would have been the best goal of the match; today it was probably the least remarkable of Liverpool’s four, but it was vital in that it turned the strong start into something tangible. There was no relenting after the goal, and City continued to find themselves hustled and harried; it was apparent that this was a side used to being given time to play an expansive game and pick their way through, and they did not look comfortable in the face of the press. For this, all of Liverpool’s midfield must take great credit – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Can and Wijnaldum all played their part in forcing turnovers. When in possession, Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular were instrumental in preventing such turnovers from going against them – both of them showed excellent awareness and calmness on a number of occasions to ensure possession was not squandered cheaply. 

Despite this promising and assured performance, Liverpool did not manage to go in at the break with their lead intact. They will feel that they deserved to do so, but they can only blame themselves for the manner in which the equaliser was conceded. For a third time in recent weeks, Joe Gomez had difficulty dealing with a raking cross-field ball – Sane was able to nip in behind him, and after cutting inside he somehow managed to beat Karius at his near post. Gomez can perhaps be afforded some leniency, given that he is young and playing out of position; the German stopper is also inexperienced, but it is difficult to see how a good goalkeeper in any stage of his career manages to concede so cheaply. Klopp’s decision to play him is understandable, given that Mignolet is hardly inspiring either and Karius at least has time on his side in terms of development – it has got to a point, though, where the manager has to seriously question whether either of them are good enough for a side with ambitions as lofty as Liverpool’s.  The attack showed that they remain more than functional even in the absence of the mercurial Coutinho: Klopp may have just had his mind made up for him about where the money from that sale should be invested.

Still, it would be an injustice to the game and the performance to dwell on the unsatisfactory goalkeeping situation – what followed was vintage Liverpool, with all the brilliance and madness that this entails. As the second half began, there looked to be a danger of Klopp’s men deflating; for all their endeavour they were still level on the score-line, and for a short time they played the dangerous game of just absorbing City pressure. Before long, however, things clicked back into gear: the manager said after the game that the only way to beat Guardiola’s team is to attack them, and this is what they set about doing. It was Firmino who restored the lead, in staggeringly good fashion. Salah knocked a ball for him to run on to; Stones looked the firm favourite to get there, but the Brazilian shrugged him off with ease. He then glanced up at the onrushing Ederson and calmly clipped the ball over him and in at the far post – the instantaneous transition from brute strength to sumptuous finishing was reminiscent of Suarez in his prime. Firmino is one of many who can stake a claim to Man of the Match. Oxlade-Chamberlain is another one whose name has to be in the mix, while Andy Robertson is doubtless a contender as well. He delighted the Anfield faithful by frustrating Sterling all game, thwarting him at every turn – this culminated in a booking and early substitution for the former Liverpool man, who will not have enjoyed his return.

City were shaken by conceding – just a minute later they were seemingly let off the hook when Mane struck the woodwork. He was not to be denied, however: yet another attack came after another minute or so, and this time he slammed the ball emphatically into the top corner. As against Burnley, it was an explosive finish on his weaker side: the technique required cannot be underestimated. Not to be outshone, Salah completed a remarkable ten-minute spell for the team with an outrageous goal of his own. Ederson made a rare mistake with his clearance, no doubt shaken by the relentless Liverpool siege, and the Egyptian swept the ball into the unguarded net from all of thirty-five yards as if it was the easiest thing in the world. It feels like this is said every week, but it just gets truer and truer: thirty-five million pounds is one of the greatest bargains of recent years.

Manchester City, the team being understandably treated by most as the champions-elect, the team producing some of the best football in the history of the Premier League, thus found themselves 4-1 down. This is testament to Liverpool’s immense array of attacking firepower, as well as Klopp’s skill in harnessing and optimising it. If he can keep this exciting, talented group together then there is no denying that they can go on to produce special things: seldom has such a good opponent been dismantled with such ease. However, if any sustained success is to be enjoyed, the goings-on at the other end of the field have to be rectified sooner rather than later. Even at 4-1, nobody was treating the result as a foregone conclusion – Liverpool fans have seen too many collapses to take anything as a given. Sure enough, City were allowed to muster a late fightback: Bernardo Silva found himself free in the box to turn the ball home in the 84th minute, and in the first of four minutes of added time Gundogan was left similarly unmarked to make it 4-3. In less stressful circumstances Lovren’s attempt to intercept the cross would have been comical. There was nothing funny about the possibility of letting such a good, hard-fought position slip, however: Klopp’s fury was evident on the touchline. Virgil Van Dijk has only played one game for the club, but already he is a big miss in his absence: aside from the fact that he would undoubtedly have prevented at least one of the two late goals, the calmness that he exuded against Everton would have been highly welcome in this fixture. In the end, though, it didn’t matter: Liverpool clung on for victory, and nobody could say they didn’t deserve it.

It was football at its best: breathless, scintillating, enthralling and full of quality. Both sides were somewhat suspect at the back, but this only served to add to the spectacle. It can only be good for football that City’s unbeaten streak was taken from them in this fashion – the prospect of an ‘invincibles’ season was wrested forcefully away from them, rather than nicked by a parked bus and a lucky goal. At any rate, it was certainly good for Liverpool: the win is all the sweeter for Chelsea and Arsenal’s dropped points, and the top four picture is looking as good as it has all season. In the post-match elation, even the fifteen-point gap doesn’t feel completely unassailable! Realistically, the title charge may have to wait for next season: on today’s evidence, though, Liverpool’s rivals better sit up and take notice of them when it comes to the next campaign. 

- Folow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Friday, 12 January 2018

No Kane or Lukaku: New Year, Same Strategy

The halfway mark in the season has come and gone, and there is still no sign of Kane or Lukaku in my fantasy team. Even more significantly, the first double gameweek – featuring Tottenham, no less – has passed without any particular incident. Frankly, this is a minor miracle: while managers flocked in their hundreds of thousands to give Kane the triple-captaincy, I doubled up on the Tottenham defence, got in Alli, and hid behind the sofa. The somewhat unfortunate withdrawal of Sanchez after 58 minutes in the first game and the Obiang wonder-strike in the second prevented a good week from being great, but a leap of around 150,000 places was more than I dared to hope for going into the gameweek. As it stands, Chicken Tikka MoSalah sits inside the top 400,000 for the first time since gameweek 4. Not something to write home about, perhaps, but enough to further validate the strategy - and apparently enough to warrant a blog post to the internet at large.

Of course, this upturn in fortunes is largely down to the wholly unconvincing form of Romelu Lukaku. After an annoyingly prolific start, the United frontman has managed just two goals in his last eight; he was also forced to sit out all but thirteen minutes of the two most recent games, following a concussion suffered early on against Southampton. Despite this slump, he is still owned by nearly a quarter of all players: £11.3 million is a very significant chunk of the budget to be taken up by somebody offering such average returns, and conversely a very significant saving to invest elsewhere for those who have opted against him. In my team, the money is probably best viewed as funding investment in Kevin De Bruyne – this is somewhat arbitrary, in that he is one of a number of ‘premium’ players in the squad alongside Morata, Salah and Sterling, but Morata is essentially a Kane alternative and of the three premium midfielders De Bruyne is the principle differential from those who have opted for the big guns up front. His high starting price, combined with a natural inclination of many fantasy managers towards wingers rather than central playmakers, has kept the Belgian’s ownership well below that of the other two; he is even owned by fewer managers than Lukaku, despite outscoring his compatriot to the tune of around forty points. This has been a big part of my recent progress under the no Kane/Lukaku strategy.

As expected, the ‘no Kane’ limb of the idea is the one causing the more problems. I may have got through the double gameweek unscathed, but this did come on the back of consecutive hattricks for the English marksman – Burnley and Southampton were on the receiving end, but the real victim was my fantasy team. The striker’s ownership is only a little shy of 50%, so in the blink of an eye almost half of managers had a seventeen-point headstart on me for two weeks running. This is before his popularity as a captain pick is factored into the equation. There was some consolation in the fact that people who were giving Kane the armband were not going for Salah, so his returns of 10 and 9 respectively kept my head above water; the performances of Firmino and the inspired selection of Ederson, who kept two clean sheets and saved a penalty, also prevented calamity. Nonetheless, another strong showing from Kane in the double gameweek would have brought my season to a grinding halt – Alli’s squandering of the first chance laid on by the striker, only to tap in the rebound, was nothing short of heroic. Such slices of luck cannot be relied upon to keep Harry down forever, though: normal service will likely be resumed before long, and when it does I need to be able to rely on my alternative.

As has been the case throughout the season, it is this part of the team that is proving the hardest to nail down. Firmino has been a near-permanent fixture in the second striker slot, and has been a great success, but the truly premium forward has yet to properly pay off for me. Aguero, Jesus, Lacazette and Morata have all taken stints in the role: it recently occurred to me that any one of these would have done at least a decent job had I just picked one and stuck with them, but with the chopping and changing I’ve probably managed to lose out on points. With that in mind, I decided to give Morata a proper run in my team – this could hardly have been worse-timed, as he picked up a knock and then proceeded to showcase some truly horrific form over the next two fixtures. However, the underlying statistics show that he should start finding the back of the net again soon – the plan going forward is to stand firm in the face of his tumbling price for at least the next couple of gameweeks, and re-assess from there if he is still struggling. He has a nice run of fixtures on the horizon, so with any luck he will be able to recapture some of the returns he was putting up at the start of the season.

Morata woes aside, though, there really isn’t much ground for complaint. The big savings from eschewing Kane and Lukaku have generally been invested on premium options that are delivering at similar or better rates, and even most of the budget punts have paid off to some extent – Loftus-Cheek has posted some handy numbers, and I’ve definitely made worse rogue picks than Demarai Gray. There is only one further thought to add – agreeing to stick to this strategy at the start of the season has thrown up an interesting benefit that I simply hadn’t envisaged. Quite apart from the personnel involved, a self-imposed rule against tinkering with a particular aspect of the team has saved me points simply by preventing me from jumping on short-term trends a week too late. Without the rule, Kane would almost certainly have come in for the double gameweek only to blank; Firmino would likely have been in and out a lot too, and the erratic nature of his returns mean it would have been very plausible to own him for significant periods but miss his points altogether. Even if the self-imposed Kane ban is relaxed for next season, I will certainly continue to heed its lessons about not tinkering too heavily.

    -Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Friday, 5 January 2018

Coutinho: Thank You and Goodbye

As Philippe Coutinho moves ever closer to swapping Liverpool for Barcelona, many fans have started to turn on him. The anger is understandable – no supporter wants to see a great player leave, least of all through pressurising the club into a sale. However, taking a moment to reflect on things, it is apparent that it would be grossly unfair on Coutinho to let this less-than-ideal end to his time at the club, be it in January or in the summer, cloud his entire time on Merseyside. Faced with a “definitive” club statement saying he was not for sale in August, the Brazilian was left with little choice but to agitate for the transfer or else give up on his dream move altogether. Of course, any Liverpool fan would have preferred him to decide that he was happy to stay at the club indefinitely; this is not realistic, however, so the next best that could be hoped for was that Coutinho would continue to put in world class performances while still a Liverpool player. This he has done: from the moment it became apparent that he would not get his move last summer until the possibility of the transfer re-emerged this month, Coutinho has played the best football of his life, helping Liverpool occupy a top four position and progress to the knockout rounds of the Champions League for the first time since 2008. This is the culmination of five years of quality in a red shirt: he has earned his move, and it is spiteful to begrudge it to him just because he hasn’t shown unwavering loyalty of the sort rarely ever seen anymore.

It highlights the realities of the modern game that Philippe Coutinho is currently one of the club’s longest-serving senior players, behind only Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge. There are only an elite group of three or four clubs in the world who can hold on to their best talent indefinitely: if one of these superpowers comes in for a world class player, sooner or later he will be off. Frankly, Liverpool can be thankful that they have managed to get five years out of Coutinho – his talent has been apparent from his dazzling first six months in the second half of the 2012/13 campaign, and in the past season-and-a-half he has added the sort of consistency possessed by only the top players. In that time, he has helped guide the club to the Champions League and subsequently contributed significantly to getting them out of the group stage as winners: none of the current squad were here when that feat was last achieved, and it cannot be underestimated. Of course, this was a team effort, but Coutinho’s presence has been a constant inspiration to the side: he is one of the most technically gifted players to ever pull on a Liverpool shirt, and on more than one occasion he has salvaged points on his own with his uncanny ability to score from long-range. To forget all of this and turn against him effectively just because he has the audacity to want to make his dream move is petty and na├»ve: his departure will not erase his contributions.

Of course, there is more to it than that. One thing many fans seem particularly angry about is the manner in which he has tried to leave, as opposed to his simple desire to go to Barcelona per se. However, it is hard to comprehend exactly what such fans wanted him to do differently. Having been made aware of Barcelona’s interest relatively close to the start of the season, given that said interest was only really prompted by the Catalan giants’ shock loss of Neymar in early August, Coutinho made it clear that he wanted to go. This was unfortunately timed, in that the start of the new campaign was just a week away, but it would be illogical to be angry at the Brazilian for not pushing for a move before there was even any concrete interest. In contrast, he was at fault for what followed, if (as seems likely) his ‘injury’ was faked. It is never acceptable to refuse to play for your club – this is particularly true given that Coutinho had committed to Liverpool with a new long-term contract just months previously. However, there was an obvious mitigating circumstance that at least made his actions understandable. FSG released a statement that their ‘definitive stance’ was against selling Coutinho – for him to see that, while knowing that the club he was desperate to play for were bidding for him, would obviously have been difficult to take. It is not hard to grasp why he felt the need to take extreme measures to push for his move. Certainly, his actions have precluded him from ever being mentioned in the same breath as club legends; there is nothing, however, to prevent him from being remembered fondly as a brilliant player who provided five years of great memories.  

This is all the more true when the recent actions of a certain Virgil Van Dijk are considered. He was welcomed as a hero on Merseyside, having pushed hard for his move for the best part of six months – it goes without saying that fans are bound to be happy when great players want to join and upset when they want to leave, but the sheer suspension of logic required to deride Coutinho and celebrate Van Dijk is staggering. The Dutch defender refused to play for long stretches between August and January, and when he did play it was clear his heart was not in it: one report even suggested he remarked “why wouldn’t you want to play here?” to a teammate, having just been soundly beaten at Anfield. The chairman remarked that the protracted saga “left a cloud” over the club, and Southampton now find themselves just one place above the relegation zone. During the same period, Liverpool’s wantaway key asset was producing the sort of football that even draws begrudging praise from bitter rivals, and that ensured Liverpool have had a successful first half of the season. It could be said that getting on with playing at a high level is the least that should be expected, and there is some truth in this, but the conduct of Van Dijk -and, looking elsewhere, Alexis Sanchez – shows that in the context of modern football it is far from a given. Logically, it can either be the case that continuing to do your best is deserving of some respect, or else that Liverpool have signed somebody who has worryingly poor attitude problems: if what Coutinho has done since the summer is the minimum standard to be expected, Van Dijk has fallen below it. Nonetheless, there didn’t seem to be much concern about the attitude of our new acquisition when the signing was announced: there was near-universal celebration, and rightly so. Players pushing for big moves is a part of the game: it is better to accept that this is all Coutinho has done, and remember him for his brilliance, than to get engulfed in bitterness.

Nobody is happy to see Coutinho go. Nobody is happy about the manner in which it has come about. Ultimately, however, he is entitled to want to go to one of the biggest clubs in the world: he has gone too far in pushing for such a move, but that is very understandable. He has got on with playing beautiful football since the summer, on an even more consistent basis than that which he has treated fans to over the course of his five-year spell at the club: this is his legacy, and it is wrong to simply discard it because of a sour ending.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013
See @PhantomGoal's counter-argument here: