Drop the Drop Ball Nonsense

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Peak Refereeing Discourse in the Premier League

The Incident at Nottingham Forest

It would be nice to think we’ve reached peak refereeing discourse madness in the Premier League. We’re scraping the bottom region of the barrel, certainly, but then just a few short days ago who’d have imagined there’d be days-long hullabaloo regarding a wrongly awarded drop ball. There are always new depths of manufactured controversy to be plumbed.

Not that you need reminding, but Liverpool won 1-0 at Nottingham Forest on Saturday thanks to a Darwin Núñez goal, which occurred after the home side failed to clear a corner.

The goal was scored with 98:37 on the clock, when the fourth official had indicated a minimum of eight minutes of stoppage time. This has been a point of contention for many rival fans and Forest supporters.

Greater furore still emerged over the incorrect awarding of a drop ball to Liverpool by Paul Tierney, the only referee with whom Jürgen Klopp has a problem (his words, not mine). That it took almost two minutes for Liverpool to then score was immaterial, this was apparently an injustice of the highest order.

Opta’s chalkboard illustrates that a lot happened between the drop ball and the goal

After the game, Forest wheeled out their referee analyst, himself a former Premier League whistler, Mark Clattenburg. He explained to the watching millions around the world, not in the UK, where Tierney had gone wrong.

The following day, Mike Dean, another ref from yesteryear, said that the drop ball gaffe was a “monumental error”. “Unfortunately for Paul [Tierney], it is a mistake and it is a bad one,” Dean said. “It leads to a goal, eventually. There has been a big fallout and rightly so – it’s a big error.”

Perspective on Officiating Errors

It was an error roughly on par with giving a throw-in the wrong way, it could barely have occurred any further from Forest’s goal and took almost two minutes for Liverpool to then score. Is that worthy of “a big fallout”?

But then look at to whom we’re listening here. People aggrieved about the goal occurring after the indicated added time are too dense to understand the meaning of the word ‘minimum’ so their opinion is not worth worrying about. Forest had two players cautioned within the first three minutes of stoppage time for time wasting; watching it back they appear a little harshly treated – Morgan Gibbs-White took 31 seconds over a corner when 33 is average, before Danilo committed a foul and then took a shot in the same movement – but once those decisions occurred there was inevitably going to be more than eight minutes played.

Then there are the ex-referees passing comment in different capacities. Clattenburg once admitted he went into a match with a game plan to allow Tottenham to self-destruct in a title-deciding game in 2016 and is now the referee on TV’s Gladiators. A celebrity referee’s view on proceedings is worth shed loads, clearly.

Similarly, Dean once failed from his position at Stockley Park to get referee Anthony Taylor to conduct a VAR review. “I didn’t want to send him [Taylor] up because he is a mate as well as a referee, and I think I didn’t want to send him up because I didn’t want any more grief than he already had,” he said. Everybody makes mistakes but it seems like theirs never keep on stinging.

Shifting Opinions

Finally, we had football pundit Jermaine Jenas. Just after 5pm on BBC Radio Five Live he was blaming the goal on Forest not clearing the corner: “in those moments of the game, you’ve got to look at it and think: “we’ll take a point here,” clear your lines and secure things.”

But by the time Match of the Day rolled around less than six hours later, his bone of contention had changed. “I think it’s a really shocking decision,” Jenas said. “The time thing is valid, the game completely is different at that particular point. It’s time added on, Forest have got Liverpool under pressure, Hudson-Odoi might get another corner, another shot on goal. To release that pressure at that moment, at that point in the game, it’s massive. It’s a big one for Forest to have to take.” If a week is a long time in politics then in football it’s positively aeons based on this.

And all this over a dropped ball. Had it been awarded to Forest, maybe they score. But maybe the team with the most counter attack goals in the Klopp era breaks from the home side’s set piece and scores themselves? Lord knows they’ve done that sort of thing enough times in the past.

Liverpool’s Young Talent and Key Absences

It’s a real pity this has dominated the post-match narrative, as it has overshadowed a battling performance by a the joint-youngest starting XI Liverpool have fielded in the Premier League this season and with 10 players (including many key men) out of action.

Darwin Núñez collected his fifth decisive goal of the Premier League campaign (by Transfermarkt’s definition), the joint-most in the division. The Reds have won seven matches in all competitions by exactly one goal in 2023/24 and the Uruguayan has either scored (three) or assisted (one) four of the winners. For two of the others, he wasn’t on the pitch. Never mind the missed chances or the goal total, bathe in the value of many of his contributions this season.

But as people are so intent on discussing refereeing decisions, let’s discuss them. There’s no way to know which team benefits most from incorrect refereeing calls. We could ask PGMOL, but as they usually claim somewhere in the region of 105% of decisions are correct, that would be pointless.

VAR Overturns and Liverpool’s Advantage

ESPN keep track of the VAR overturns, though, which offers a little insight. In the almost five years since video reviews were introduced in the Premier League, Liverpool have received two more overturns in their favour than have gone against them. If we disregard offsides, as they are objectively determined by lines – though conspiracy theorists don’t trust them – then the Reds’ have a net gain of one subjective decision. Seventeen for, 16 against; a positive difference of one across 179 matches, 0.006 per game.

Things could be far worse for Liverpool. Bournemouth are -10 for subjective VAR overturns, while Wolves and Norwich are on -7, the latter with only two seasons in the top flight in this era. It’s only fair to compare on a per-match basis and doing so reveals that Nottingham Forest has benefitted most frequently.

Was the club’s owner on the pitch when they gained from these overturns? Were the club’s former players and lifelong fans passing comment on these decisions on radio and television? Did former referees offer their views on the advantages Forest gained?

No. Of course not. And nor should they have. Whatever your view on the standard of refereeing in English football, the job has never been more difficult nor come under greater scrutiny. If we’re losing our heads over a drop ball which has no distinct material effect on a match, there’s very few places left to go. You can be certain someone will manage to sink even lower before too long though.

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