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What’s the Point? How a Horrific Injury Exposed the Problems of the Premier League

BY MATTHEW COWLES

The aftermath of the Andre Gomes injury in Everton's November match against Tottenham Hotspur.

Author’s Note: Because of how awful the injury to Andre Gomes was, there are no images of the foul or the injury itself. Videos are available of the play in question online if interested. I wish Gomes a continued full and speedy recovery.


In early November, Tottenham Hotspur played Everton in a run of the mill, midtable, Premier League fixture. It was a battle of two teams struggling under the weight of heavy expectations; especially Tottenham, who entered the day sitting in 13th position after reaching the Champions League Final the season before. By the end of the day, none of the conversation surrounding the game would be about the game itself. Instead, the soccer world was swirling about a horrific injury, a red card incorrectly given, and the struggles of video assistant referees (VAR).


Make no mistake, this was an ugly game. The two teams combined for only five total shots on goal, with 17 fouls and four cards handed out by referee Martin Atkinson. The first goal came in the 60th minute, followed by a penalty controversy in the 70th. Spurs midfielder Dele Alli looked to have committed a clear handball in his own penalty box; Atkinson waved it off, and sent it to VAR to review. After a five minute review, VAR stood by Atkinson’s decision on the field.


This is not the first time VAR has denied what has seemed to be a clear penalty after a lengthy review. In fact, this has been an incredibly common feature of the Premier League this season. Nearly twice a week, VAR has refused to grant what many view as clear penalties after the referee on the field has initially waved them off. Before the horrific injury to Andre Gomes even took place, this game was already marred by VAR controversy.


Dele Alli's handball in the 70th, not given after a lengthy VAR review.


Then, in the 79th minute, catastrophe struck. After being elbowed in the face by Gomes a few minutes before, left uncalled by Atkinson, Tottenham forward Hueng Min Son dove into a slide tackle from behind as Gomes moved up the field. This is a foul that occurs countless times every Premier League game. In fact, some teams such as Manchester City and Liverpool, instruct their forwards to commit these types of fouls when the opposing team looks like a danger on the counterattack. Nearly every sequence of this nature plays out the same way: the opposing player gets tripped, the forward receives a yellow card, and play resumes with a free kick.


But this time, as Gomes tripped, his foot planted awkwardly in the turf. As his momentum carried him forward, his leg twisted behind him. He then collided with Tottenham right back Serge Aurier, and his ankle turned completely behind him. Immediately, it was clear this injury was horrific. Son immediately burst into tears. Aurier vacated the scene and began praying for nearly ten minutes. Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford sprinted to the side of Son and attempted to console him. Then, in the aftermath of this horror show, Atkinson lost control.

Immediately after Son lunged in, Atkinson prepared to give him a yellow card, which is customary of a foul of this nature. However, after seeing the injury sustained by Gomes, Atkinson then changed the card to red, sending Son off and leaving Spurs to complete the game with only 10 players. This became crucial, as Everton went on to score the equalizing goal in the 97th minute of the game.


Once again, VAR had the opportunity to step in and rectify the situation. The tackle was not malicious, not aimed to injure, and not typically a red card foul. Once again, VAR did nothing. (The red card was retroactively rescinded by the FA, and Son’s suspension waived). This begs the question: what is the use of VAR if it refuses to make the tough decisions? Situations like the Dele Alli handball and this Son tackle are exactly why VAR was instituted: to overturn refereeing decisions that are incorrect and cannot be seen by just the on-field referee. Unfortunately, the video referee refused to overturn the awful decisions by Atkinson.


This moment shined a light on a greater problem in the Premier League.

First, although what happened to Andre Gomes is truly horrific, this is a foul that occurs multiple times a game in every Premier League game. The referee, in this case Martin Atkinson, should not be retroactively changing his decisions based on the fact that a player got hurt. The foul is a yellow card foul, night in and night out, regardless of outcome. It is hard to imagine that Son dove into the tackle with the intent to injure Andre Gomes, and what occurred after the tackle cannot be blamed on Son. This incident was a freak accident, a one in a million situation that turned into a horrific injury. The decision of the English FA to overturn Son’s red card after the game supports this view.


Secondly, what is the point of VAR if it will never overturn a decision on the field, regardless of the emotion surrounding the moment? First with the Dele handball, in which, according to commentators, “VAR did not have access to the definitive angle”, and then again with the Son tackle, VAR refused to overturn Atkinson, despite clear video evidence of him being wrong in both cases. There is no good explanation for why this would be the case. In the case of the Dele handball, it is inexplicable as to why the TV feed would have a definitive angle proving a handball, while the referees of the game would not. And in the case of the Son tackle, VAR clearly did not want to become involved in such an emotional, controversial moment. So I ask again: What is the point?


I love VAR when it is implemented properly. Unfortunately, the Premier League has completely botched the rollout of VAR. Combine this with referees who are so susceptible to crowd reaction (Atkinson sending off Son), or just genuinely blind (Atkinson again, with the Dele Alli handball), and the Premier League is losing all credibility surrounding its referees and VAR.

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