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Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Rui Patricio injury an accident just waiting to happen

Monday night could have been so much worse.

Rui Patricio of Wolverhampton Wanderers (AMA)
Rui Patricio of Wolverhampton Wanderers (AMA)

Not just for the player and his club, but for the Premier League and the game’s lawmakers.

The sight of Wolves goalkeeper Rui Patricio being stretchered off the field of play after a lengthy delay was sobering for so many after the events of last November, when Raul Jimenez was carried off at the Emirates Stadium in far worse circumstances.

The relief at Premier League headquarters late on Monday evening must have been huge. Patricio was fine, according to Nuno Espirito Santo, or at least as well as anyone can be who has just collided with the kneecap of a centre-back travelling at speed.

And the empty stadium spared the authorities from angry scenes that could have further undermined the credibility of officiating in these VAR-ridden times.

Just imagine the froth and fume of supporters had that incident been played out in front of a full house.

An offside Mo Salah burst through on goal and instead of the linesman flagging, play carried on needlessly and Conor Coady clattered into his keeper.

Now, had the flag gone up there is no guarantee that a collision would have been averted, but it is a reasonable enough assumption to suggest Coady would have eased up in his efforts to prevent a goal.

Importantly, the assistant referee was not to blame, here.

Back in September, the Premier League announced the new guidelines for the application of VAR, which included the directive for assistant referees when it came to raising the flag for ‘tight offside calls’.

The key lines are as follows: “When an immediate goalscoring opportunity is likely to occur, the assistant referee will keep their flag down until the passage of play is completed.

“Once a goal is scored or the chance is gone, the assistant will then raise the flag to indicate the initial offence. If a goal is scored the VAR will then review the offside judgment.”

For many months, supporters, commentators and pundits have been suggesting that this rule has led to an accident waiting to happen. Patricio will recover soon enough, but what if that had been something similar to Jimenez’s injury, or a broken limb?

The very nature of these offside calls is that by not raising the flag, the striker is being allowed to run through on goal. In a goalscoring opportunity such as Salah’s against Wolves there will be last-ditch clearances, collisions and tackles.

This is not the same as allowing play to continue in midfield, or the ball being passed around the back.

These are the key moments in games. The high alert moments when players are stretching, diving in, throwing their bodies on the line to either score or keep the ball out.

Naturally this leads to more intense contact moments. The game’s authorities really need to look at this and understand the gravity of the potential for injury in these moments.

Then there is the question of the on-field officials themselves.

The introduction of VAR has steadily undermined their decision-making and authority. Look what happened to Lee Mason earlier this month at The Hawthorns. It takes a lot to find sympathy with some of Mason’s stranger performances, but the free-kick incident involving West Bromwich Albion and Brighton & Hove Albion was entirely blown up by the processes of VAR.

Essentially, Mason allowed Brighton’s Lewis Dunk to take a free-kick, realised Albion goalkeeper Sam Johnstone was not set and then blew his whistle again a fraction of a second before the ball crossed the line. He disallowed the goal. In the pre-VAR era that would have been the end of the matter.

Instead, the technology served to confuse the official further as he received instruction in his earpiece from Stockley Park. This undoubtedly led to him doubting his initial decision and, under added pressure from the Brighton players, he reversed his decision and awarded a goal.

Finally, the technology showed that his initial decision was correct and he reversed the decision again.

The problem referees and their assistants have is that they know they themselves are being refereed from above by VAR. Officiating in the Premier League today has been reduced to an act of supervising rather than decision-making.

The linesman’s first instinct at Molineux on Monday night was correct. Salah was offside.

The overwhelming majority of offside decisions are called correctly.

VAR has eliminated the few errors that existed in really tight offsides, but the infuriating wait as line after line is drawn on the frozen frame of action is too high a price to pay.

Football cannot be reduced to a single freeze frame, yet in the desperation to reduce offside into the minutest binary moment the application of common sense has been removed.

It is impossible for those with the flag to operate to the best of their ability under the cloud of knowing that whatever decision they make will be re-examined back at Stockley Park.

If this has turned into another column knocking VAR then so be it.

When supporters do finally return to stadiums after an unbearable absence, they deserve better than to be confronted with the messy situations that have unfolded all over the pitch this season.

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