West Ham’s opening goal this afternoon was fortuitous, with referee Bobby Madley failing to spot a foul by Michail Antonio in the build-up. At half-time, replays showed that Antonio hadn’t made contact with the ball when dispossessing Alberto Moreno and that play should have been stopped before he galloped up the other end to head his side into the lead.
Twenty-two seconds between Michail Antonio winning a tackle on his own byline and heading West Ham into the lead from the six-yard box.
— Seb Stafford-Bloor (@SebSB) January 2, 2016
As valid and accurate a point as that is, referees can’t give what they don’t see. It was Liverpool’s misfortune that the incident occurred in area of the pitch which wasn’t in plain view of any of the officials (the linesman was on the other side of the pitch) and Madley couldn’t really have been expected to see the tackle for what it was. From his perspective and from the angle offered by the television camera, it appeared as if Antonio had made a clean contact and there was no obvious sign that a foul had been committed. If the point of contact can’t be seen, then referees might look for other indicators: the path of the ball, the angles of the competing players, or something else which looks unnatural.
But there were none of those and in real time it looked like a fair challenge.
Does that make it better? No, but if referees are obliged to guess at decisions, then their instinct is generally going to be err on the side of a free-kick. Unless a player has obviously been impended, the game shouldn’t just be stopped because of what might have happened. We all like criticising officials and we all enjoy the catharsis of attributing losses and the concession of goals to poor decisions, but there has to be an acceptable margin of error. If that doesn’t exist - and if punditry teams continue to play dumb to the notion of a wholly understandably mistake - then the game will suffer.
As hard as it might be to tolerate, this was just bad luck. It was the combination of an unfavourable angle, an obscured view and a move developing at a quicker rate than might have been anticipated. It happens, it’s the kind of decision which will be mistakenly made in almost every game played this weekend - only in this particular instance, a minor footnote became crucial because Liverpool failed to defend the counter-attack which followed.