Was this a red card? That’s the obvious question, but not the most important one. Instead of wondering whether Craig Dawson denied an obvious goal scoring opportunity, we should be asking how the game can give its lead officials the most information possible.
Sometime over the last three years, the conversation about video review hit a tipping point. We went from protecting the sanctity of the game’s flow to wondering why some basic instances can’t be subject to review. Advancements in goal line technology have started to alleviate the need for human eyes to scrutinize soccer’s most important events, but there are a litany of other plays where the potential impact offsets the pain any delay would cause.
Today’s early red card in Manchester was one of those examples. In the second minute, a horrific back pass from center back Gareth McCauley seemed to put Manchester City forward Wilfried Bony in on goal. Right back Craig Dawson made a last ditch effort to stop the chance, one that sent Bony to ground. The Ivorian bounced back up, pursued the ball into the box, and was taken down again (this time by McCauley) before players reacted to the whistle.
Referee Neil Swarbrick had called the initial foul, eventually showing a red card for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity. Only amid the confusion and surprise of the play, Swarbrick lost track of who committed the first foul. Instead of sending of West Brom’s No. 25, Dawson, the Baggies’ No. 23 was sent walking. Though there was some cosmic justice in McCauley being sent off, Swarbrick misidentified the player.
There are a number levels where review would have helped. The first is in judging the foul. Did Dawson actually commit an infraction? It seems yes, but when there’s a potential for a second minute red card, you might want to be sure. Video review would help.
Then there’s the denial aspect. It’s possible Dawson committed a foul that wasn’t an obvious denial of a goal scoring opportunity. That’s for Swarbrick to judge, but it’d help if he had all the information available. Video review would help here, too.
Then there’s the obvious: The misidentification. Dawson should have walked. Instead, McCauley was sent to the showers. The difference didn’t matter on Saturday, but it’s easy to imagine a circumstance where it would have. If the officiating crew was allowed to use replay for nothing more than verifying player numbers — practically an administrative task — the game would be better off.
Then there’s the potential for a late foul. No, not an additional foul, but if Swarbrick judged that Dawson’s challenge wasn’t a foul and ruled that his whistle had yet to blow, he could have then decided wither McCauley’s challenge was worthy of whistle, one that could have drawn a penalty and a card. Again, review would have helped.
We usually hear three arguments against review. One centers on accepting fallibility as part of the game – a view that’s more preference than an actual argument. The second centers on game flow. We should not disrupt the game, the argument goes, often refusing to acknowledge that disputed calls already disrupt games. As Swarbrick blew his whistle, took time to evaluate, issued his card and dealt with the aftermath, the game came to a complete stop. There was no flow. In this instance, video review can’t disrupt something that doesn’t exist.
Then there’s the slippery slope argument. If you’re going to review plays like these, where do you stop? This is the easiest argument to address, mostly because we’ve already seen a version of it play out. Once upon a time, people wondered: if you start reviewing goals, where do you stop? We’ve stopped at goals. Now we’re having another, related discussion, and when this is settled, we may have another. This is less of a slippery, uncontrollable slope than a measured process defined by a series of detailed, considered debates. There’s nothing inevitable about it.
Was Dawson’s challenge a red card? Our view on that doesn’t matter. Swarbrick made his call, but on plays that can redefine games, it’d be nice if officials had all the tools available. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify denying those tools.