MONDAY'S BIG HEADLINES

Big Rom's big mistake

If you thought you were nursing a prolonged New Year hangover after sinking a few too many proseccos while trying to live through Ed Sheeran on the Hootenanny, spare a thought for Romelu Lukaku, who ushered in 2022 by conducting an interview so badly that he was axed from the Chelsea squad for one of the best games of the season, and now faces the wrath of his club bosses at a meeting today.
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Sunday witnessed one of the truly great Premier League matches - or more accurately, perhaps, one of the truly great Premier League first halves - as Liverpool and Chelsea put on the kind of display which made a mockery of their respective managers’ anguished complaints about the Christmas schedule.
This was a rip-roaring, sensational 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge which in Mohamed Salah’s sleek wiggle of the hips and near-post finish and Mateo Kovacic’s jogging-backwards-while-casually-thumping-a-20-yard-volley-in-off-the-post effort featured two quite brilliant goals. Who needs a rest when two of the elite teams in the country can put on a show like this?
The best match of the season so far came in the thick of the most congested period - with Covid impacting the line-ups and even the sidelines as Jurgen Klopp sat at home isolating, working his way through his last remaining Quality Streets. And yet, even after this life-affirming display of pure Barclays, on the front page of the Guardian sport section, the match is reduced to a mere score graphic with the main focus on the story which overshadowed even this grand occasion: Romelu Lukaku’s fairly extraordinary decision to go public with his misgivings about life at Chelsea and desire to return to Inter at some stage.
It was, according to Graeme Souness, "totally disrespectful. He's 29 years old not 19 and he should know better. This damages the football club enormously. It's like walking into a dressing room and telling the other guys, 'I don't want to be with you anymore'.”
Lukaku’s sit-down with Sky italia could be the most badly-judged interview since Prince Andrew plonked himself down opposite Emily Maitlis. But in a weird kind of way it’s only reinforced Thomas Tuchel’s authority. Lukaku complained about his situation under the German. Tuchel dropped him to near universal agreement and praise from the media. Many Chelsea fans seemingly agreed with that course of action. And Lukaku is poised to get a dressing down from the club today in a further meeting which, again rather curiously, he seemingly revealed in a series of messages with Tim Howard.
Modern football clubs obsess about controlling the message. Having your most expensive player appear on Italian TV in an unauthorised interview and then firing off WhatsApps to friends in the media with mini updates certainly is not that. And Chelsea have no option but to come down strongly on such errant behaviour.
The bigger question is the extent to which this was calculated - and the timing, coming so close to the start of the January transfer window, rather suggests that Lukaku wanted to get a certain message out there. Still, either way, The Warm-Up appreciates Lukaku wanting to start 2022 with some messy drama for us all to get stuck into.

VAR under fire, again

Gabriel Magalhaes of Arsenal is shown a second yellow card leading to a red card by Referee, Stuart Attwell for a foul on Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on January

Image credit: Getty Images

Saturday’s headline match was also overshadowed by controversy, as Manchester City nicked a 2-1 win at Arsenal in injury time, assisted by some generous decisions from referee Stuart Attwell and his VAR associates. Leading to, naturally, some very level-headed responses from Arsenal fans who accepted the decisions as part of the normal flux of the season. Or perhaps not.
Firstly, Martin Odegaard was denied a penalty when one replay showed that Ederson had struck his foot first when flinging out his own leg to try and push the ball away. The fact that two other angles suggested the opposite probably justified the decision to say that Attwell had not made a clear and obvious error. Later, City were awarded a penalty when VAR showed that Granit Xhaka had pulled Bernardo Silva’s shirt in the box, even if Silva was clearly exaggerating contact.
Two key decisions which both went against Arsenal - who in the first half had produced a sublime performance against the best team in England, and probably the world. Admittedly frustrating for any Arsenal fans, but the reaction to and coverage of the decisions was ridiculous, with nearly the entire focus of the match trained on these two outcomes, when Arsenal also managed to miss an open goal through Gabriel Martinelli and saw centre-back Gabriel sent off for two stupid yellow cards in the space of a few minutes.
There was genuinely talk of dark conspiracies amongst the game's officiators in an attempt to help City win the league. As conspiracy theories go, refs wanting City to come top of the table (because they… rate Guardiola’s style of play?) is hardly QAnon. Let’s at least have some deep state agitators. MI5 infiltrating the PGMOL and Mike Riley being a GCHQ plant. What was he doing for a weekend in Cheltenham in 2002 anyway? Refereeing an FA Cup game?? Wake up sheeple!!
The whole embarrassing furore did however illuminate an issue around why VAR is fundamentally unfixable as a concept in the Premier League.
VAR was supposed to make life easier for referees but it unwittingly promised supporters a level of accuracy and consistency in refereeing decisions which was never realistic. VAR sounds like a benevolent algorithm with the capacity to make perfect decisions and remove any controversy from a season of Premier League football when in truth it’s a bunch of dudes in a room in a business estate in West London who are terrified to open Twitter when they get home.
All VAR did was replace one layer of human judgement with another. But humans are messy creatures. We aren’t consistent. We aren’t perfect. Which is why VAR was always going to be as flawed as the previous system - and in fact is now much worse as people have a much higher expectation that the ‘correct’ decisions will made, even if perceptions on what the ‘correct’ call is will vary depending on the bias of the person perceiving the incident. It's an impossible situation, getting worse, and there's no way out of it now.
However, the really important thing to remember is that there is no referee conspiracy against your club. Pretending there is is not only stupid, but incredibly damaging in terms of the culture which is being created around match officials.

Messi catches Covid

The omicron wave appears to be impacting more than just English football with Covid ripping through La Liga, severely affecting player availability at Real Madrid and Barcelona over the past week.
And yesterday the news came through that Lionel Messi had also contracted the virus along with three of his team mates, ruling him out of Monday night’s French Cup match. The forward is apparently in Argentina and will travel when his isolation period is over.

IN OTHER NEWS

Not a bad effort.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

The transfer window is officially open and that means that from today, we will be running a daily live blog covering all the comings and goings across January (hopefully there will be some).
Join us from 8am each morning across the January window as we chart Newcastle’s desperate attempts to sign five players and somehow stay in the Premier League.

RETRO CORNER

Now the Premier League title race is officially over by January 3 - what are you going to do with your time? How about watching Sky One's classic series Dream Team from start to finish?
Here's episode one:

COMING UP

The Premier League football keeps on coming as Manchester United take on Wolves this evening. Join us for live commentary on that one.
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