There was a big refereeing error in the match between Tottenham and Liverpool and Liverpool at the weekend (1st October). A Liverpool goal was ruled out for offside by the on-field refereeing team. In the English Premier League, there is a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system which allows on-field decisions to be scrutinised by a group of officials with access to video technology.
This system was meant to reduce controversies around refereeing decisions, allowing officials to re-watch events in slow motion and use visualisation technology to catch obvious errors. However, it has been controversial since its introduction.
In the weekend’s match, the off-pitch officials confirmed the decision of the on-field team that the goal was offside, and the goal was disallowed. Unfortunately, it was apparent even to the casual viewer that the player was, in fact, onside. Liverpool lost the match 2-1 in a game filled with contentious refereeing decisions. Liverpool issued a statement after the match stating ‘sporting integrity (is) being undermined’ and indicating their intention to ‘explore the range of options available, given the clear need for escalation and resolution’.
This being football, there were also dark mutterings online of a potential conspiracy. Given the scrutiny of these matches, this is highly unlikely; it is far more probable that this is a simple case of human fallibility.
So what happened?
We don’t know the full details, but based on the media reports, it appears that the VAR official thought that the initial decision had been to allow the goal. Therefore, they (correctly) followed their checking process, determined that the player was onside, and reported back to the on-field team that their check was complete. This was taken as confirmation by the on-field team that their initial decision was correct. They allowed the match to restart with a free kick (after which point there is no opportunity to alter decisions taken), presumably to much consternation in the VAR room. Therefore, the failure was in the understanding of the initial decision by the VAR official: they thought the initial decision was that the goal was good.
Usually, we are asked to identify likely human failures in high-hazard industries. Football refereeing is also a high-stakes occupation, where critical, albeit not life-threatening, decisions are taken. Similar factors to those we consider in our day-to-day work, such as a pressurised working environment, which affects the likelihood of communication failures, are also present.
Again, we do not know the full details of the system used by the referees or the procedures they follow. However, based on the media reports, we can make a couple of observations…
Firstly, the use of the term ‘check complete’, if this is the language used, is interesting because of its neutrality; it carries no information about the direction of the decision. It is ambiguous and, as appeared to happen here, is open to misinterpretation depending on the context. This in turn, limits its value in terms of supporting recovery from the initial failure. More specific language, such as ‘player was onside – the goal is good’, would reduce ambiguity and would help the on-field team query any details of the communication.
Secondly, the fact that the VAR official has to communicate their decision creates an opportunity for failure. Some refereeing decisions are, broadly speaking, factual, and others are subjective. For example, decisions about whether the ball has crossed the goal line or if a player is offside are factual, whereas judgments about the severity of a foul are subjective.
There is an existing electronic system for determining whether the ball has crossed the goal line. In this system, there is no intervention from the VAR official; the referee is directly and unambiguously informed by the system that the ball has crossed the line.
The same type of communication would be possible for offside decisions. Whereby, once the VAR official, in conjunction with the system, has determined the fact of offside, this could be electronically communicated to the official.
The purpose of the Safety Critical Task Analyses (SCTAs) that we perform for our clients is to proactively identify critical failures, including communication failures such as those described above, and to suggest potential improvements to reduce their likelihood or support their recovery. Our first suggestion is an example of an improvement to the Performance Influencing Factors (PIFs) affecting the task, whereas the second is a Hierarchy of Control (HoC) improvement. These are the two types of improvements that must be considered when performing an SCTA.
Importantly, this type of methodology can be applied to any human interaction where there are significant consequences associated with failure. This can be for existing tasks or where there are proposed changes, such as when new technologies are being introduced. Well-designed technology, implemented with an understanding of its operating context, can support human performance and help to prevent and catch errors. If this is not done, there is the possibility of failures simply moving from one role to another, in this case from the on-field referee to the VAR official, or, in the worst cases, create opportunities for new types of failures.
If you want a beginner’s introduction to this approach, then we have a FREE mini-course that is only 30mins long and demonstrates how Human Factors SCTAs can help improve task performance in a variety of different contexts, including medical device design, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and at oil, gas and chemical plants.