<
>

The WSL is rife with refereeing controversy: Is VAR needed, or are managers deflecting accountability?

play
How Arsenal beat Tottenham in front of a record WSL crowd (1:24)

ESPN FC's Sophie Lawson joins Mark Donaldson after Arsenal's 4-0 win over Tottenham in front of record WSL crowd of 47,367 at the Emirates. (1:24)

In 1998, Gwyneth Paltrow, complete with questionable English accent, raced through a London tube station and narrowly missed her train. In an alternate reality, Paltrow, or more specifically her fictional character Helen Quilley, managed to squeeze through the closing doors, and that's where things got interesting. The theme of "Sliding Doors," for those not familiar with the 24-year-old cinematic masterpiece, is that something as inconsequential as missing a train can completely change the entire course of your life.

No, you haven't clicked the wrong article -- this is indeed about officiating in women's football -- but let's take "Sliding Doors" and scale it down into a footballing scenario.

Let's think about the endless actions in a game that could change the outcome. I'm not even talking about a player opting to wear a different pair of cleats or a manager making a substitution, but just what those on the field of play do or don't do over the course of 90 minutes. Each individual decision and calculation made by a human being in real time.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)

Football fans are used to seeing managers in the men's game talking after a match and declaring that if the referee awarded his team a penalty, they would have won. But that's utter nonsense: let's say the game this imaginary coach is talking about ended 0-0, then of course yes, if you add one goal onto his team's tally, that's three points. But a penalty in normal time only has a 75% or so probability of being converted, so 25 times out of 100, this coach would be incorrect. It's a cheap talking point or deflection -- nothing more.

But let us think more broadly: what happens if a penalty is taken and scored in the first 10 minutes? The next 80 minutes of the game is unlikely to follow the same flow as the original 80 given that one team would be chasing. Or what about if the team in question was already down a goal? Would they have been comfortable with a draw had their spot-kick been converted, rather than chasing an equaliser and leaving themselves open to concede again?

The possibilities are endless -- well, relative to a football match, at least. And this is where the WSL could really use VAR, which managers have argued it deserves considering its top-flight status.

On the opening day of the 2021-22 Women's Super League season, Reading had a valid goal ruled out for offside. Already a goal down, the Royals were picking their moments to attack and in the aftermath of the disallowed goal, Manchester United broke and scored their second, essentially killing the game.

After the match, United coach Marc Skinner made the argument that Reading didn't have much momentum after his team's second goal, and that one goal for the visitors therefore wouldn't have meant much. Yet at 1-1, where the game was when the goal was ruled out, the outcome takes on a different complexion.

Two days later, some 200 miles south, Beth Mead scored from an offside position to help Arsenal complete a 3-2 win over Chelsea, amplifying the questions about officiating, VAR (video-assisted refereeing) and GLT (goal-line technology), two technology acronyms that the WSL lacks. The losing manager on the day, Emma Hayes even went as far as to say that it was as if women were being treated as second-class citizens without such technology in the WSL.

In 2018, the WSL moved to a professional set-up, with each team obligated to be run on a full-time basis even if this only meant a minimum of 16 contact "working" hours per week. It was a landmark move by the FA to accelerate the growth of the women's game, yet it meant that parts that would have naturally evolved over time found themselves left behind, from sports science to officiating to everything in between. Just because the players were training more didn't mean the entire game had stepped up.

However, the officiating in the Super League and the second-tier Women's Championship has come along leaps and bounds in recent years, not least with the founding of PGMOL's Select Group: Women's Professional Game. Headed by director Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb, the group oversees the officiating in the top two tiers and is constantly pushing the standards and feeding back to the referees, assistants and fourth officials.

As Steinhaus-Webb is keen to highlight, a referee can make up to 300 decisions over the course of a match -- multiply that by the 264 matches in an WSL season and everything is contextualised to roughly 79,000 decisions. Unsurprisingly, the former referee would rather see the emphasis land on the tens of thousands of decisions that are right to the letter of the law, with those moments and her charges commended, rather than the handful or so that range from grey to outright wrong.

Save for a few controversial decisions last season, including one in which referee Abigail Byrne accidentally blocking the path of the ball en route to a goal, which sent Twitter into a frenzy -- the decision taken by the referee during the match, that few could agree on, was indeed confirmed to be the correct one -- the rest of the WSL season passed without too much incident. Yet here we are again, barely into a new season and the topic of conversation is once again Gwyneth Paltrow films of the late '90s... but also, refereeing.

Following a raft of marginal offside calls and non-calls over the first weekend of the season, most of which remained inconclusive thanks to limited camera angles, Reading manager Kelly Chambers had a fair grievance last Sunday in the second round of matches. At the AMEX, with Reading and Brighton still deadlocked, Deanna Cooper ghosted around the defence to nod home a whipped free-kick, yet the celebrations from the visitors were short-lived as the assistant on the far side swiftly lofted her flag for offside. The problem, as clearly highlighted by Reading on Twitter, was that Cooper started her run from deep and was still three yards onside when the ball left Rachel Rowe's boot.

On the back foot for the majority of the first half, the Royals came out fired up after the break already a goal down. If Cooper's goal had stood, there's nothing to suggest that the game would have followed the same ebbs and flows and that they would have come away with a point or three -- the match finished 2-1 in Brighton's favour.

After the match, Chambers was clearly and understandably not happy: her team operates on a smaller budget and is the only one in the WSL not backed by a Premier League team, which makes for a more precarious season. Speaking after the loss the manager went as far as to say "if this officiating is not addressed, it's going to start costing managers jobs."

Unfortunately, Chambers may well be right that losing streaks and poor results could have a deeper impact as the women's game starts to mirror the men's. However, in instances where we've seen managers dismissed early -- Jean-Luc Vasseur at Everton or Pablo López at Atletico Madrid -- visibly speaking, it's been the performances that have caused the poor results, not the margins defined by referees.

Interestingly enough, Chambers went on to say, "That's the most frustrating thing: no consequence can come of the officials, but a manager's career hangs in the balance." Yet as we saw over the Euros with Riem Hussein, who controversially awarded Ellen White a penalty after minimal contact during the opening stages of England's group stage clash with Norway, the referee did not take charge of another match at the tournament after that game. To say there is no reprisal isn't necessarily correct, and certainly not with the Select Group reviewing each match and each decision.

Officials do not exist within a vacuum, and just like footballers and managers are subject to performance reviews, the same can be said for those with the whistles and flags.

Furthermore, in most cases, they have a better idea of the rules than anyone else in the stadium, as the debate around Byrne's unintentional intervention during the game between Manchester City and Arsenal proved. The referee followed the letter of the law and the managers who questioned her where not in the right -- although with IFAB incessantly fiddling with the rules, one can get left somewhat behind.

The question starts to become: has this referee actually done a bad job, or is the coach taking a cheap shot to deflect from dropped points and/or a subpar performance? Be it Chambers, Arsenal's Jonas Eidevall or Manchester City's Gareth Taylor who, after his team's loss to Chelsea on Sunday cast doubts over whether a penalty should be awarded for a handball in the box if the ball was, as he put it, "going over the stand and out of the stadium."

There is a comfortable culture around questioning the officials that fosters a "them versus us" mentality in the sport that can turn nasty quickly, as we have seen at all levels in the game, officials even taking charge of youth games are routinely subject to verbal abuse and in extreme cases, physical assault.

Officials aren't perfect, of course, and they do make mistakes, even with video assistant referees and a multitude of technology in the men's game, there is still plenty of room for ESPN's Godfather of all things rules and regs, Dale Johnson, to review the biggest talking points from the Premier League. While we're not yet at a point of parity between officials in the WSL and the PL, the standards and what's being asked of referees on and off the pitch in the women's game in England is constantly being raised. However, as we saw over the weekend, there is still plenty of room for improvement.