Virgil van Dijk’s red card against Newcastle last Sunday was just the fourth time he has been sent off in nearly 550 matches for club and country.
The Liverpool captain paid the price for an error of judgment in the first half of the dramatic contest at St. James’ Park.
His challenge on Alexander Isak was risky and marginally mistimed. Yes, he played the ball, but only after he had clipped the Swedish striker.
Once he had awarded the free kick, referee John Brooks had no option but to brandish the red card given where the offence had been committed (just outside the penalty area). It was the denial of a goalscoring opportunity.
If it had been inside the box then Van Dijk would have escaped with a yellow given the fact he had made a genuine attempt to play the ball and a penalty would have been awarded.
His one-game suspension should have been served against Aston Villa this Sunday, but now he’s facing the prospect of a longer ban after the Football Association charged him with improper conduct following his dismissal.
The 32-year-old defender, who has until Friday to respond, could also miss the trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers after the international break on September 16.
There’s a growing sense that Van Dijk is going to be made an example of as part of the clampdown on player behaviour by English football authorities that was implemented at the start of the season.
The charter, which was developed in partnership with the League Managers Association (LMA) and Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), included the demand that “captains are expected to take responsibility for their team-mates, encouraging them to play fairly and show respect towards the match officials and their decisions”.
So what was Van Dijk guilty of?
“No way, no chance, I played the ball,” the centre-back shouted at Brooks in the aftermath of his dismissal. There was some gesticulating, too.
He didn’t immediately leave the field, but that part of the argument is more nuanced as it has become a common sight these days due to VAR delays.
After his fate was confirmed, Van Dijk then appeared to tell Brooks that the decision was a “****ing joke” before slowing down as he headed towards the tunnel.
Opinion may be split on whether that justifies extending his ban. If Van Dijk had said that to the referee after being penalised for a foul elsewhere on the pitch, the worst sanction he would have faced is a yellow card.
Let’s be clear, combating the abuse of officials is a positive move. For far too long, they have tolerated too much. Nobody wants to see players in their faces, berating them and screaming obscenities.
It has a knock-on effect in terms of grassroots football where referees have been walking away in their droves, sick and tired of being shown so little respect.
But you can’t love the passion and emotion of Premier League football and then suddenly expect players to behave like robots.
Yes, Van Dijk was angry and upset, but that’s hardly a surprise given Liverpool were already a goal down. He genuinely believed he had played the ball first and felt wronged. It was the right decision by Brooks, but it was also a tight one, with pundits still arguing over the red card after the benefit of countless replays.
What referees’ chief Howard Webb needs to ensure is consistency.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was booked for throwing the ball away early on at St. James’ Park after Brooks somehow failed to spot that he had been shoved to the ground by Anthony Gordon. Moments later, Gordon went unpunished for kicking the ball away to delay the taking of a free kick. Joelinton twice made card-waving gestures towards Brooks. Neither resulted in a caution for the Brazilian midfielder.
This isn’t about Liverpool, or Newcastle for that matter. There isn’t some great conspiracy or bias against any player or any team. That’s just social media nonsense.
But frustration stems from the fact that across the Premier League, the new guidelines around dissent and time-wasting are being sporadically put into practice. Referees are picking and choosing when to enforce them.
There’s also not enough transparency. Webb has promised to make audio of VAR decisions available to the public once a month, but it hasn’t happened yet.
If Van Dijk’s punishment is increased and Liverpool lose their captain for more than one game, it would be damaging for Jurgen Klopp’s team, especially given their limited depth at centre-back.
But what will smart just as much in the coming weeks is the sight of someone else reacting equally incredulously to being sent off and facing no further action. You can almost guarantee it.
(Top photo: Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)