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Raising the VAR – Football’s own Brexit

With VAR being used already in top flight leagues in Spain, Italy and Germany, my question is ‘why hasn’t the English Premier League been keeping pace?’

Harry Kane’s penalty stood after VAR intervention did not rule him offside in the build up to it in the Carabao Cup Semi Final 1st leg at Wembley versus Chelsea.

There are those who are still against VAR and feel it will damage the game; and with the increased roll-out of the proposed system in cup matches this season, I can understand why it hasn’t helped sell the idea to them or to those still undecided. It’s been akin to watching actors on stage messing up or forgetting their lines and the audience left sitting uncomfortably not able to relax and enjoy the performance. But the technology is there to make it work and technology is rife; I mean if we can send a craft billions of miles into space to land a probe on a comet and take a virtual tour of the world at street level, then mapping out a football pitch for 90 minutes can’t be too difficult surely? The well documented offside decisions in the recent Tottenham versus Chelsea league cup first leg and Derby’s away win at Southampton in the FA Cup third round replay, proved there is still scope for debate whilst VAR is being ironed out. Ultimately, there need to be cameras at pitch level that can capture the correct angles to determine an offside call.

EA Sports…Can the Copier turn Creator?

The graphics on FIFA ’19 by EA Sports are getting closer and closer to reality. Just ask my mum.

Computer games look so life like these days that whilst I was playing FIFA ’19 on my PS4 on Christmas Day, my mum came into the room and said ‘I didn’t realise there was football on today’. Quite funny I know, but if the technology in the FIFA football games can determine offsides instantaneously, then why not be able to adapt this technology into the real game? At this stage I’d like to say ‘I spoke to the head of gaming technologies at EA Sports and put this to them…’ but sadly they’re not going to sit and talk to me, a mere mortal.

Why not use a computer software package that plots all of the players’ positions on the pitch together with the ball (using the electronic device that is used for goal line technology) to provide millions of snapshots throughout a single game? The computer can then make instantaneous offside decisions and relay the information immediately to the ref’s watch or via his headset from the officials sat in the VAR Portakabin. This would potentially require electronic markers to delineate the pitch and create invisible trip wires for the software to compute (like having a million goal lines running parallel with one another) and able to tell if and when an opposing player breaks the line ahead of the defenders when the ball leaves the player passing the ball forwards. Alternatively, If some stadiums can incorporate spider cams that float around above the pitch on wires and be manoeuvred anywhere to give a bird’s eye view, then surely they can set up a camera at pitch side. Perhaps this could run along the top of the advertising hoardings on a track and/or parallel with the pitch, similar to what they have in athletics to capture sprint races.

Why Premier League Needs VAR

The Premier League has never been so big; with billions invested into it, an enormous global following, huge importance put on it from fans and followers who live and breathe it and who watch their teams bring in some of the biggest stars of the game to try to improve season after season (unless you follow Spurs). There is then the incredible minutiae (surveillance) some managers will go to in order to try to gain the upper hand, trying to extract the very best from their players through new fangled training methods, diet and tactics. All of this incredible amount of effort, adulation and expectancy tied up in one of the most competitive leagues in world football…only for a PE teacher from Halifax to ultimately decide your team’s fortunes come Saturday, thanks to not spotting a foul in the build up to a goal or noticing a player put the ball in the net with his hand. It‘s absolutely ridiculous. In fact, you may as well forget about the football and just determine who wins a match on the toss of the coin (or rock paper scissors) at the beginning of the game. I for one am looking forward to the introduction of VAR and with a bit of ingenuity, I feel it will be much more enjoyable watching matches and knowing that, irrespective of how each of the teams play, the winner will have earned it.

We can rely on the precision of goal line technology nowadays. (The goal that never was. Frank Lampard making it 2-2 against Germany at World Cup 2010 but amazingly not given)

Without VAR, then surely football is like a F1 team spending millions setting up a car to attempt the best lap time, only for the officials charting their performance to do so using the stopwatch function on their Casio wristwatches. Things need to be more precise, especially when so much is on the line…or over it. I have always followed the adage that in situations where an offside is extremely difficult to call, then the decision should always favour the attacker; that’s what they used to say wasn’t it? However, given the ‘matter of factness’ we are looking to achieve with VAR, then there ultimately needs to be a decision made, similar to some recent cases in goal line technology, where a goal has been ruled out by as little as 1.12cm (Man City v Liverpool).

I don’t think we can always blame referees for poor decisions as in reality it’s ridiculous to expect them to deal with everything during a match. The game should never be summed up by the ref’s performance; we should want decisions to be correct and fair, with the ref not being swayed by the home crowd or there being any chance of corruption or collusion. Assessing referees shouldn’t be like watching ice skaters performing and seeing if they can make it through the whole piece without falling on their arse. The ref’s job should only be to ensure the smooth running of the game and that order is maintained, not expected to be on top of everything that goes on across the whole pitch. The main benefit for the use of VAR is to relinquish the potential for a ref to intentionally or unintentionally decide a game by unfair or incorrect decision making.

VAR at the World Cup 2018

Kim Young-gwon scores South Korea’s first goal versus Germany in their final match in Group F at Russia 2018 where VAR was used to check a potential offside call.

VAR proved its worth during the World Cup in Russia. It was pleasantly surprising to see it work so well (when used) especially as it was already on a hiding to nothing before the Saudi Arabians kicked it all off. Who can forget (my personal favourite VAR highlight) when Neymar had his penalty rescinded versus Costa Rica for simulation/acting following the Dutch referee’s consultation with the pitch-side monitor? Another highlight was South Korea’s first goal versus Germany, where VAR was used to prove that the through ball struck a German defender on its way to the back post and therefore Kim Young-gwon was not offside and his tap-in allowed to stand as a legitimate goal.

One thing that frustrated supporters more than anything during the tournament was the non-use of VAR on corners, where defenders were rugby tackling opponents in the box and nothing doing. This was especially true in England’s first group match versus Tunisia. Although the well documented shithousery went unpunished, it was good to see the powers that be grew wise to these antics and were able to award penalties for similar incidents in subsequent games. If players know that a penalty will be given in such cases, then they are less likely to do it; simple; there would be less tight marking in the box and realistically more goal action. There is still too much physical contact in the box that goes unpunished in the Premier League and this really needs to be addressed; not buying the ‘well there’d be a penalty in every match’ as a reason NOT to uphold the letter of the law.

Despicable scenes as Colombian players swarm around referee after their ‘dark arts’ tactics are finally punished but amazingly no red cards are brandished.

You have to question the role of VAR in the Colombia versus England match in the round of 16 though. It beggars belief how no Colombian was sent off the field of play during that game. This was more evidence, to me, that there had been a directive to referees not to brandish bookings for all incidents that were worthy of such. Perhaps there was a real fear that Colombian player’s lives would be in danger, given how the Colombian public had reacted to Sanchez’s red card versus Japan on social media earlier in the tournament and what happened to Andres Escobar following his own goal versus the World Cup hosts of 1994; or was the referee concerned about his own safety if he did? One thing is for sure and that is if VAR is used and still doesn’t deservedly punish players, then that smacks of even more foul play by officials having a direct influence over proceedings and not playing the role as fair and neutral adjudicators (and will be apparent to everyone watching).

How do you Solve a Problem Like Offside?

Gary Lineker has been vocal in championing VAR after its use during the World Cup in Russia.

For the sake of offside calls, it strikes me that the position of a player’s feet should be used as the extremities to decide it; it IS called football after all. This was something that, most notably, Gary Lineker put forward following the ensuing melee on Twitter after the BBC-televised Southampton Derby game. It makes a lot of sense as it is the feet that are the main potential scoring appendages and are usually on the floor, making comparisons a lot easier than having to employ photo-finish perpendiculars from players’ shoulders or heads, many people at home having taken to holding pieces of paper on their TV screens to satisfy themselves as to the decision on that particular evening.

As for offsides generally; the idea of a ‘second phase’ is allowing confusion to reign high and goes completely against the ‘matter of factness’ that we should be trying to implement with VAR. The new directive only serves to provide officials with a further vehicle to decide games through their own interpretation. This cannot be right and as we saw with Diogo Jota completing his hat-trick and scoring the match winner for Wolves versus Leicester in the Premier League, there is too much scope for grey areas. Jota was miles offside when the ball was played out to the wing during the Wolves attack and as he scored from the resulting cross, then that seems pretty conclusive to me. Surely, if that passage of play was acceptable, then what is to stop strikers standing on the opponent’s goal line and waiting for the cavalry to arrive? This was the whole reason why the offside rule was invented in the first place wasn’t it?

Marcus Rashford beginning to prove his unquestionable potential following the return of Ole Gunnar Solskjær as manager.

It also means having ridiculous situations like we saw in the Arsenal versus Manchester United FA Cup 4th round match. Rashford, having sprung Arsenal’s defensive line and not sure whether he was offside or not, was seen making his way towards the ball in the corner. We then witnessed Rashford slowing down and moving more gingerly, having noticed the referee’s assistant had kept his flag down by his side as he made his own way along the touchline towards it. The laughable plotline continued as we then saw the United forward come to a complete standstill next to the ball, still staring at the linesman, who by this time was only six feet from him, Rashford still wondering when and if he was going to raise his flag. Eventually putting everyone out of their misery and touching the ball, quelle surprise; the offside decision was made.

VAR Without Limits

The VAR control room; a sight we’re all getting used to seeing in the modern day game.

In order for VAR to eradicate unfair game changers, the occasions it is called upon during a game should not be determined by the referee or officials, as otherwise it hasn’t achieved what it was brought in to remedy. There has to be a consistency and it should be used to check all incidents in a game, not just ‘clear and obvious errors’. This should include the legitimacy of goals; offsides, ball out of play or infringement leading up to it, potential yellow or red card challenges, penalties and off the ball incidents. Those in the VAR control room can be scrutinising all of these issues throughout a game and can bring matters to the attention of the referee only when necessary. As mentioned, implementing technology should take the offside decisions away from the officials and negate the possibility of human error. With instantaneous decisions being made regarding offsides, then this would also mean there should not be any delays. In the worst case scenario, only a few seconds should be taken to determine whether there was a foul or infringement committed in the build up to a goal.

There certainly shouldn’t be the need for lengthy delays when confirming whether a player has been fouled in the box either, especially not to the point where a penalty taker is being halted mid-way through their run up, which happened to Burnley in the third round of the FA Cup (although plenty of time to decide if that’s Pogba). Surely, the penalty should not be taken until VAR has agreed as to its validity.

American Football referees mic-ed up and able to communicate decisions to the crowd over the stadium sound system

The immediacy of decisions is also necessary to negate the increase of ‘phantom celebrations’ from the crowd and not to detract from their overall enjoyment. Many fans are realising that as the goal may be ruled out shortly after, then why celebrate it quite so vociferously in real time? As offside is the greatest contributing factor to a goal’s validity then the phantom celebrations should not be as frequent if VAR is used to its potential.

It is apparent also that there appears to be a large disconnect between the officials and fans at the ground, especially where stadiums do not have big screens. The crowd in the stadia need to be kept in the picture during VAR interaction; it’s they who have paid to attend and deserve a great deal more inclusion when a decision is being investigated and not just the viewer at home who has the benefit of the broadcaster’s edit. This is not something new as mic-ed up refs have been used in both rugby codes and American Football for years; so why not in football?

There are those that argue that the introduction of VAR will put pay to any post match debate and talking points. I disagree. There will still be scope for debate for matters involving the officials’ verdicts on penalty and bookings/red card decisions. However, VAR should enable a more accurate verdict to be reached. As someone who loves the game and wants to see fairness across the board, I am personally prepared to wait for important decisions to be arrived at.

There’s Nowhere to Hide With VAR

Despite being arguably one of the best players in the Premier League, Mohamed Salah has been criticised by some for going to ground far too easily in search of penalties.

One of the current and unwanted features of the game this season has been diving aka cheating. Even some of the highest profile players (Kane, Salah, Vardy) in the Premier League have been guilty of trying to con the ref into awarding a penalty or free-kick. It will be good to have VAR on hand so as for the referee to determine whether contact was made and whether the level of contact was sufficient to result in the player ending up on the ground. Football is about skill, speed, determination and teamwork and there should be no room for a player’s acting credentials potentially deciding a match. It is my opinion that blatant dives in the box should be punishable by red and not just yellow cards. I say this as strikers, who aren’t generally prone to picking up bookings, may feel the risk worthy of going into the referee’s notebook and the bad press they will receive on social media and Match of the Day as a result.

The introduction of VAR in the Premier League should also do away with the ridiculous practice where, if a referee fails to punish a player for an incident during the game after spotting an infringement, then the player is somehow precluded from further punishment retrospectively. VAR should mean that contentious situations are scrutinised during a match and that the referee is informed of anything they may have missed or adjudged incorrectly from their point of view on the field of play.

It’s a Question of Timing

It would also make sense for someone within the VAR team to act as an official timekeeper. It’s not rocket science that they would be able to make more accurate decisions in respect of the time to be added on at the end of both halves. This would relinquish this duty from the referee and allow them to concentrate instead on the smooth running of the game. Currently, it appears that the referee can control when he blows his whistle to signify the end of the half or match. That surely gives rise to the potential for being biased towards one team over another. If a dedicated VAR time keeper is used then they could sound a hooter that goes off at the ground irrespective of where the ball is on the field of play. Unlike Rugby Union, the ball does not need to go ‘dead’ for the game to finish so the game can finish on the claxon. In the very unlikely event that the ball is on a trajectory into the goal before the end of match siren is heard, then the goal should count, like in basketball.

Mauricio Pochettino believes the Premier League shouldn’t introduce VAR until it has been developed properly.

I can’t help feeling that VAR has become somewhat similar to the NHS, with some trying to undermine it and highlight its failings in some areas in the hope that the consensus will be to do away with it. Every fair-minded football fan must want to see the correct decisions being made. Mauricio Pochettino said in a recent press conference that he believes VAR needs to be developed properly, before being introduced into the Premier League and certainly not rushed to meet a deadline. I agree with him. It is vitally important, for the integrity of the game moving forwards, that VAR is the best it can be and there is no room for errors. Everyone needs to be able to trust the system in order for it to work and become as synonymous and reliable in the future as goal line technology.

About Matt

Matt is the owner and chief-editor of the Footy Blog, one of the UK's leading football news blogs.

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