No sooner has the video assistant referee system been implemented in the Premier League after two years of experimentation than there has been an outcry over whether it is being used properly – or in fact whether it should be employed at all.
Everyone has an opinion on VAR but whether you are for or against, certain facts are uncontestable, not least that the 20 Premier League clubs voted in favour of the system so they can’t, some might argue, start complaining about it now.
Former referee Dermot Gallagher, highly respected throughout the game, was happy with how the system worked on the first weekend of the new season. “As a referee, why would you not want to have it?” he said. “It’s new, everyone has to embrace it. There are people that do not believe in it but people will say it’s the best thing that has happened in football.”
But that, of course, doesn’t tell the whole story. One of the major concerns with VAR has been how it transforms the experience for fans in the stadium as well as those watching on tv. There is a large body of opinion that takes the view that the spirit of the game has been seriously undermined if not wrecked.
This was no more starkly illustrated than by Manchester City’s injury-time winning goal against Tottenham being disallowed on Saturday. No-one in the stadium – players, fans and officials – and arguably not one of the millions of television viewers had the slightest doubt that Gabriel Jesus’ last-gasp strike was legitimate.
Yet VAR intervened and ruled the ball had brushed Aymeric Laporte’s arm in the build-up to the goal. In other words that Jesus’ shot, technically, was assisted by the use of Laporte’s arm, regardless of whether there was any intent.
The rule was changed after several high-profile goals were scored by the accidental use of a hand last season. But what has happened instead is that the attacking team is now being penalised. Neither outcome is ideal but what we have now is arguably even worse and undoubtedly lessens the enjoyment of watching football. Not only that. Sunday’s ruling meant City drew 2-2 with Spurs rather than beating them 3-2. Who knows what effect those two lost points might have come the end of the season?
As I say, it’s not so much VAR per se but a change in the rules that is at the core of the problem. Football’s lawmakers in their wisdom now outlaw any kind of handball in the penalty area, accidental or otherwise. The law, amended on June 1, now states any use of the hand which leads to a goal or a chance will be penalised. What that has done is spread confusion rather than simplify matters but the International FA Board is sticking firm and insists there will be no review of the new law which applies worldwide, not just in the UK.
“The laws are fairly clear. It’s more about acceptance and communication rather than saying, ‘Oh, now we have to react immediately and change something’.” said IFAB spokesman Lukas Brud. “We constantly monitor what is happening in football every day. If we feel that something needs to be reviewed, then of course we put it on the agenda, we discuss it with the various bodies of the IFAB, including our panels who also bring comments forward sometimes.”
Yet the whole point of VAR is that it is supposed to be an aid to referees to spot “clear and obvious” errors. That, understandably, is what is getting everyone so hot under collar.
Football is supposed to be about goals and attacking, entertaining play. What the amended rule does is make things far more unfair for attacking players. Overturning decisions based on the tiniest hairline indiscretion is surely not what we have come to expect? It’s this which is ruining the spirit of football.
Take offside. The rule is designed to prevent the player in question deliberately gaining an unfair advantage. But can anyone honestly argue that being offside by an armpit or by a toe or by the width of a shirt, if it is accidentally missed by the officials, represents either a clear and obvious error or is a deliberate attempt to gain an unfair advantage?
There surely has to be clear daylight. If not, we run the risk of goal after goal being checked for VAR leading to joyous celebrations becoming muted and counter-celebrations by opposing fans taking place instead – which is what has already started to happen, complete with some tasty chanting about VAR which only adds to the farcical state of affairs.
On the other hand – and there are always arguments on both sides – with a clear rule you know where you stand. Debate about ‘common sense’ having to prevail opens the door to subjectivity. And what happens then? More, not fewer, game-changing decisions are likely to cause resentment and indignation.
The bottom line, I suppose, is that, however unpalatable, we will simply have to stomach the spirit of the game being compromised if it means the points end up in the right hands. As long as VAR gets more decisions right than wrong, it has to be tolerated even if it may not be totally embraced.
Yet what happened on Sunday with such a marginal unintentional handball being ridiculously overturned made a mockery of the game we know and love, and understandably infuriated the purists. It won’t be the last time they shake their collective heads at the rule being so rigidly and illogically applied.
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