AS SURE as Brexit will continue to derange our political and economic consciousness in 2020, so too will VAR remain an irritant to many football fans.
There have been plenty critical of VAR. Frustration may be understandable, but is it justified? In a world where there are so many breaches in law and regulation are overlooked, covered-up, or ignored. Should we revel, even rejoice in a system that strives to call out an offence or error, enforce justice and parity?
To be fair, there is no denying that the electronic system envisaged to remove controversy from the game has it seems only raised even more controversy. In that respect, it must be determined to be a failure. But what if anything exactly is it getting wrong?
On the five offside calls decided by VAR in last weekend’s games, no one could definitively show that the technology got any of the decisions wrong. Some of the decisions were marginal when looked at in a subjective sense, some people felt the decisions went against the ‘spirit of the game’, but none of them could say the decisions were wrong.
The main talking point from Sunday’s big game between Liverpool and Wolves was the disallowing of Pedro Neto’s equaliser for the visitors just before half-time. What looked like a well-worked and executed goal was ruled out by VAR as it was determined that the Portuguese winger’s teammate, Jonny Otto, had a portion of his foot ahead of Liverpool’s last defender in the build-up to the goal.
It was a close call and anyone would have sympathy for the frustration in the Wolves camp during and after the game. The result of the match saw Liverpool hold on for the 1-0 win and even the most die-hard Red would admit that the midland’s side deserved a share of the spoils in Anfield that evening.
Their frustration was exasperated as it had come directly after what many Wolves players saw as a clear handball decision in the build-up to Liverpool’s goal been rejected by VAR.
It was a tough day for the Wolves in Anfield. And after the game, the club captain Conor Coady, who happens to be a Scouser and started his playing-career in Liverpool, expressed his frustration to Sky Sports that the Liverpool goal should not have stood because of a handball and that Neto’s goal should have stood because, in his eyes, it wasn’t offside enough.
While his frustration is understandable it is wrong. The Liverpool goal was ruled out by the referee on the field for handball but VAR conclusively proved that Adam Lallana's touch on the ball was on his chest and shoulder in the pass to Mané. And while the disallowed Wolves goal was close, Jonny’s foot was deemed to be offside and to the letter of the law was therefore offside. So all this outrage and social media ire is directed at two correct decisions. And it was the same for the other controversial decisions of the weekend. Like them or loathe them, according to the rule book they were all correct decisions made by VAR.
Would we prefer a system that would look the other way if a side deserved a goal or was only slightly offside?
Where would we draw the line then? Klopp is a nice guy so we’ll ignore Firmino’s disallowed armpit goal against Aston Villa. Pukki is a class player and has a cute name, he deserves his disallowed goal against Spurs. Wolves are showing real fight let them have their disallowed Anfield goal even if it is offside. It’s a slippery slope based on sentiment rather than logic and justice.
It’s hard to see a situation where everyone will be happy. Down the years so many of us complained that the subjective decision and interpretations of a human referee should be removed so that the objective decision process of technology would determine what’s offside or not. Now that we have the technology we are complaining that it’s too objective, removing any nuanced human interpretation from the game.
Before the Liverpool-Wolves game, the pundits watching the Celtic-Rangers game bemoaned the Scottish league’s lack of VAR as it would have scrubbed out a goal scored via a handball which was not spotted by the referee.
That’s not to say VAR is perfect, it certainly can be altered to reflect an interpretation that may better suit those who question that it is taking away from the spirit of the game. Like any law, there needs to be a measure of wiggle room available so that the spirit of the law and natural justice can be seen to be done. Like a garda letting someone off speeding points on their licence for doing 51 in a 50kph zone. Sure they have broken the rules but only to a margin that makes no difference to the offence.
After Sunday’s game, Sky pundit Graeme Souness proffered the idea that instead of VAR trying to find a piece of a player offside that the rule should be that if any part of the player's body, that can score a goal, is level with the last defender then he would be deemed to be onside. It seems a way out of this situation where the attacker gets the benefit of the doubt but not so much of an advantage as to deem him a goal-hanger. No doubt there will be controversies over where this line will be drawn on the rear of the player compared to the front of the player now, no system will be perfect. But at least one feels that fans will be a bit more placated to see this adjustment.
And that is what FIFA are reported to be planning, come the end of the season, the International FA Board will trial a new system that would change the offside rule so there will be a need for ‘clear daylight’ between the attacker and the final defender to be deemed offside. Ironically enough reverting to the old offside rule, changed in 1990, that deemed the player offside if he was level with the defender.