What the VARk Happened to Common Sense?

What the VARk Happened to Common Sense?
December 30, 2019 Chris Rowland
In Free, Talking Point


Written by Russel Lunt (TTT Subscriber Thundyr).

After another set of Premier League matches where the focus fell on VAR more than the games themselves, one has to ask whether the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited) have bitten off more than they can chew, and whether they will have the courage to say their implementation of this otherwise successful referee assistance tool is simply not fit for purpose. Unfortunately, history says they will say and do nothing and the league will lurch from controversy to controVARsy until a critical mass of complaints from the leading clubs is reached.

The bizarre thing from my armchair view is that there is exactly one concern with VAR: how the officials deal with it. That their attempts to use this tool are more akin to wrestling with an anaconda while doing simultaneous derivative equations and undergoing eye surgery makes me wonder whether they are competent at all.

There appear to be two primary areas where VAR fuels debate rather than eliminates it: handball and offside. In truth, there cannot be two areas of the rules that are more clear-cut in terms of definition, except perhaps for which side has possession at the start of each half or after a goal is scored. Even more bizarre is that supposed experts simply cannot get their heads around these rules either. The pundits create so much noise that it is hard to hear the truth, and the weak-willed do not put much stock in the truth anyway.

The problem ultimately comes down to where a certain part of the body starts and where it ends. Did the ball strike Adam Lallana more on the arm than the shoulder? Despite having confirmation that an armpit cannot score a goal during the 2018/19 Champions’ League final, where impact against Sissoko’s armpit lead to a penalty against him, Roberto Firmino’s armpit was ruled offside earlier this season. More worrying, the official on the day displayed significant uncertainty of where exactly said armpit was in relation to the offside line or indeed to Roberto Firmino himself.

I can sympathise a little with Wolves; Otto would never have noticed his foot was fractionally offside in the build up to the goal that was ultimately disallowed in their last game of the 2019 calendar year. The accuracy of the measuring equipment far exceeds the human capacity to gauge that margin for error in real time. It is surely impossible to anticipate the delivery of a spinning ball 30 yards away while having a keen understanding that this blade of grass is onside but the one adjacent is not. We have overshot the mark; we need some common sense.

Were the offside line a foot wide, and an attacking part had to be beyond its far edge, I suspect the Hawk-eye technology could give an offside decision without needing human intervention in real time as the play progressed. A computerised “dad” voice could be transmitted to the linesman’s earpiece, “Raise your flag, son, he’s offside.” (Alternatively, “Your flag, raise it you must. Offside he is.”)

No one would doubt. 12 inches is a long way, though usually a bit longer than frequently claimed. It is certainly long enough to imagine relative to the space occupied by another body and one’s own. No more talk of armpits; stick to feet, hips and shoulders that are over the line. No more debating the length of a toenail. No more waiting three minutes to get a decision. VAR is in the process of dulling our enjoyment of the spectacle; that much is certain. But that alone should not be allowed to sound its death knell.

While the technology does not need a system that includes rules for ‘the benefit of the doubt’, we humans most certainly do. Conor Coady’s, “I’m not sure it’s worth it” exposes our doubt. We got what we asked for, but this is not what we wanted. Why can’t we make it more like what we wanted?

We cannot be allowed to go back though. VAR has shown in bright Technicolor that several of the match officials are beyond their sell-by date. The objectively correct Liverpool 1 – 0 Wolves result would have been a 1 goal win for the visitors were Anthony Taylor permitted to have his own way. That kind of outcome simply cannot be permitted any more.

This is why I mention having only one concern about VAR: how the officials deal with it. The common sense rule is that play after a suspected incident continues until a clearer incident occurs; the ball going out of play, a goal, a clear foul and so on. Touch flags must stay down, whistles must remain unblown. The suspected incident must then be reviewed by the VAR official.  The officials almost universally ignore this protocol for reasons unknown.

I believe that the touch judge should be empowered to call for a review by holding his flag out with one hand on either end of the stick. An unflagged but offside player should not be permitted a corner kick when he kicks the ball out off a defender; that is what the ‘review flag position’ should be for. The official should call for a review, and the correct decision made, otherwise the touch judges have no responsibility to enforce the rules, and ultimately nor do the referees. In a system like the PGMOL or FA that requires no accountability to its stakeholders, corruption will inevitably follow.

Handball and other incidents are generally easier to resolve for the VAR official. A different camera angle or two at a slower frame rate, and a fully professional referee could make the right call 100% of the time within seconds. If he still harbours doubt, then write some rules that create a common sense protocol to follow! Leaving people to their own devices is a recipe for disaster, no matter the people.

At some future time, if Hawk-eye can give instantaneous offside decisions due to having a broad enough area to work with for its determination of human extremities that can score goals, then the vast majority of time spend “waiting for confirmation” will be eliminated. This same band will simultaneously empower players to more accurately judge their position on the field. We would again be able to celebrate goals as they happen. It would be ‘worth it’.

Can the PGMOL swallow their pride and allow such change to happen though? Unfortunately, their arrogance suggests one should not hold one’s breath. The only question then is whether we have the patience to wait for the right solution to come along.