While it’s technically not the end of a decade; the world will be entering the 2020s grappling with the consequences of the solutions they came up with in the 2010s to problems that probably didn’t exist.
In football that means VAR, which is currently causing all sorts of problems in England. The clamour for VAR from a few years ago and the feeling of optimism that it was going to come in and solve the game’s problems has been replaced with a feeling of ‘what have we done?’
VAR has become an example of being careful what you wish for. The consequence of the introduction of VAR to the Premier League is that people are realising that they may be getting correct decisions but it’s come at the cost of some of the speed, passion, excitement and enjoyment of football as now the reaction to a goal is to wait and see if it’s given rather than to immediately celebrate it.
VAR is a completely unnecessary addition to football. It came into existence because we as fans have made two horrible mistakes. The first was that we’ve allowed a culture of scapegoating officials for the final result of a game despite all evidence showing referees made the right decision a really high percentage of the time.
The truth is no referee has ever cost your team a match. Sure, a mistake made by a referee may have cost your team a goal, or seen a player sent off (or not) incorrectly, and that may have had a bearing on the final result, but football matches are made up of thousands of individual decisions.
A referee has never picked the wrong team, or got their tactics wrong. They have never made a bad pass, missed a tackle, committed a stupid foul, lost concentration and let the player they’re marking escape, made the wrong run or missed an easy opportunity to score.
All of those have just as much an effect on the final outcome of a game as a blown refereeing decision, if not more so, but we as fans have allowed the referee to take the blame when the blame lay elsewhere.
Players and coaches were more than happy to allow this to happen as they got a free pass for the mistakes they made. The media were more than happy to highlight any refereeing mistake and analyse it to the nth degree.
The second mistake was that fans convinced themselves that they wanted those mistakes eliminating, or even that they could be eliminated.
And it’s that mistake that I think is at the root of the current frustrations with VAR.
One thing that was predictable before the introduction of VAR and became immediately apparent was that, despite saying otherwise, fans weren’t really bothered if a decision is right or wrong; only how it affects their team or a team they don’t like. That’s why tight calls for or against one of the bigger teams cause such a stir.
We talk of VAR like it’s a living, sentient being. VAR isn’t something to be anthropomorphised. It doesn’t ‘give’ or ‘take away’ goals. Teams don’t win or lose because of VAR. VAR isn’t for or against any team; no matter how many fans say it is.
VAR is a tool that is used to help referees uphold the laws of the game. No more, no less.
And, it has done its purpose in that it allowed the correct decisions to be made. In the Liverpool v Wolves game, Sadio Mane had a goal disallowed, incorrectly as it turned out, which was then corrected. Wolves’ Pedro Neto had a goal allowed, which is turned out he shouldn’t have. VAR helped the referee to come to the right decision both times.
But, that isn’t really what people wanted. I think most people had a vision of VAR being used to make quick decisions to overturn big mistakes. Not slow decisions on everything.
VAR has shown that there is a problem with the relationship between the rules of football and what fans want the game to be. Do we want the rules to be a framework we can make decisions around, or a hard and fast set of laws?
Currently, the rules of football are a strange mix. Some are really simple and easy to follow. Others are Byzantine and seem counter-intuitive.
But, the biggest problem with the rules, and the reason why VAR could never be what people wanted it to be is because the rules of football are largely subjective. It’s up to a referee to decide if a tackle merits a red card, if there really was enough contact for it to be a penalty or if a player dived. If a referee makes that call it’s hard for a video referee to change it.
The most contentious VAR decisions are the offside ones. There have been plenty of examples this season of goals being disallowed for the most marginal of offsides. There were 4 in the last round of games alone.
There’s always been a game of cat and mouse between defenders and attackers where the attacker plays on the shoulder of the defender looking to stay just onside and the defender looks to step up at the very last moment to play the attacker offside. The margins are fine.
The problem seems to be that the technology is used to uphold rules that aren’t quite suited to being scrutinised.
The English press have seized on a quote from IFAB (the board which makes the rules) General Secretary Lukas Brud who said “Clear and obvious still remains the important principle. There should not be a lot of time spent to find something marginal. If something is not clear on the first sight, then it's not obvious and it shouldn't be considered. Looking at one camera angle is one thing but looking at 15, trying to find something that was potentially not even there, this was not the idea of the VAR principle. It should be clear and obvious”
So reading that, you’d think it should be easy to spot an offside on VAR. If you can’t see evidence to overturn it immediately then go with the call on the field.
But, straight after that, Brud said
“If video evidence shows that a player was in an offside position, he was offside full stop. If it’s not obvious, then the decision cannot be changed, you stay with the original decision.”
He then added “In theory one millimetre offside is offside, but if a decision is taken that a player is not offside and the VAR is trying to identify through looking at five, six, seven, 10, 12 cameras whether or not it was offside, then the original decision should stand”
What does that mean? Call it offside if the video evidence shows it, but don’t use the video evidence to show it?
There lies the problem. The rules and advice given are contradictory. Unlike most decisions the officials are faced with, offside is considered to be an objective one. We treat it as though you’re either offside or you’re not.
While it instinctively feels wrong, the rules say if you’re a toenail or an armpit offside, you’re offside. Therefore, any mistake is an obvious one and if you’ve introduced technology for the purpose of getting things right, then the time should be taken to get it right.
It’s difficult to know what can be done. VAR won’t be scrapped. What we probably need to do is adapt rules like offside to be more compatible with the technology.
But even then I’m not sure how. If, as some suggest they should go back to using the ‘daylight rule’ where there had to be clear light between defender and attacker for offside to be called, all you’ll get is the same marginal calls as now, but on the back foot and the back armpit.
Like many events of the 2010s, in VAR we’ve come up with a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. Something that was meant to please everyone has ended up pleasing no one. The challenge we have going forwards is to work how we can have VAR in football, and still have the parts of football we like.