A weekend with the VARmints

No apologies for returning, yet again, to this VAR business.

It is fast becoming a major talking point in the sport. Which is OK, I suppose. What is not so OK is that VAR has also become something of an obtrusive nuisance in the game.

I cling, somewhat uneasily now, to my original feeling that VAR must be a good thing for the sport. That it was the obvious answer to the problem posed by serious — i.e., game-changing -- refereeing errors that needed to be corrected immediately, while the game was still in progress.

VAR can do that. But I’m beginning to think that it does too much of it, and that too many of its decisions involve the nullifying of goals. In this column, just over a year ago, I pondered the possibility that VAR might have a built-in anti-goalscoring bias.

The games, or parts of games, that I watched this past Saturday in the English Premier League convince me: that possibility is nearing a probability.

These are the decisive VAR decisions that I watched on Saturday:

Brighton-West Ham United 29th minute: “goal” by Brighton’s Leandro Trossard nixed by VAR -- Trossard’s teammate Dan Burn was offside in the build-up.

Arsenal-Burnley 45th: “goal” by Arsenal’s Reiss Nelson nixed by VAR -- Nelson’s teammate Nacho Monreal was offside during the buildup (“his toe nail was offside” was the Guardian’s comment).

Aston Villa-Bournemouth 48th: Aston Villa appeals for a penalty kick are thumbed down by VAR.

Manchester City-Tottenham 93rd: “goal” by Man City’s Gabriel Jesus nixed by VAR — teammate Aymeric Laporte had handled the ball in the buildup.

Four VAR interventions: three of them canceling “goals," one turning down a penalty kick — i.e. an opportunity to score. A thoroughly negative afternoon’s work for the VARmint fraternity.

But the negativity is not VAR’s fault. It is simply built into the system by the sport’s rules. Under those rules, a goal in soccer has to be scored, it cannot be awarded. Thus, while it is very easy for VAR to nix a goal, it is very difficult for VAR to create a goal. It can happen -- VAR can reinstate a goal that has been wrongly ruled out by the referee (quite probably because of a faulty offside call) but that is something that we do not see very often.

A more likely occurrence is for VAR to award a penalty kick — but that totally lacks the decisive impact of awarding a goal. Penalties can be missed, or saved. A week ago, VAR allowed ManCity’s Sergio Aguero to retake a penalty kick against West Ham. His first, and feeble, attempt had been saved, but VAR spotted encroachment by a West Ham player (he was the one to whack the ball away after the goalkeeper’s save), and Aguero scored from the retake. A VAR created goal, but I doubt we’ll be seeing a repeat of that sequence any time soon.

Inevitably, VAR’s impact will be felt more often, and much more dramatically, when it is wiping out a goal, when that annoyingly triumphant “NO GOAL” emblazons a stadium’s big screen.

It is going to be very difficult for VAR to escape the label of joy-killer, or at least party-pooper. Saturday’s Man City/Tottenham incident already mentioned provides an almost perfect example: An intense game between two of the EPL’s top teams is in added time, the score stands at 2-2, when Man City score a highly dramatic late winner. The stadium fans — this is ManCity’s Etihad — are roaring, the players’ on-field celebrations are wildly ecstatic, the television screen shows the score now at 3-2 ... But all that frenetic excitement is about to be blown away. The referee is getting the news from VAR that Laporte had handled the ball immediately before Gabriel Jesus scored.

The offense was accidental for sure, and minimal -- some press reports insisted that the ball had merely “brushed” Laporte’s arm -- but no matter. VAR had revealed a hand-ball offense, so the goal must be canceled. The game finished 2-2.

I can see only two ways of avoiding VAR’s anticlimactic, celebration-dampening effect. Maybe, as time passes, the fans and the players will learn not to celebrate too early and will patiently await the VAR verdict. When that arrives, at a signal from the referee, one group of fans, the home or the visiting group, can celebrate.

Delayed climax? Without that thrill of spontaneous excitement? Fans just sitting there waiting for a signal to tell them whether they can leap into the air or tear up their season ticket? Is that likely? It sounds all wrong to me, almost a contradiction of what spectator sports are supposed to bring. But who knows?

A more straightforward way for VAR to at least get closer to a “Mr. Nice Guy” image would be for it to stop making calls based on millimetric measurements. Such calls cannot possibly come under the heading of “clear and obvious errors” -- supposedly a requirement for VAR intervention. The referee didn’t see these infractions because they were so slight.

With that thinking, two of my examples -- the “toe-nail” offside of Arsenal’s Montreal, and the “arm-brushing” handball of Man City’s Laporte -- would have been ignored. Two goals would have been allowed, exactly as they would have been by the field referee.

I much prefer this approach. VAR should not be making millimetric offside calls. This would also help to counter balance the pro-defense (and therefore anti-goal) bias that permeates the rules and current refereeing.

24 comments about "A weekend with the VARmints".
  1. T. Michael Flinn, August 19, 2019 at 5:50 p.m.

    How can Gardner talk about VAR without mentioning the failure to award a penalty for ATl v. POR after Pity Martinez was tackled fork behind in the area?

  2. Kent James replied, August 20, 2019 at 4 p.m.

    I was surprised they did not call that after the review.  If the defender got the ball, maybe it was okay, but it looked to me like the defender did not touch the ball, and got one leg between Martinez's, tripping him.  From the angles I saw, it looked like a penalty (and I am a neutral on who won the game).  

  3. Paul Levy replied, August 21, 2019 at 8:29 a.m.

    Does Gardner know that the game is played in the United States?

  4. Bill Smith, August 19, 2019 at 5:52 p.m.

    The other side of it: RSL defender Aaron Herrera blocked a shot on the line with his chest.  On-field call was penalty and red crad for deliberate handling on the line.  No one on RSL freaked out because they knew VAR would catch it and fix it, which it did.  Easy as pie, and a massive pair of wrong calls avoided.

    (Until half two when the same player was red carded and gave up a penalty, but that's a different story!)

  5. Wooden Ships, August 19, 2019 at 6:09 p.m.

    Paul, I’m not a sophit, but how could anyone feel that soccer wasn’t going to be forever changed with the introduction of technology. For those that seek or believe the game is now or will be finally, ultimately just, are naive. Naive is the nicest adjective I can muster considering how the game is less appealing. 

  6. Peter Bechtold, August 19, 2019 at 6:34 p.m.

    Paul G.: You write that you don't like millimeters. OK, how about centimeters ? If not, then how about inches ? Still not good, how about one foot(I like that better) ?
    The point here is: where do you draw the line ? Ian Darke had a useful suggestion that offside would be called only if the player was "in the clear"(fully,I suppose) behind the defenders.
    What is not acceptable logically is that making a decision correct somehow ruins the enjoyment of spectators.
    As for me, there is nothing more frustrating than having been wronged by a single arbitrator with incomplete information( in football or in life). VAR is a program in progress to add information; like other changes(allowing substitutions after injuries or not, since 1966 I believe, was also opposed by the British mostly.) Now we have gotten beyond this nostalgic traditionalism; we will with VAR in due time also.

  7. beautiful game replied, August 20, 2019 at 10:51 a.m.

    Tweek LOTG a bit...Game needs a pressure relief valve for VAR, especially in the current off-side should be changed to clear space between the defender and offensive player. No more that the offensive player was a toe off-side, an arm off-side, or head off-side...clear space between players should be off-side. Being a half-step ahead of a defender is not  'CLEAR' advantage. Common sense approach in giving VAR and the game some breathing space and more offense.

  8. Kent James replied, August 20, 2019 at 3:58 p.m.

    I completely agree. When the rule is based on a line, it should be enforced as accurately as possible.  If a ball is only a millimeter out of bounds, should we not count it as out, because it's just out by a little bit?  That being said, I understand the complaint (did the player's toe being in the offside position really make a difference?).  So what needs to be adjusted is the rule, not the VAR review.  I think there are two viable options; one is to ignore the extremeties and say no part of the offensive player's torso can be past the defender when the ball is struck; this would be the closest to what it is now, while eliminating the toe offeside issue.  The other option, which is more radical (but probably easier to enforce) is as BG suggested, there has to be space between the bodies for the offensive player to be offside.  This would also give the offense an advantage (over the way it is called now), so might lead to more goals.   Of course, players might start wearing baggier shirts to prevent space from being seen by the AR...

  9. George Miller replied, August 23, 2019 at 3:46 p.m.

    Draw the line here: There must be space/
    a gap between the def n attacker. That’s a meaningful advantage and it would stop splitting hairs

  10. uffe gustafsson, August 19, 2019 at 6:54 p.m.

    We as spectators watching tv can see these things on the screen and know when a foul or offside.
    not so easy for the refs so the addition of VAR is valuable for the ref crew. Taking away goals,yes, but because they where never legit goals in the first place.
    you are either offside or not. So do players have to adapt to var, yes they have to, the shirt pulling and wrestle down players in the box that time is over and I’m for one happy about that.
    let var evolution continue at some point it will be what everyone will agree on. A great addition to the game.
    not perfect nothing is ever perfect 

  11. beautiful game replied, August 23, 2019 at 1:33 p.m.

    Uffe...Shirt pulling and muggery in the box are gone? Your smoking some bad weed. It's the refs that permit this hubris. They see it and disregard it on orders from the league kahunas. VAR shouldn't review such behavior unless its an assault.

  12. Randy Vogt, August 19, 2019 at 7:22 p.m.

    Amen. While the overall concept of VAR is good, the execution has been poor at times for reasons that Paul writes about above. But a positive in the few EPL games I have seen, the VAR is telling the ref what the decision needs to be. I have not seen the ref jog over to the monitor, review the play for a minute or so, then jog back to the field to give the decision as happens in most leagues around the globe plus in the World Cup. All this jogging and reviewing by the on-field ref interrupts the game even more and it borders on ridiculous to me as the people in the VAR room are refs at the same level.

  13. frank schoon, August 19, 2019 at 8:27 p.m.

    If the VAR was discontinued as of tomorrow, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it...As a matter of fact if FIFA decides to not employ any technology but just rely strictly on the refs, I would be fine with the ruling...

  14. beautiful game replied, August 20, 2019 at 10:19 p.m.

    The way FIFA instructs the referees on LOTG is total dereliction and hubris.

  15. R2 Dad replied, August 21, 2019 at 10:55 a.m.

    IFAB actually made the changes, and FIFA decided to implement them in the middle of the season. Poor decision from both groups.

  16. John Soares, August 19, 2019 at 10:20 p.m.

    Uffe touchd on it...
    Many of the so called "GOOD" decisions of VAR were only good because the ref or AR did not "knowingly" make the call in the first place.
    VAR had possibilities, but, overall it has failed.
    Please, admit it and like the 35 yard line penalties
    It was worth a try.... but just did not help the game.

  17. R2 Dad, August 20, 2019 at 2:05 a.m.

    Clear and obvious error should NOT mean having to review every goal for micro-transgressions. None of the Tottenham players complained about a handling call—so why was it reviewed?

  18. Bob Ashpole replied, August 20, 2019 at 7:35 p.m.

    Can you imagine what would happen if VAR enforced infringement by all players during penalty kicks? 

  19. Paul Cox, August 20, 2019 at 2:51 a.m.

    Paul, you're cherry-picking incidents to make a case. To really get a sense of whether VAR is affecting goals (either reducing their numbers or increasing them, or staying the same) you'd have to take an entire season's worth of VAR reviews... or better yet, see what the total of them is from several leagues doing VAR.

    The ManCity-Spurs incident had as much or more to do with the rules change as it did with VAR, and they're kind of two separate discussions.

    The rules change was because over the past, oh, 10-15 years, as everyone got HD televisions and such, we've realized that lots of handling calls have been applied on a somewhat subjective basis by referees.

    "What soccer wants" has been bandied about. Does soccer want a goal off someone's hand, even if it was unintentional? Does soccer want referees making subjective judgements, which will inevitably lead to different decisions given the same circumstances when those decisions are by different referees?

    No, everyone decided to make handling as objective as possible- and so the new LOTG has more of a checklist-based process, declaring that "these are handlings" and "these are usually handling" and "these are usually not handling".

    But then we have an incident where the ball pretty clearly hits a guy's arm. By the rules as drawn, it's handling. No goal. 

    Now, you're blaming VAR for that call, but if the referee had seen it clearly, the call would still be "no goal", so in this case it's not really a VAR issue. Now it's more of a "where do we draw the line" issue, as illustrated by Peter's comment here.

    Really, we're talking about multiple issues in this particular instance- but it's VAR getting all the attention.

  20. Kent James replied, August 20, 2019 at 4:06 p.m.

    You are absolutely correct on 2 important points; the rule is the problem on the handling call, and you can't tell about it's impact on scoring until you see stats for the year  (or more than just anectdotal evidence). PG is right that we see VAR being used to take back goals more often than we see it used to allow them to be scored, and he may be right that this will lead to a decrease in scoring.  But what he fails to mention, and is one reason your point about statistics is crucial, we do not see the inaccurate offside calls the ARs would have made that lead to goals, and would not have led to goals without VAR (and AR's letting the close decisions go, knowing they would be reviewed).  We have to wait until there is more evidence to make a judgment.  

  21. Alfred Randall, August 20, 2019 at 8:47 p.m.

    Paul, I think you have missed the most important point of this VAR discussion. I agree with your assessments of the reviewed calls but why were they reviewed? The first season that MLS had VAR as a tool for officiating the results were the same. There was overuse of VAR! The real problem lay with the human urge to play with toys because it’s new and I want to use it. The urge to ignore the number one rule of VAR was overlooked that rule being ’clear and obvious error’. I don’t think if a player’s foot was 3 inches in an offside position constitutes ‘clear and obvious’.  I don’t think if a crossed ball slightly touches a defenders arm (totally in a normal position) and another player on the same team takes the ball, does several moves to create a shooting opportunity and then scores a goal constitutes ‘clear and obvious’.  In MLS matches this season I have seen it used very professionally with great relief with what is happening in the EPL a bit disdaining. You know my wife never liked football until I bought Atlanta United FC season tickets (I’m a founding member). She didn’t know a handball from a throw in but over the course of one season she was totally hooked on our kind of football. When they started talking about VAR coming into the game she was totally against as she preferred the human error to remain in the game and as you know nothing is more thrilling than an after match review at the pub after the match. It’s the most popular sport in the world because of the human factors involved with the players, managers/coaches and the referees. What possesses the IFA to make these changes to the laws that have worked fine for a 150 years? It’s not a ballet dance it’s football.  Sorry a little off subject in the end!

  22. Wooden Ships replied, August 20, 2019 at 10:02 p.m.

    Thank you Alfred, totally agree. 

  23. Wooden Ships replied, August 20, 2019 at 10:03 p.m.

    Frank too. That makes three of us. 

  24. Michael Saunders, August 27, 2019 at 10:45 a.m.

    So the IFAB addresses issues that have plagued fans, commentators and coaches for years that the referees / ARs are making critical mistakes on critical situations that are reviewed by their access to a  "video tape" to prove their perspective.  Suddenly the VAR is "bad" because it generates a fail safe mechanism by providing accuracy based on the the actual Laws of the Game. 

    I have argued for years that the toughest call in sports is an offside in soccer.  Unlike ice hockey where one has a permaanent offside line, the one in soccer is constantly changing.  Moreover, you have the additional factor of when the ball is kicked or interfereing in the play.   Then you have the newly implemented rule that even unintentional hand balls committed by the attacking team going directly into the goal or leading to a goal scoring opportunity are called as well; whereas if the defense commits a hand ball, well it may not be called if considered not deliberate.   

    The point is that the VAR is not the culprit.  It simply verifies the rule with a 99.9% accuracy.  As such it is "disruptive".   What then is the solution?  In as much as the VAR is used primarily as a tool on "goals" and/or their opportunities, perhaps it is time to take a serious review of when, how, where is it an opportunity.  For example, why is a foul by the edge of the penalty area and the touch line, with the forward's back to the goal a serious enough transgression that it automatically call's for a PK?  This just one example; there are many others.  The question is how to remedy it?      

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