Commentary

Another colossal VAR gaffe in England

This is what the current FIFA rulebook, pp. 101-102, has to say:

A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offenses: [one of which is ...]
impedes an opponent with contact.

Clear enough? I would have thought so. But apparently not clear enough for English referees. During Sunday’s EPL game between Tottenham and Newcastle, two of them -- Mike Dean on the field, and Anthony Taylor from his VAR vantage point -- were presented with a crystal clear example of “impeding with contact” -- really, couldn’t have been clearer -- and both of them turned it down. So the stadium’s big screen came alight with yet another negative, anti-goal VAR triumph: NO PENALTY.

This is what happened in the 78th minute. Tottenham’s Harry Kane received the ball deep in the Newcastle penalty area. Newcastle’s Jamaal Lascelles trailed him, and trying to draw level appeared to stumble or to trip himself up. Whatever, as Kane was about to shoot, Lascelles went full-length to ground, his body lurching forward -- and across the path of Kane. There was plenty of contact between Lascelles’s falling body, all 6-foot-2 of it, and Kane’s legs. Kane went down too.

Lascelles’s fall looked to be accidental. But that is irrelevant. The fact of contact is all that matters. It does not have to intentional for the foul to be called.

No room for doubt here. A clear penalty. Possibly, referee Mike Dean, behind the play, did not get a clear view. Possibly. But no excuses are available for VAR Anthony Taylor. It is quite inexplicable how Taylor, after looking at replays, could confirm Dean’s error. But confirm it he did. Keith Hackett, formerly the head referee in England, now writing for The Telegraph, called the decision “absolutely amazing.”

How could this happen? An emotional game, for sure. Here was Newcastle, massive underdog at Tottenham, leading 1-0 late in the game, defending desperately -- and successfully -- as Tottenham dominated possession. But referees usually do a good job at resisting that sort of pressure.

For an explanation, I don’t think we need look further than the traditional pro-defense bias of English referees. This was a call based on the judgment of two English referees -- this was not technology making the decision, no millimetric measuring was involved.

Tottenham’s coach, Mauricio Pochettino, later said he still had faith in VAR, despite this obviously wrong call. Good to hear, because the error, the glaring error, in this case is mostly one of human fallibility.

But VAR does not emerge unblemished. The VAR checks the referee decision. But who checks the VAR decision? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? The VAR verdict is put forward as a super-verdict, based on careful scrutiny of a bunch of replays. All the more reason to make sure it’s correct.

Actually, VAR does incorporate a final check. That occurs when the referee trots across to the field monitor to get his first look at the replays.

We arrive at the most bewildering aspect of this whole incident. Referee Mike Dean never looked at the replays. How so? Because, in the EPL version of VAR, use of the field-side monitor is discouraged.

Whether that is a good idea (it certainly makes a major cause of delay much less likely) is not the point here. What needs to be explained is why the EPL is allowed to have its own version of VAR, why it is allowed to make a unilateral decision about which facets of the system it will employ, which it will not.

There surely needs to be a universal set of VAR rules and regulations that should an integral part of the official FIFA rules. Compliance to those rules must be compulsory. Permitting different versions of VAR to flourish is a sure way to create confusion. It is very much in VAR’s own interest to avoid obviously absurd calls like this one.

Yet the EPL has informed the world that its very own version of VAR will not be used to check on goalkeeper movement at penalty kicks, and that use of the field monitor is discouraged.

IFAB is the body that should lay down the necessary rules. But IFAB has never been known for celerity. I imagine the case will be made for treating VAR as a work-in-progress, so the more experimental versions the better.

But that haphazard approach won’t wash. VAR has been around for several years now and a great deal of trial-and-error has been carried out. Anyway, the system has already been used officially, non-experimentally, at the top level, in the World Cup. The rules for its use should, by now, be clearly delineated. Wherever it is in operation, the same rules must be used.

FOOTNOTE: Defenders in the EPL must now know that they do not need to make that desperate, dangerous, last-ditch tackle in their own penalty area. As the opponent prepares to take his shot on goal, all the defender has to do is to stumble and fall, making sure he makes some contact with the opponent’s legs, enough to bring him down. Under the Mike Dean view of things, and with a VAR seal of approval from Anthony Taylor, that will not qualify as “impeding an opponent with contact,” so all is well. The big screen has the final say: “NO PENALTY.”

19 comments about "Another colossal VAR gaffe in England".
  1. beautiful game, August 29, 2019 at 9:36 a.m.

    Ref Dean has a track record of total obedience to his kahuna of referees. 

  2. Peter Bechtold, August 29, 2019 at 9:39 a.m.

    PG: Did you watch the almost hour long session on Tuesday evening's ESPNFC show with Peter Walton, former EPL referee and now MLS referee supervisor( I believe) ? Craig Burley had an important different take on this play, i.e. that Harry Kane moved into the defender (going left) while the ball was rolling away to the right(away from the goal): Quite a different interpretation from yours.

  3. Wooden Ships replied, August 29, 2019 at 12:55 p.m.

    Peter, I watched the game and wasn’t 100% sure it was a PK. After the replays I wasn’t totally convinced (it was Kane, who will fall in a breeze and there was movement-slight into the lunging/falling/diving defender) and if you’re not sure you don’t whistle it. And, I’m an old school striker. So, VAR, technology isn’t always going to be gospel. What, heresy I say. I’m wondering, which year, decade, century it will be when we can all say, “finally, now everything is perfect.” 

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, August 29, 2019 at 2:14 p.m.

    WS, you say your aren't "convinced". Watching the slow motion replay of how the defender "tripped" revealed that he intentionally dived in front of Kane who had him well beaten at the time. It convinced me that it wasn't an unintentional trip.

  5. Wooden Ships replied, August 29, 2019 at 4:37 p.m.

    Bob, you know I’m part antagonist. There was just something off about the fall. Maybe I’m thinking like the center that I’m looking at Kane and his history and possible leaning into the defenders head first dive/fall. Was there compelling evidence to overturn with VAR? According to HUMANS I guess not. Which is the way it’s always been. So, no matter the league there is always going to be interpretation, which was partly my point. I don’t have a problem with not awarding the PK, the problem which I will always have, I’m afraid, is the exhaustive disbelief that a call wasn’t made correctly. The breakfast sandwich I had this morning wasn’t optimal, I ate it anyway.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, August 29, 2019 at 6:20 p.m.

    WS, Understood. VAR has nothing to do with me complaining. Being an Army vet, I guess complaining about dumb decisions is too ingrained to ever stop.

    My conclusion is the center just assumed that the defender tripped and tackling Kane was just incidental contact rather than an intentional trip. A bad assumption.

  7. Kent James replied, August 29, 2019 at 10 p.m.

    Peter, that was my view as well.  If you look at the path of the defender and the path of Kane, the defender throws himself down in a desperate attempt to use his body to block the shot (though his outstretched arm would become problematic were Kane to shoot).  The defender and Kane are traveling on parallel paths.  He did NOT throw his body across Kane's path (as a lot of people claiming it was a clear penalty imply).  This is like a slide takle in reverse (head first instead of feet first).  Had Kane wanted to get to the ball, he could have avoided contact and gone straight to the ball...his path to it was not impeded.  But Kane went over the body of the defender (so it was Kane who changed his path, not the defender).  


    That being said, it certainly looks like a penalty, and had the ref called it in real time, I'm sure it would not have been overturned.  One could also argue that Kane was shielding the ball by positioning his body against the defender, and when the defender went down, that legal shielding meant that Kane tripped over the defender's body (and thus deserves the penalty).  The other argument in support of the penalty is that the defender put himself in a position he should not have been, and Kane used that position to "draw" a penatly.  Kind of like a forward seeking a defender's outstretched leg to trip on (though Kane's was not nearly so obvious as that).  I'm not a fan of forwards "drawing" penalties (because I think it violates the spirit of the game).  


    I think the bottom line is any call will be controversial in this situation, it would have been easier (on the ref anyway) if he had called it, but I understand why he didn't.  In terms of the spirit of the game (or what the game wants), I think if Kane was trying to draw a penalty, I'm glad he didn't get it.  If he was honestly trying to play the ball, and the defender prevented him from doing so, he should have gotten the penatly.  Only Kane knows the answer to that one (and the rules will never allow that level of precision on decision-making).  But PG is absolutely wrong that this was the fault of VAR (unless he's making the argument that there should have been MORE VAR, with Dean going over to the booth to review it, which historically PG has argued against).  This also proves that people that argue against VAR because it will remove controversy have nothing to worry about; as long as people are making the decisions, regardless of the technology used, we'll find something to argue about.   

  8. stan kull replied, August 30, 2019 at 11:01 a.m.

    I agree.  When I watched the game, I thought initially a penalty.  After the replays, Kane was not following the path of the ball, and fell into and over the defender with the minimal contact.

  9. Wallace Wade, August 29, 2019 at 10:14 a.m.

    I’ve been a referee for 30 years. I’ve never seen such a clear penalty. The only explanation is that the fix is in. Top level professional referee’s with the use of VAR can’t see that it’s a penalty?!?! Both should be suspended 

  10. Kevin Sims, August 29, 2019 at 11:08 a.m.

    Absolutely plain penalty. WOW!

  11. John Soares, August 29, 2019 at 12:26 p.m.

    Thank you, Paul.
    Keep'm coming.

  12. R2 Dad, August 29, 2019 at 12:32 p.m.

    All you needed to mention was Mike Dean--we know the rest!
    FIFA should have a confab with the head referee officials from ALL leagues next June to iron this out ahead of the 2020/21 season. Currently England's VAR is inferior to Germany's, which to be fair has had a couple more years of experience with it.

  13. beautiful game, August 29, 2019 at 10:09 p.m.

    IMHO, after VAR review there is no doubt that Kane is ahead of the defender and the latter lunges toward Kane...the lunge is caused by defender to upend Kane. Good discussion, but as always the usual crew over-analyses. If and and but are not part of the equation, amigos.

  14. Eric in DC, August 30, 2019 at 4:58 p.m.

    Maybe it’s me, but EPL started VAR and now every article is about how VAR is trash. How about comparing VAR in EPL to MLS? Seems weird to point one out and not regularly bang the drum on the overall poor quality of US officiating.

  15. R2 Dad replied, August 30, 2019 at 9:39 p.m.

    Great follow-up article opportunity for Ahmet.....hope he jumps on this. His quantitative approach and ref background make this story right up his alley.

  16. Paul Cox, August 31, 2019 at 6:55 p.m.

    I'm a ref. 

    I don't think this is enough to overrule the on-field ref, for me. Kane leans into the guy. He doesn't need to. 

    It's not a clear and obvious error; it's a subjective call, and it's not so glaringly obvious that it absolutely must be overturned- particularly in England, where (to be blunt) the referees allow more contact before calling a foul in the first place.


  17. cony konstin, September 7, 2019 at 11:58 a.m.

    We need radical change. We need new leadership. We need a 21st century master plan. We need to create THE USONIAN WAY. We need a cleansing. We need a Wyatt Earp not a Casper the friendly ghost to lead us out of this pile of minutia. WE NEED A SOCCER REVOLUTION IN THE USA. 

  18. cony konstin, September 7, 2019 at 11:58 a.m.

    We need radical change. We need new leadership. We need a 21st century master plan. We need to create THE USONIAN WAY. We need a cleansing. We need a Wyatt Earp not a Casper the friendly ghost to lead us out of this pile of minutia. WE NEED A SOCCER REVOLUTION IN THE USA. 

  19. Mikhail Pecherskiy, September 10, 2019 at 4 p.m.

     I am not a fan of Mike Dean. I think he is always in the midlle of the controversy almost in every game he participates in. However I think that in this particular situation He had made the fair decision because:
    1) Lascelles was trying to block the shot not to knock Kane down
    2) Kane did not try hard enough to keep the balance and make the shot. As i said before it was not a  right decision but it was fair decision

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