The misuse of VAR, the sins of goalkeepers ... and a big thank you to Lee Dixon

From the English Premier League comes more evidence that VAR -- a tool of undoubted value -- is being seriously misused.

Once again, the miserly NO GOAL sign flashed from the stadium screens, the mark -- by now almost the trademark -- of VAR at work. Leicester, Tottenham and Chelsea thought they had scored goals that were then denied by VAR decisions.

The Son Heung-min offside call.

All three verdicts resulted from offside infractions that VAR had detected, but that the referee had not. In the first incident, the canceling of Wilfried Ndidi’s goal for Leicester, VAR got it right. But the other two - ruling out a Serge Aurier goal for Tottenham, and a Cesar Azpilicueta goal for Chelsea were absurdly marginal.

In both cases the player offside was not the player who scored the goal. The alleged offside occurred in the buildup, and involved Son Heung-min of Spurs, and Mason Mount of Chelsea.

These were very close calls. The VAR replays show Mount with one foot offside. But with Son, the call is literally millimetric, absurdly so, and quite probably just wrong. Anyway, these are two calls that should not have been made. The human eyes of the referee and his assistant could not spot them. In neither case was there any sign of opposing players appealing for offside. Evidently, there was nothing “clear and obvious” to be seen.

(As for player protests: for the moment, the lack of such protests is a good way of determining that the offense was minimal or non-existent. Alas, once defenders realize (which they quickly will) that their silence works against them, they will start protesting at every opportunity).

All else being equal, both Spurs and Chelsea should have tied their games 2-2, not lost 2-1. Of course, we have no way of knowing what difference those “lost” goals would have made to the final scoreline. But it does seem likely that the VAR procedure -- which intervenes after an apparently legitimate goal has been scored -- and celebrated -- might well have a more damaging effect on team morale than an immediate on-field offside call. Chelsea coach Frank Lampard chose the right word when he remarked that his team were “deflated” by VAR’s NO GOAL decision.

I do not believe that VAR is either needed or wanted where these hairline calls occur. It is being used in situations where it should not be used. Bad enough - but worse, much worse, is the opposite case, where VAR is not being used where it is very much needed.

As it happened, it was again Chelsea that suffered from VAR’s mis-use, or in this case non-use. Just two minutes after Azpilicueta’s goal had been nixed by VAR, Liverpool charged to the other end of the field and scored to make the game 2-0 in their favor. Chelsea’s discomfort was not over. Five minutes later, Chelsea should have had a penalty kick. Referee Michael Oliver did not give it for reasons that will be familiar to readers of this column.

This is what happened. Chelsea’s Jorginho swung a 30-yard ball into the Liverpool penalty area, intended for the head of the 6-foot-3 Tammy Abraham. The ball never got to Abraham as Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian charged forward to grab it. He did so ... but only by crashing violently into Abraham. Adrian, leading with his right knee (raised so high that it was at the level of Abraham’s head) jumped into Abraham and knocked him down.

Referee Oliver saw nothing wrong with any of that and did not whistle for a foul. He did, rather nonchalantly, wave Chelsea’s physios on to the field. Abraham, by turning away from the charging Adrian, had managed to get his head out of the way of Adrian’s knee, but had received a violent blow to his shoulder.

By any reading of the sport’s rules that I can think of, that was a violent foul by Adrian, and therefore a penalty kick to Chelsea. How could referee Oliver miss that? Of course, Oliver didn’t miss it. He saw it. He’s seen plenty of similar plays, and has ignored all of them. That’s what he has learned -- or has been taught -- to do. It’s OK for goal keepers to violently assault opponents.

That is the view that is widely accepted in soccer. But it is obviously wrong, dangerously wrong. Why is it that no one protests? Is there not a single referee somewhere willing to speak up and protest that, by not making these calls, referees are almost inviting serious injuries? There is a great opportunity here for VAR to make the calls -- an opportunity that is not being used.

Within the policy of omerta that surrounds goalkeeper violence, I could also include the army of television commentators. The NBC telecast featured the usual crew -- play-by-play man Arlo White, plus analysts Lee Dixon and Graeme Le Saux, former players, both defenders.

But this time, things were different. Maybe, just maybe, things are changing. Maybe the light is beginning to break through. In the exchange between these three experienced TV guys, there was Dixon insisting this was a foul, with both he and Le Saux stating that goalkeepers “get away” with things.

This is the first time I’ve heard a straightforward discussion of such matters on television. It’s worth pondering. This is my edited version of it (all non-goalkeeper stuff taken out).

* * * * * * * * * *

NBC Telecast Chelsea vs Liverpool, Sept. 22, 2019
Commentators: Arlo White, Lee Dixon, Graeme Le Saux

35:10 (score is 0-2). Jorginho (Chelsea) swings 30-yard ball into the Liverpool penalty area toward Chelsea forward Abraham. Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian charges off his line to grab the ball, which he does. He also smashes violently into Abraham.

WHITE: Abraham can’t get there before Adrian. [White does not mention the collision] Abraham stays down.

DIXON: Yeah, his foot was up, Adrian’s, wasn’t it? Coming out, to protect himself, often the goalkeeper will leave his foot up there. ... if a [field] player did that -- jumped to head the ball and stuck the foot up ... the referee would give a free kick”

Goalkeepers get away with stuff, don’t they?

[watching replay]

Just watch him coming out -- foot comes up, knee in the back of the head ...

WHITE: That’s done in self-preservation though, isn’t it?

DIXON: They do it to protect themselves, but they injure people. I’ve known enough goalkeepers who tell you in training [that] they come out to protect themselves, but also to hit somebody ... so be it, that’s just the way it is. Because it’s a specialized position ... they put their hands up to get the ball and they drop it, they get a free kick -- because they say he shouldn’t really drop it, he must have been fouled  .. but a lot of the time they’re not.

[37:00 play resumes]

DIXON: I’m not letting this go ... I think that’s a foul. If that’s a centerback comes to head it -- and follows through with his knee that high up and hits him in the back of the head ...

WHITE: ... reckless, isn’t it?

DIXON: ... it’s a foul.

WHITE: Care to add anything Graeme?

LE SAUX: Well, technically it’s endangering an opponent isn’t it? But you’re never going to see a referee give a decision for that ... it’s an accepted part of the game ... a specialized position, they get away with different behavior, goalkeepers.

WHITE: They’re a little bit strange, aren’t they, goalkeepers?


* * * * * * * * * *

Just about everything that’s wrong with current goalkeeper behavior is in that exchange: Injuring players, special treatment from referees, dangerous fouling that is accepted by everyone. The exchange finishes with laughter. That, too, is usual. Making fun of goalkeepers’ antics -- which are too menacing to take seriously.

But there is nothing funny about those injuries -- especially now that we know so much about the dangers posed by head injuries.

Aggressive, reckless goalkeeping must be a thing of the past. It cannot be allowed in the modern game. And a big thank you to Lee Dixon for speaking out on a serious topic that so many simply fail to recognize.

21 comments about "The misuse of VAR, the sins of goalkeepers ... and a big thank you to Lee Dixon".
  1. Wallace Wade, September 26, 2019 at 3:15 p.m.

    VAR is ruining Premier League Football 

  2. Kent James, September 26, 2019 at 3:35 p.m.

    I didn't see the games, and I usually think PG protests too much about these things, but he certainly appears to be right about these examples.  The knee on Adrian is being used in a particularly aggressive manner.  This is not a case of 50/50 ball with both having an equal shot, just coming from different directions.  

  3. Clive Toye, September 26, 2019 at 4 p.m.

    $occer is in danger of becoming a VARce.

  4. Paul Berry, September 26, 2019 at 4:25 p.m.

    I posted a graphic of Son's offside in an MLS forum and asked if it was "clear and obvious".

    I was told that VAR has been implemented differently in the Premier League.

    How can the rules of the game be different in different countries? It's bad enough that it's only been implemented in the top-fight.

    FIFA needs to ensure that the rules of the game are applied consistently.

  5. Peter Bechtold replied, November 8, 2019 at 11:25 a.m.

    The problem is not VAR(a mechanical device). The problem is how it is used. At WC '18 in Russia it worked very well; global concensus. The worst ? England's EPL. Why ? Because the English (FA) once again wanted to be aloof from the rest of the world. MLS with all its fault has superior use of VAR. Just look at more than one country and you will see.

  6. Peter Bechtold, September 26, 2019 at 5:44 p.m.

    Paul K.: Your headline and subsequent text is missing two words:"In England/Britain". For those of us following the game globally, we have noticed long ago that FIFA rules are interpreted differently in Britain from most of the continent, and from Europe to Latin America, inter al.
    The British allow much more "physicality" than the others, and the results have their positives and negatives. The positives include that players generally jump up quickly after being hit and resume running and there is much less rolling around the ground and protesting. The negatives result from having increasingly mixed teams in terms of nationalities and styles.
    Also, remember that VAR in England was introduced much later than in Ger/Fra/Russia WC and hopefully the system will improve over time.

  7. frank schoon replied, September 27, 2019 at 9:37 a.m.

    Peter, so true, for in Holland when a ref calls a foul of which often Dutch critics would say in England this wouldn't be called a foul....Critics in Holland say our players are becoming "wussified" as due to the lame ref calls. In Holland we view English players as hard-nosed but never dirty. I remember when Latin teams in the 70's and 80's would come over to play in England and would get upset by a hard-nosed British tackle and took offense to it, but now the Latin players have adjusted and learned to not think it as offensive but understand that's how the Brits play.

    As far as I'm concerned the VAR has opened up a new can of worms. It was suppose to settle and put an end to disputable calls, but I'm afraid we now see more than ever discussions and more disputes going on about fouls. I wouldn't miss if the they stop this VARCE { patented by Clive Toye :) }

    We are now are looking at off-side calls that have to do with millimeters and centimeters of which the public, themselves are unaware off. IF the public can't see the difference than leave it be.
    We've going too far with the VAR thing and it it's beginning little by little to leave the human parameters of the ref.

  8. Robin Buss, September 26, 2019 at 6:52 p.m.

    Paul - It’s good to know someone is watching this English VAR abomination. However, you missed the first disallowed goal of the weekend when Bournemouth had one crossed off on Friday. It was my first VAR experience and I will admit that it was clear and obvious from the in-stadium screen that the length of King’s toes on one of his feet were over the electronic line!

    So that’s four VAR goals chalked off over the weekend, however by Monday morning this was down to three as it was reported that the referee in the Arsenal Aston Villa game had missed an Arsenal player standing less than one metre away from an Aston Villa wall situation that resulted in a goal. 

  9. Sam Bellin, September 26, 2019 at 8:05 p.m.

    VAR is a complete disaster.  In a sport that surely needs more scoring it does nothing but take away goals for minimal and inconsequential "infractions."  It is almost never used to promote good offensive play or scoring chances -- don't even know how it could be.  It detracts immnesely from the spectator experience, since you can no longer trust your own eyes to tell you what happened, and it has to be a huge deflator for the victimized team.  As for goalkeepers, PG is 1000% correct.  They are allowed to hit like NFL linebackers, endangering any player in the box, and further limiting legitimate scoring opportunities.  You go Paul Gardner!   

  10. Kent James replied, September 29, 2019 at 11:28 a.m.

    The way VAR can allow more goals is not particularly visible.  ARs are instructed to let "close" calls go, on the assumption that if the player was offside, the goal will be nullified.  So theoretically, there should be no more bad offside calls nullifying goals.  But it's hard to notice what's not happening. 

  11. Robin Buss, September 26, 2019 at 8:06 p.m.

    As an addendum to my previous post I would like to add, that as an ex-USSF referee now living in England, and as regular reader of Paul Gardner's articles for some 40 years, I fully agree with his criticism of Michael Oliver. It is amazing to me that he is considered the top referee in England. I'm also a Chelsea supporter who saw Match of the Day on Saturday evening where the Chelsea disallowed goal was  highlighted. But there was nothing about this incident with Adrian and Abraham - nor anything in the Sunday papers.

  12. beautiful game, September 26, 2019 at 9 p.m.

    Watched that game which PG pointed out and the keeper looked like a hired assassin. As for the VAR & off-sides, a simple solution for off-sides is day-light between two players. LOTG need to be simple and enforceable. The on-going saga of enforcing 'selective fouls' and neglecting the unselected fouls in LOTG is hypocrisy. The game is suffering transparency and FIFA enables it.

  13. Bob Ashpole, September 26, 2019 at 11:38 p.m.

    When inexplicable decisions are made by officials one has to wonder if gamblers are involved. It certainly is suspicious.

  14. frank schoon, September 27, 2019 at 9:51 a.m.

    As far as goalkeepers go, players, like myself, always knew that goalies will come out with their knee raised in order to protect themselves. That means, I won't act like Kamikaze going into the goalie., and therefore you let the goalie have the's that simple. I see far ,far  more goalies getting injured in plays than I see field players after a collision.
    Yes, their will be fouls made by a goalie, but rarely on purpose, of which there are so few and far in between. The worse one was in '82 WC with Schumacher against Gengini of France and never got called for it. Most fouls happen with field players.
    I just think since the introduction of this monstrosity called the VAR more discussions have been generated about fouls and fouls and more fouls, and goalie fouls and what not, making me almost think is this the same game that I played for so many years without all this garbage about fouls. 
    This is just crazy!!

  15. Wooden Ships replied, September 27, 2019 at 10:56 a.m.

    I’m with you Frank, as a striker I always knew Keepers had the right of way at our intersection. 

  16. Bob Ashpole replied, September 27, 2019 at 5:11 p.m.

    Me too, but in the rare case when a keeper takes out an opponent with a punch or knee strike to the head, the officials need to act. 

    Ask any boxer. There is a difference between covering up and punching.

  17. frank schoon replied, September 27, 2019 at 5:26 p.m.

    Bob, that goes without saying but that goes for any player on the field regardless of being a goalie..

  18. Gary Levitt, September 27, 2019 at 9:54 a.m.

    VAR is wrong for this sport in many ways.  Goal line technology should remain.  VAR needs to be shut down.  

  19. Wooden Ships replied, September 27, 2019 at 10:58 a.m.

    Agree Gary, but too many non players have taken over the game.

  20. frank schoon replied, September 27, 2019 at 11:19 a.m.

    Ships, you hit the nail right on its head, " too many NON PLAYERS have taken over the game.". That ,to me, has been the problem, at all levels, coaching and the coaching school, reffing,the whole USSF organization, Cruzeiro is a perfect example...The dutch KNVB coaching is run by a bunch of professors, not "REAL" soccer players...look what they bring over here from the KNVB to help USSF soccer..what a joke. Wiel Coerver made mincemeat out the KNVB on just this issue and that's why have today the Wiel Coerver methods something these lame brains these Non Players should have thought up and produced at the national coaching school for their coaches. It were the Non Players that screwed over Teofila Cubillas as you so well know in getting his license....

  21. Goal Goal, November 7, 2019 at 10:53 p.m.

     Keep the game in the hands of the officials.  If you see the need to use VAR put it between the posts.  Did the ball cross the line or didn’t it.  Goals are what affects the game.  

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