Finn Ranson looks at how VAR could affect the future of football.
For me, the trouble with VAR is not the lack of accountability. It’s not the delays in play, or the passion it’s taking out of celebrations, or even that it neglects fans in the stadium. It is the fact that the game finds itself neck-deep in questions I think football fans do not really care about.
I think the only solution is a tennis or cricket-style challenge system. Each team would have two VAR reviews at their disposal which the manager could use any time the ball is out of play with a word to the fourth official. If the challenge turns out to be incorrect, the team loses a review. The risk of this would be managers challenging every goal their team concedes, on the off chance there was some minor misdemeanour in that passage of play. There would be more goal checks than ever – more delay. But a review system would solve some far greater evils.
There have been three phases of the video assistant referee (VAR) debate. The first, predating the 2017-18 season, was the mystical. Nobody really quite knew what was going to happen, so there were two broad tribes. One side, the pro-technologists, bemoaned football’s dinosaurs and told us that VAR was an essential, really an inescapable, modern evolution because the technology was available and anyway every other sport was doing it. The other side, the anti-interventionists, bemoaned this tribe of laptop-wielding geeks who did not understand the passion of the beautiful game: why change what had worked for 150 years?
Phase two began with the men’s World Cup and spiked in the first weeks of this year’s Premier League season. Whichever side you were on, the whole thing was fascinating – the quaint way the referee would trace a little box with his fingers, the chants of ‘VAR my Lord, VARRRR’ from Spurs fans, the sense of coming one step closer to consistency. They would talk about Stockley Park on Match of the Day and podcasters would gleefully pore over clear and obvious fouls and camera frame rates – rarely in agreement, but strangely relishing this new pedantry.
But phase three was coming. Now, we are in the realm of disillusionment – post-VARism – and, oh Lord, we are not really only seven games in, are we?
My disillusionment set in when I was watching Leicester’s match against Tottenham on Match of the Day – or what I thought was Match of the Day. Actually, I was glued to some kind of blurry tutorial in Microsoft Paint as two tiny dotted lines sprouted from Son Heung-Min’s armpit and Jonny Evans’ kneecap. You know the one – Son’s flap of skin on the tip of his elbow was eventually found to be offside and Leicester went on to win the game. Was there a substantial advantage? That is irrelevant. The more pressing question at that moment was why the hell I was watching this painstaking, mind-numbing adjudication.
VAR has treated us to some exceptional drama – like Sterling’s disallowed winner against Spurs in the Champions League last season, or that chaotic World Cup group stage clash between Portugal and Iran. But there was nothing at all chaotic about Son’s offside decision – it was dry, boring and ridiculous.
VAR has not brought cast iron ‘justice’ to a sport, it’s dragged its nebulous concept kicking and screaming into entertainment. Every week we are confronted with the reality that VAR is not just enforcing the rules. VAR is playing God. It’s drawing up a whole new set of rules by seeing and officiating gameplay that would never have been perceptible before – Son’s offside elbow, or Laporte’s handball against Spurs. Did we want justice to be this stringent?
Football’s joy is the licence it gives us to really care about something that doesn’t ultimately matter a great deal. VAR, bristling with too many answers, threatens that balance.
But then it’s all well and good romanticising football as a game of chancy chaos when you have injustice like Chelsea’s equaliser against Cardiff last year: Caesar Azpilicueta heading in when he was a foot offside. No football fan would wilfully embrace that kind of error, never mind the players or an embattled Neil Warnock. Why choose ignorance over knowledge?
The deeper problem now is that we cannot go back to pre-VAR football and the first phase. It would feel too fake, too put-on, all the controversy and the moaning at referees, the illogicity always haunted by the spectre of Neil Swarbrick and his fairer, more logical system. The cat is out of the bag and it’s defecating all over the place.
The challenge system is the way out of this mess. It would ensure a proper definition of ‘clear and obvious’: if a manager hasn’t seen it (albeit barring those speculative punts after conceding), then VAR does not get involved. It would give us an antagonist again (‘What are you doing, Fraudiola?!’) without the crushing injustice of one man or woman making a decision that everyone else can see is wrong. And by the same token, it would curtail VAR’s overbearing logic with human error. Then, perhaps, might we pray for some madness to this logic, some football to this draining pedantry. Please, VAR, my Lord?
Follow Finn on Twitter @finnbrranson