It was supposed to remove controversy. Establish clear rights from wrongs that the human eye can’t ascertain in real time. The theory of using technology to assist referees was a sound idea, it’s the inception that has been questionable. Even as the authorities iron out teething issues and officials acclimatise to the new era, Saturday’s game between West Ham and Manchester City revealed some fatal flaws.
VAR has been responsible for some controversial decisions before this weekend. We’ve seen a World Cup final swayed by a handball that the ref initially declared wasn’t deliberate. Upon being asked to review the incident it’s only natural the alarm bells begin to ring in his head. It’s not like there was a boxing-style judging panel at work behind the scenes. It’s reasonable to assume the ref felt VAR officials disagreed with the call and were giving him a second chance.
Watching back any handball in slow motion will change the colour of the argument and lead the referee to rule against the player. Unless the incident occurs at the Etihad in a Champions League tie. Fernando Llorente’s arm made contact with the ball and gave Spurs a vital goal that saw them progress to the next round.
The problem on that night was the referee didn’t have the full range of angles to make a measured decision. Viewers at home saw the ball hit the striker’s arm while the man making the important call was set up to fail. A rule with the pitch-side monitors should be that unless all available feeds can be presented to the ref, no VAR can be used.
The Llorente incident also highlights how a change of angle can make the same incident appear entirely different. No football ground comes with console game style replays, where any moment in time can be paused and viewed from any position imaginable. The rule makers will have you believe VAR is an objective device but depending what evidence is produced, it becomes a subjective experience.
On Saturday lunchtime, Manchester City once again saw VAR do its best OJ Simpson impression and failed to wear the gloves.
This time, the snug fit was even tighter than the infamous bloody hand garments. The VAR replay showed that Raheem Sterling had been deemed to have drifted offside by a couple of millimetres by virtue of his creeping shoulder. Despite how close it was, the law now emphasises that offside is offside, regardless of how small the gap. Something that Steve McManaman was quick to accept and drive home on BT Sport’s live commentary.
This law requires the acceptance that offside is treated like a ball going out of play, as David Walker from Read But Never Red explained in a Twitter post: “the ball going out of play…it is objective and will never be judged on being ‘a clear an obvious error.’” It’s worth noting David Walker sees the law as pedantic and agrees with the objections to its interpretation.
The technology can cope with fixed lines and known objects, such as balls. That’s why tennis and snooker have seamlessly incorporated Hawk-Eye technologies for years. Football is more complicated. It’s fine for Goal Line Technology and has been a success because it can apply the same principles. Calling an offside has too many moving parts. It becomes a subjective decision.
Firstly, a VAR official has to decide when the ball is played. At what nanosecond in time does that foot move the ball forward. Unlike snooker, where it can be deemed when the cue nudges a solid ball, we’re talking about a foot – seen from a camera in the gantry – that presses into a ball which changes shape slightly upon impact. At the same moment in time, the official needs to determine the movement and exact position of the last defender and attacking player.
Here’s the next – and for the Raheem Sterling incident – most subjective call of them all. The reference point of the player is the first part of his body he can legally score with, in this case it is deemed to be the shoulder. Some online have opened the debate that a defender can score an own goal with his arm, but to avoid adding another pedantic in an issue filled with them, we’ll stick to shoulders for now.
From that same far away, grainy camera shot, an official now needs to draw a downward line starting at the player’s shoulder. The best motion capture artists in Hollywood can’t determine exact body shapes with such restrictions. Even if the players were naked, it would be difficult to draw precisely from the shoulder. With a baggy football shirt, it’s impossible.
The millimetres that called Sterling offside could easily have been redrawn – without anyone raising an eyebrow – from a slightly different point on the alleged shoulder and declared him onside. The reference angle of anything is exaggerated the further away from the source. Think of a triangle. What starts as a millimetre travels to metres apart at opposing corners.
VAR isn’t going to disappear now but it can’t stay the same when it’s ruining games with long delays, killing celebrations, and making decisions based on subjective application of reference points. Until better technology exists, goals like Sterling’s should stand if both the attacking and defending lines are so merged. The margin of error is larger than the distances involved between the two lines.
VAR should be seen as a work in progress that was poorly implemented in the first instance and still looks shaky. Until everyone is more familiar with its restrictions, it should be pegged back and relied on less. Otherwise the most exciting league in the world will become the home of disbelief and frustration.