A Game Too VAR

A Game Too VAR

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.

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Manchester City Take it Away

Manchester City Take it Away

It a shame that the first Football Reflective post in little over a year, and the one to start a new season, is one that’s bound to aim negativity at the defending, record breaking, title retaining Premier League champions. If the sole purpose was to kick-off the 2019/20 campaign with a moan there were far easier targets, but we can save VAR for another day. And FFP is only ever two minutes away from another (well deserved) public stoning.

Manchester City caught the attention of the searchlight by skipping across the prison yard, hoping to escape with thousands of Ticket Points. Until Wednesday afternoon, all seasoncard holders were expecting to collect additional points for every away game they attended. The season long uncertainty for many: weighing up on which day of sale the window will open for them; will it even get that far down the list; should they buy for a dead rubber European away game to collect valuable bonus points, is now a thing of the past.

The new system strips away the secondary method of obtaining points. From now on, only matches played at home generate Ticket Points. This is an attempt to kill the secondary market of ticket resales. Or if we’re to call it for what it has become, touting. Those sat atop the Ticket Point pile can never be caught. They have first dibs on tickets so they always buy them, many regardless of their intention to attend or not.

It has to be said, this isn’t the case with all those rolling around in excess Ticket Points but it’s enough to ensure the points rich stay wealthy and the rest are left scrambling to get away games under their belt. Many will sell on at face value but there are those that profit financially. The problem with City’s new set of rules, is they effectively freeze the points system. Everyone desiring away games presumably has a seasoncard. Whatever the points gap is now, will never change.

Unless a person opts out of cup schemes or avoids the Platinum reward scheme. This has been much maligned over the years. The offer of paying £50 to double Ticket Points earned. A little brown envelope to the ticket office so they can make you appear more loyal. Unfortunately, what was once a subtle bribe will now become a necessity to prevent the 1% widening the gap during a period of stasis.

On top of the away game Ticket Points deletion, the upcoming season will see randomly selected supporters chosen to collect their ticket in person from the opposition’s ticket office. They will be given notice five days before. It’ll be interesting how many are selected per game, and how many then claim they’re actually unable to attend. In principle, this is a sound idea. It prevents the secondary market, it’s the execution City need to master. It was a disaster for European away games.

It’s also an option that should have been tried alongside the traditional method of issuing Ticket Points for away games. A strict vetting procedure could have stopped the 1% buying tickets for matches they couldn’t attend and allowed those below them to slowly amass some genuine points.

Instead, City have gone for the nuclear option. Hopefully this isn’t Phase 1 of a wider operation which sees the average fan further marginalised and given less hope of securing match day tickets.

On a plus note, they have acknowledged the difficulties facing younger supporters. If old fans in the Ticket Points middle ground can’t play catch-up, spare a thought for the 18 to 25-year-olds. They never stood a chance.  The new season will see 5% of away day ticket allocation going into a ballot. That comes out at 150 of 3,000 seats. This seems a fair reduction to general sale to get those denied by nothing more than their year of a birth, a chance to see the Citizens away from home.

Again, it’s a shame they won’t be awarded points for it. The status quo will remain. Unless the club have a wild card up their sleeve. Will they be monitoring fans that regularly attend away matches who would previously been denied due to their low points and inflate their Ticket Points accordingly come the end of May?

The new proposals are bound to receive a backlash. They deal out more punishments than rewards and fail to address underlying issues. It also opens the door for more tiresome “jokes” about empty seats. Hopefully, before next season City will conduct a proper consultation with a wider audience of the fanbase and not a select few who speak without elected authority.