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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Centurions

Centurions

Before 2017 was even over, pundits and fans started to ask: Is the current Manchester City side the best the Premier League has ever seen?

By April, the mere suggestion had morphed into serious debate. It seemed the crown was to be contested by Pep’s latest side, and this season’s Premier League champions, Arsenal’s Invincibles, and Manchester United’s treble winning team of ’99.

All had merits that were difficult to argue against. Arsenal hold one of the few records that the current City team didn’t break. It was of course, the honour of going a full 38 games without tasting defeat.

Nothing should take away from that feat – one which may never be beaten – but the table never lies (we’ll keep coming back to that cliché). This season, the Citizens won an incredible 32 games; the Invincibles drew 12 in their unbeaten campaign.

If Mayweather gets criticised for winning without being exciting, the old chants of “Boring, boring, Arsenal” can be shoehorned (if a little unfairly) into this debate. Arsenal took a great singular achievement – going undefeated – and have traded on it ever since. It kept Arsène Wenger in a job for a decade longer than necessary.

The United team from 1999 is remembered as an all-time great because of how it captured the perfect treble: league title, FA Cup, European Cup. The injury time heroics against Bayern Munich helped give the season a Hollywood ending, almost on a par with that Agüero moment.

But the table from that year paints a different picture. They edged out Arsenal by a solitary point, tying with them on most wins that year – 22. It was actually Leeds United that held the record for consecutive victories with seven.

It hardly reeks of domestic dominance.

By comparison, this season City smashed records for most away wins in a season (16); most goals scored in a season (106); best goal difference (79); and one that will stand the test of time like Arsenal’s Invincible record – breaking the 100 point barrier.

City were head and shoulders above the rest of the league during the 2017/18 campaign. Detractors can’t say the league isn’t as competitive as it was in 1999. Back then the traditional Big Four played without fear of failing to qualify for Europe. Nowadays there is a strong top six, and anyone outside it can win any given match.

The results, week-after-week, promote unpredictability. The only certainty, the season defining constant, was Pep’s men would continue to march onward.

The competitiveness and response to it was best summed up in the home game against Southampton. A team that would avoid relegation by three points managed to hold the Blues until the fifth minute of injury time.

Then along came Raheem Sterling, he linked up with Kevin De Bruyne with a quick return pass, and curled the ball into the net, and was probably this writer’s favourite goal of the 106 scored all season.

It kept the winning streak going, making it 19 on the bounce.

That defiance and determination to keep excelling propelled City to unimaginable heights. Guardiola’s style of football, which had faced doubters the season before, was now controlling the English game.

Armchair experts – whose simple solution to Pep’s possession-based attacking football was simply to press City into submission – had to sit stunned as the Blues steamrolled every team they faced. They made the Premier League look like the top-flight North of the border.

Unfortunately, the seven days of destiny became a week of despair as City lost to Liverpool in the Champions League twice and missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clinch the title at home by beating arch-rivals United.

In a way, it had to be this way. A strand of “Typical City” will always exist in the club’s DNA. If there’s a hard way to do something, that places untold strain on the hearts of supporters, City will find it.

But this time, it was a blip rather than a prolonged period of pain. It acts as a slight taint on an otherwise perfect league campaign. No one remembers the three teams that beat United in the league back in 1999, or the 12 times The Invincibles dropped two points as they went unbeaten.

City’s slight imperfections make for more dramatic stories.

But they shouldn’t be the story or cloud judgement. Remember, the table really doesn’t ever lie. After 38 games the only story that matters is told by points acquired, goals scored, goals conceded, and the gap created by these in relation to other teams.

If those damning statistics aren’t enough, remember how City achieved such a massive gulf. It was by playing the sort of football that turns drunks into poets. It’s more than just possession football; the ball isn’t kept for the sake of keeping it away from the opposition, it is kept to create dreamlike sequences.

No team’s highlight reel from any era is a such a pleasurable viewing experience.

Pep’s team are the first Centurions, this alone makes them deserving of being named best team the Premier League has ever seen. The manner in which they achieved it just underlines the point.

The scary thought: they are only going to get better.

(Photo credit: http://www.mancity.com)

The Real Fan Problem at Manchester City

The Real Fan Problem at Manchester City

After watching City overcome Monaco in one of the most exciting European nights imaginable, it’d be easy to think the next article will be wax lyrical about Pep Guardiola’s side. Or, perhaps to fit in with the mainstream media, it will take away from the spirit shown and focus on the many faux pas we saw and bemoan two poor defences. It will do none of these things but it will attack a certain element of Manchester City, while defending its most important aspect: The fans.

When Willy Caballero saved from Falcao’s penalty, this writer celebrated like City had won the Champions League, such was the level of tension and passion in the stadium. It was a night where the Etihad took it up a notch. The fans feeding off the team’s fight, the buzz energising the players. The perfect example of the symbiotic relationship that should exist between those in the blue shirts and those in the stands.

If the people that have the direct say in City’s success – the men on the pitch – can see the importance of the fan base, why can’t the people that organise the club’s affairs do the same?

The official line from Manchester City will be that the fans are the number one priority: #Together. It’s great marketing, and on some level, there’ll be people that work for the club who believe it. But constant oversight and a lack of corrective action makes one doubt how genuine the words are at corporate level.

Of course, the example last night, and reason for this article, is the continued problem of gaining entry to Etihad Stadium on match day – especially European nights.

To have it happen once is forgivable, twice is disconcerting but no major issue, for it to happen constantly with no cure in sight is sacrilege.

Just like the Celtic game at home, queues zigzagged around the concourse, patiently waiting in lines that needn’t be there but the club refuse to address. Thousands of fans – that have paid full price for their ticket – are expected to miss up to twenty minutes of the first half. All because of City’s arrogance.

Before we go any further, let’s nip the two favourite retorts in the bud once and for all.

Get to the ground with plenty of time to spare.

Fans shouldn’t have to arrive one hour prior to kick-off to ensure access to their seat.

Increased security measures will cause delays.

The extra searches do not slow down or hinder access to turnstiles. They mean the person(s) being searched are delayed by thirty seconds. The queue moves past them, the turnstile never stops turning.

Another, weakly spoken, response, is fans arriving at the wrong gate cause delays. This does happen, and cup games mean new guests or people in different seats, but it does not equate to thirty minute delays. If there is any argument for ticket issues, it’s staff not directing supporters quick enough when their card or ticket is repeatedly jammed into a turnstile that’s displaying a red light. Patience, in this moment, actually saves time.

No, none of the diatribe aimed back at the fans adds up. A main contributory factor is clear: unnecessary redesigns have purposely limited the volume of traffic at preferred gates.

Take the M2 to M1 situation. Once upon a time – before the club started their final corporate solution of hospitality clubs and glass tunnels – allowed fans in the third tier of the South Stand to use both turnstiles. And the traffic flowed, not a queue in sight.

Fast forward to the present day, a wall has been built meaning those gaining entry via M2 can’t walk across to the stairwell for the upper tier. The preferred upper class customer no longer need worry about the upper tier riff raff sharing their turnstile. They can watch them queue instead.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Donald Trump’s comments, it’s that people don’t like walls being built.

The annoying thing about this wall is that it has a lovely set of double doors. The same doors that are opened post-match to speed-up everyone’s exit from the stadium. But, for reasons known only to City – those doors must remain closed until the ref blows his whistle for the last time.

etihad-stadium-the-problem-doorIt’d make no sense to allow the queue to dissipate and direct people once inside. Best to keep lots of people disgruntled, right? And it means staff manning the M2 side get to stand around and avoid work based stress. Excellent for all involved…

etihad-m2-empty-gate

Maybe United fans not being in the Champions League have gotten the last laugh: it gives them a free night to take jobs at the Etihad and help run City’s European nights.

It’s not as if City don’t know how many people to expect or can’t call upon vast experience of running match days. No fan should have to wait thirty minutes to gain entry to a ground. And it keeps happening. Against Everton, as reported here, the staff at the turnstile broke procedure and opened the exit gates to allow fans in. That, obviously, can never be the solution, but by now there should have been one.

Instead City show signs of madness, repeating mistakes, expecting a different outcome, and continue to neglect the working class fan. You can put your mortgage on the fact that if ten corporate visitors were made to queue outside in the cold for twenty minutes into the first half, there’d never be anything that resembles a line of people within a mile radius of Eastlands ever again.

Traditional fans, worried about becoming marginalised, continue to see basic consideration diminish. There’s no suggestion here it comes right from the top – Sheikh Mansour has gone to great pains to maintain inclusion for all City fans, all over the world – it’s the daily heads of office that are guilty of mismanagement, oversight, and a lack of care.

The current entry system (not security checks, the poor use of all turnstile resources) is not fit for purpose. If the people responsible for direction and management of City match days do not use some common sense to remove the current façade, they make themselves as effective as the crippled system they stand by.

Before the decision makers in Abu Dhabi consider further expansion, player acquisitions or ground improvements, they should look at the basic running of Etihad Stadium. There’s a lot of deadwood that needs removing.