Reflecting on VAR and its overly accurate mischief

Soccer is one of our favourite pastimes around here. For me, it usually is a quiet weekend afternoon where I go with the flow of the game. I jubilate when a goal is won and quibble with the screen about why that player lost that one. I enjoy my quiet tipple and watch on.

That was until that Premier League match two weeks ago when the video assistant referee (VAR) deemed a player's big toe offside — the big toe! Because of it a goal was disallowed. I’ll revert to this in a moment.

The essence of game is that when you have a group of individuals at play, even human error is part of the game. Humans are unpredictable and prone to errors, including those of judgment by referees, or the overenthusiastic tackles that could down or injure an opponent.

The VAR can only add to the unpredictability that makes the game, but seems to have overdone itself on occasion. Though it was introduced to clean up such errors and make the game more objective, the technology has inherent shortcomings that have been impacting the enjoyment of the game.

This is particularly in national leagues in Europe including the English Premier League where it has raised much concern.

In Africa, such concerns are yet to be heard, Morocco having become the first African country to introduce VAR in a domestic match only two weeks ago.

But, in the recent past in the English league, clubs and fans – including some of us watching on TV – have been critical of the technology over long delays and a lack of clarity over what is happening as the VAR is being consulted.

Another more cynical concern is that the VAR has on a number of occasions has, ironically, proved itself too objective as to be absurd in its accuracy.

Which is what happened the match I mentioned above on 9th November that Tottenham Hotspurs were hammered 4-0 by Sheffield United.

The moment came one hour into the game, when Sheffield’s David McGoldrick applied the finish to Enda Stevens’ cross and put the ball into the net. No one could have doubted the well taken goal.

But then, the large screen showed that the goal was being checked by the VAR, to which Referee Graham Scott deferred to decide on it.

It was not a goal, the VAR decided.

Two things happened. The first is the time it took to come up with the verdict and, the second, how the VAR arrived at the decision.

The VAR took 3:47 minutes to make the decision – a very long time in football. To put it in perspective, this how The Guardian’s Richard Williams describes how valuable just a few minutes can be in football.

He used the example of the match those of a certain age may still remember. Williams wrote: Twenty years ago in the Nou Camp [those few minutes were] long enough to enable Manchester United to recover from a position of defeat at the end of 90 minutes against Bayern Munich and, with the German club’s ribbons already on the trophy, to use added time first to draw level and then to win the Champions League final.

Those three minutes contained as much drama and emotion as some entire seasons.

Consider the Sheffield-Tottenham match. The nearly 4 minute wait, and the anxiety of not knowing what was being checked must have been excruciating for some who watched the game, thus one of the criticisms of the VAR.

The second agony for the losers is how the VAR arrived at the decision. It deemed John Lundstram’s big toe had been offside. He’s the one who had initially received the ball which he crossed to John Fleck, who fed it to Stevens and McGoldrick scored the disallowed goal.

Consider at that distance between the offending toe and the three passes before the goal. Perhaps it was objective, but the accuracy three moves removed made an unnecessarily too fine a point.

From his body language, the human referee would have allowed the goal.

No matter, however, the VAR is here to stay and may not be as inept as it seems. Available premier league data shows that refereeing accuracy in “key match incidents” has gone up from 82 per cent last season to 91 per cent this.

The clubs and fans concerns have also been heard. The statement by Premier League last week explains that, among other tweaks to the VAR, giant screens will, beginning this December, contain more information than they have up to now. For instance, instead of displaying “Checking Penalty” it will now say “Checking Penalty – Possible Handball”.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.