VAR: Where next from 'armpit' offsides to frothing outrage?

'Armpit' offsides and a lack of transparency are undermining VAR but proclaiming the death of football on a weekly basis will solve nothing.

Published : Dec 30, 2019 22:40 IST

Anfield awaits a VAR decision after the match referee disallowed Sadio Mane's opener for a handball by Adam Lallana.
Anfield awaits a VAR decision after the match referee disallowed Sadio Mane's opener for a handball by Adam Lallana.

Anfield awaits a VAR decision after the match referee disallowed Sadio Mane's opener for a handball by Adam Lallana.

Somewhat fittingly for the week between Christmas and New Year, when excess chocolate and cheese can easily become a meal, the Premier League looks to have overindulged.

The newest gadgets can become tiresome through overuse at this time of year and the most recent rounds of fixtures in England's top flight might come to be seen as the moment when VAR ate itself.

Teemu Pukki, Wilfried Zaha, Dan Burn, Pedro Neto and Lys Mousset all had goals disallowed over the weekend when either themselves or teammates were shown to be offside by the barest of margins.

Video Assistant Referees were rolled out in the A-League, MLS, the Bundesliga and Serie A before their largely acclaimed use at the 2018 World Cup.

All the while, the Premier League watched and waited, observed trials in domestic cup competitions and came up with its method of operating VAR. "Maximum interference – maximum benefit" was the self-announced "philosophy" of the league back in July.

The reality could not be further from the truth. So how did we get to a situation where even demonstrably correct decisions using VAR are derided and how can it be fixed?

Armpit offsides

Sheffield United players remostrate with the referee Chris Kavanagh (C) after a VAR decision allowed Manchester City's first goal.

For VAR evangelists and members of the "game's gone" brigade alike, this unwanted entry into the footballing lexicon is an absurdity that must be swiftly banished.

Where the intention of VAR – and, it must be said, it's regular benefit – is to stop incorrect calls affecting the destiny of games, its implementation for offsides in the Premier League is too frequently adjudicating upon something no one thought was a problem in the first place.

Raheem Sterling and Roberto Firmino are among the players to have had goals ruled out for the positioning of their armpit in relation to the last defender, elevating a part of the anatomy previously irrelevant to football conversation.

"Armpit offsides" have best highlighted the problem of interpreting as absolutes the rules of a sport that have always contained huge scope for interpretation and subjectivity. When fans used to talk of the striker being "about level" or giving "the benefit of the doubt to the attacker" no one was looking at anybody's armpit.

READ | Premier League: Liverpool leans on VAR to edge past Wolves

Therefore, the whole thing feels alien. These infringements, if you can even call them that, are not what the offside rule was designed to prevent.

Things need to change quickly in this regard and waiting until 2020-21 feels far too late, considering the potential for weekend-to-weekend moaning and articles like this one in the meantime.

Graeme Souness' suggestion that any part of a player being level with the last defender should mean the attacker is onside could be the way to go. Even though this would simply shift magnified millimetre calls back a metre or so, it would bring most decisions into line with what most fans perceive to be onside and offside.

Another alternative would be a version of cricket's "umpire's call", where the assistant's onfield decision – Mousset being onside, for example – would be allowed to stand within a defined margin of error.

Using the Monitor

The Premier League tweaked the VAR system in order to interact better with the fans.

Remember the old riddle of what goes to every FA Cup final but is never used? Well, the pitchside monitor is the Premier League's modern-day equivalent of the losing team's ribbons.

From its pre-VAR ivory tower, the Premier League decided it disliked the spectacle of referees trotting over to the halfway line to pore over television replays.

That conclusion was not unreasonable. But referees standing with their finger pressed to their ear, while minimal information is presented to jeering and confused fans is worse.

There is no indication the Premier League's time-saving ploy of avoiding the monitor is saving any time. A referee contacting their video assistant and being seen to review the monitor before settling on their final decision is a more transparent process.

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The omnipresent murmurs of "what's going on?" means many do not trust a system that might never be fully trusted.

Before Champions League games – where VAR has also been far from perfect – a video is played inside the stadium outlining which decisions might be subjected to review.

The Premier League should consider something similar, while also making good on its guidance that allows a "definitive video clip to help explain what has happened" in the event of a changed decision to be shown on stadium screens.

"It's not football anymore"

Wolves' players argue with the referee after Pedro Neto's equaliser against Liverpool was disallowed for a marginal offside.

The Sheffield United fans were the latest supporters to break into this chant at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, a few moments before Manchester City fans – who had, of course, benefitted from Mousset being given offside – joined them in a more explicit chant at VAR's expense.

Phantom offsides and the various flaws in the Premier League's video assistants project mean such supporter anger is completely understandable. But the complaints from players, managers, pundits and others have become increasingly scattergun. Correct decisions are now also causing fury.

Take Sadio Mane disallowed and subsequently allowed goal for Liverpool against Wolves on Sunday. Anthony Taylor felt Adam Lallana handled in the build-up, while the replay showed the ball clearly struck the midfielder's shoulder. No handball, goal, job done.

Or - and we should sympathise with a Wolves team that must have walked under various ladders across broken mirrors this month -  the penalty incident in Manchester City's game at Molineux.

Referee Martin Atkinson rightly ruled Leander Dendoncker's upper-body contact on Riyad Mahrez did not constitute a foul. However, he did not see the Belgium international stand on the City winger's foot. The video official did, so a penalty was awarded. The system works!

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Sterling's saved penalty was booted behind by Conor Coady, but the Wolves captain was within 10 yards of the ball when the kick was taken. That amounted to clear encroachment and an unfair advantage when it came to making the clearance. A VAR intervention meant another chance for Sterling.

After the Liverpool game, a justifiably frustrated Nuno Espirito Santo bemoaned a video official "miles away" who "does not feel the game". With the greatest respect, this is nonsense. When has emotional investment ever been a desirable quality for an impartial adjudicator?

Support for introducing VAR grew out of persistent complaints about decisions from fans, coaches and the media, along with exhaustive frame-by-frame analysis of perceived injustices from any given weekend. Anyone claiming they enjoyed being repeatedly whipped up into that lather is being more than a little disingenuous.

Proclaiming the death of football every time a decision is reviewed and framing clearly explicable calls as the latest huge controversy is a waste of everyone's time and energy. As is using VAR problems as fuel for your latest conspiracy theory.

The Premier League must do away with trial by geometric microscope quickly and bring greater transparency into its VAR process. However, fans, professionals and those of us in the media need to meet the authorities halfway and raise the level of conversation above frothing outrage towards something more constructive.

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