Manchester United and VAR – Size Matters

The Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) system has been ’busy,’ proving fundamental to two, arguably three, of the week’s four Uefa Champions League (UCL) ties, for good or ill. It ruined the weeks of Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and Paris Saint-Germain’s (PSG’s) Neymar Junior, for which we should probably all be grateful. It took Porto, correctly, and Ajax, arguably less so, into the last eight. And it has surely given the Manchester United manager’s job to Ole Gunnar Solksjaer on a permanent basis. However, ultimate responsibility for the Manchester United decision was not the VAR system, one of many things overlooked in the aftermath of the match.

Slovenian match referee Damir Skomina awarded Man Yoo a stoppage-time penalty for a handball by PSG centre-back Presnel Kimpembe. This was based on advice from the VAR to examine the incident, which Skomina clearly noticed, having originally given a corner. But Skomina himself was the ultimate decision-maker, the man to whom Solskjaer and other Manchester United-related people should send their gratitude. The decision looked ridiculous to me at the time, and I was listening to BBC Radio 5 Live’s coverage. Having now seen BT Sport’s TV coverage, the decision looks even more ridiculous. Kimpembe leapt and turned in an effort to block United full-back Diogo Dalot’s out-of-the-ground-bound shot. The ball struck Kimpembe’s right elbow as he pirouetted in the air, his arm moving away from the ball’s flight path as he turned.

You could argue about whether it was a penalty. The “VAR Protocol,” incorporated within the ‘2018/19 Laws of the Game,’ states that “the original decision given by the referee shall not be changed unless the video review clearly shows that the decision was a ‘clear and obvious error’.” The key question in the original VAR guidelines was not “was the decision correct” but was it “clearly wrong.” Skomina, it seems, asked the wrong question. If he thought Kimpembe’s arm was in an unnatural position, I’d like to see how he jumps. And if Kimpembe’s intent was ‘clear and obvious,’ it was clearly and obviously not to handle/elbow the ball.

The only clear and obvious argument for giving the spot-kick was the new concept of “making your body bigger.” In a detailed mid-February briefing of Uefa’s top referees, Uefa’s Chief Refereeing Officer Roberto Rosetti detailed the criteria for awarding penalties for handball via VAR advice. And he told Uefa’s website on 11th February that: “The VAR will intervene for handball situations according to the following criteria. Deliberate act, making contact with the ball, with arm or hand. Movement toward the ball. Distance. Unnatural position of the arm, making his body bigger.”

However, the actual ‘2018/19 Laws of the Game’ state: “Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or the arm. The following must be considered: the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand), the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball), the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an offence.” The ‘making the body bigger’ stuff is, seemingly, Rosetti’s own private handball law. On 23rd January, he said, a little oddly: “When the arm is totally out of the body above the shoulder, it should be penalised. If the defender is making the body bigger to block the ball, it is not fair. If he is trying to spread his body, it is a handball.”

But this interpretation won’t be football law until 1st June, as confirmed only last Saturday at football law-making body the IFAB’s AGM in Aberdeen, where Technical Director David Elleray explained that “the body has a certain silhouette” and “if the arms are extended beyond that silhouette, then the body is being made unnaturally bigger.” Under such circumstances, even accidental handball will be penalised. Elleray added that “players should be allowed to have their arms by their side because it’s a natural silhouette.” But the former Harrow public school teacher clearly, like Skomina, seems to be seriously suggesting that defenders should only pogo into aerial challenges in future. It would seem, size matters only to VARs. And now Presnel Kimpembe.

Five Live’s coverage, to a point (the point, arguably), had been excellent. There were was no hint from co-commentators John Murray and Pat Nevin of anything untoward. Murray was surprised that Dalot’s shot had “flown up and away… via a deflection off Verratti” and insisted “United must score” from the corner originally given by Skomina, as “they’re heading out of the Champions League as it is.” Nevin, too, didn’t “see that as a corner,” adding: “He’s not missed a thing, has he, the referee? I thought (Dalot) blazed that over but he’s spotted it right away.” After Skomina pointed to the spot, he suggested: “I don’t think a Manchester United supporter, for the rest of history, will ever argue against VAR.”

Likewise with BT Sport’s coverage. Darren Fletcher and Steve McManaman were merrily discussing United’s prospects from the corner, even after the first TV replay. Fletcher only noted that the ball “did collide with the arm of Kimpembe” when the TV pictures showed Skomina halting play. McManaman squeaked a little “wow” when Skomina trotted to the touchline after the VAR advised him to have a look at the incident. But Fletcher introduced the key element to the decision. “I was at a briefing with Roberto Rosetti. And if you make your body bigger, they’re going to give it,” he said. Fletcher then said “Peter Walton [BT Sport’s in-house refereeing controversy consultant and ex-Premier League referee] “has just said to me that he thinks it’s a penalty”, to which McManaman added: “Funnily enough, I was speaking to Rosetti before the game.” (Rosetti’s side of this conversation remains unknown).

Skomina pointing to the spot left McManaman non-plussed. But the greatest volumes were spoken by the five-second silence from both mic-men as the importance of the decision sank in. And Walton’s post-match insistence that it was a penalty suggested that he hadn’t jumped in a while, either… although this should probably be considered in the light of the fact he has previously  gained a reputation for supplying little more than referee’s apologism in this role. Ex-Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand’s dismantling of Walton’s theories on standing up straight, meanwhile, was wonderful to watch.

Amid the rubble, the “magic of the Champions League’ contorted opinions still further. Solskjaer’s defensive organisation had been consistently pummelled by Nevin. “We’ll not mention it again but it’s a mess,” he noted after half an hour during which it had been “too easy” for PSG to get down United’s right flank and accusing United’s right-sided players of “compending (sic) the situation.” Straight after the match, he admitted that United had “been a shambles for 35 minutes and rode their luck” thanks to the “awfulness of their tactics.”

However, 5 Live were soon writing the winner’s history. “VAR certainly played a part,” Murray understated. Presenter Mark Chapman admitted that you’d be “fuming” if that decision went against you. That, however, was it for quite a bit. Studio pundit Charlie Adam was articulate and insightful all match, including his dissection of Solskjaer’s tactical shortcomings. But afterwards, he took thirty seconds to lurch from bemoaning Solksjaer for changing formation “three, four, five times” without solving the right-back issue to “people said, tactically will he be good enough. He’s shown tonight why he should be given the job.” He then suggested that moving Ashley Young into his normal wing-back position was “brave” rather than a tacit admission of tactical error in the first place.

By now, Nevin had read the pro-Solskjaer memo and discovered a previously unheralded “complete” understanding of his tactical switches. “That’s what the top managers do, they see things in a game,” Adam added, Solksjaer’s first half problems slipping his mind too. “I’m not sure you could claim that as tactical genius,” Chapman interjected, laughing, as Adam attempted to add injured striker Romelu Lukaku’s late retreat to defence to Solksjaer’s roll of tactical honour.

It took French journalist Julien Laurens to provide a little broader perspective, biased and speaking through gritted teeth though he was. Maintaining the ‘tactical genius’ narrative, Chapman asked if Solksjaer had “out-thought” PSG boss Thomas Tuchel. “I don’t think Solskjaer out-thought anyone,” Laurens noted, suggesting it was “more a game that PSG lost than Man United won.” “Are you giving Solksjaer any credit?” Chapman pleaded. “I don’t think United played football tonight,” Laurens responded, ungraciously if not entirely unfairly, before further suggesting the numeric impossibility that in the first half “they didn’t create anything whatsoever and in the second half they created even less.” He begrudgingly accepted, however, that “they still won the game, so he deserves some sort of credit, I guess.”

By now, Nevin was in full revisionism mode, claiming that “Solksjaer’s tactics were brilliant tonight because there was only one way he could have won that game… and he found it.” But he had to admit that United “really got lucky too” as Laurens almost dissolved in disbelief before him. Laurens claimed, more credibly and in agreement with the ‘old’ Nevin, that the win had “nothing to do with Solksjaer’s tactics.” Nevin interrupted, apologising for “coming over” Laurens and lauded Solksjaer for changing tactics “about six times in the game.” “From a biased Man United position, they all worked,” Nevin concluded, again begging the question of why they were changed in the first place. “He could have 25 times changed his tactics,” Laurens retorted. “His tactics did not have any impact on the game… the only way they scored their goals was through PSG mistakes.” And, of course, a certain penalty decision.

In one way, Manchester United have been unlucky this week. Their actual result was truly outstanding, even if the “Miracle of Paris” of newspaper headlines were a little overstated. Even this, however, has been overshadowed, at least outside the UK, by the decisive enabling circumstances by which it came about. Furthermore, this wasn’t even the result of the week – there’s no week when that accolade shouldn’t fall to Ajax putting four goals past Real Madrid in the Bernabeu.

In every other way, United rode the combined luck of the Irish and the Devil. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a bit of a Solskjaer fan. He has done a great job since his predecessor left Old Trafford. United were down almost an entire team going into Wednesday night’s match, and you couldn’t but be moved by some of the side-stories, especially 17-year-old 87th-minute substitute Mason Greenwood having to literally be ‘back at school’ on Friday. But United’s win must be ascribed to Skomina’s curious interpretation of ‘ball-to-elbow’ and the pressure exerted on referees to penalise offences which don’t yet exist, rather than to VAR itself.

Still, Paris Saint-Germain were robbed, which means their owners, Qatar Sports Investments, were robbed. Not all bad, then.