Premier League Review: Contro-VAR-sy©®™
After an opening weekend that almost felt like a false start, Video Assistant Refereeing properly arrived in the Premier League. There was irony and there was pathos. There was jeering and there was cheering. And there remains that nagging suspicion in the back of the head: what if this isn’t all just teething problems? What if this is the way that things are going to be now? I last touched upon the subject of the Robo-Ref during the summer break, and nothing I’ve seen over the first two round of fixtures in the Premier League this season to particularly change my viewpoint. The issues remain laws of the game that are not fit for purpose and an implementation that feels rushed, with technology that is not sophisticated enough to be able to do what it needs to be doing in the amount of time that it is required to do so.
The denial of Gabriel Jesus’s last-minute winner for Manchester City against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday evening was a perfect storm. Manchester City had spent the previous eighty nine minutes and fifty seconds playing their usual sparkling football, but a combination of profligacy in front of goal, a decent performance from Hugo Lloris, a decent first half shout for a penalty that was somehow missed by the referee, his assistants, and the All-Seeing Eye, and Tottenham taking their couple of chances when they had them meant that a sense of grievance was already in the air which was met with relief at the late goal. To have that chalked off likely felt like the ultimate insult. Never mind that every card is stacked in Manchester City’s favour in every footballing sense possible before a ball is even kicked. In that moment, it’s an irrelevance.
But on this occasion, the video assistant is the wrong target. The current laws of the game were correctly applied. The problem is that the current interpretation of the handball law has removed any reference to intention. If the ball strikes an attacker’s arm or hand in the build-up to a goal, it is going to be called back. The law, in this case, is most definitely an ass. But shooting at the wrong targets isn’t going to get the VAR abolished. It’s difficult to imagine the circumstances under which UEFA or FIFA would (short of concrete evidence that it was being used, say, to fix matches), and the Premier League doesn’t like being told what to do by fans much, either. I’d be pretty happy if VAR went away. I just don’t believe it’s going to.
Liverpool seemed a shade off-colour in their match at Southampton, but won anyway. See, that’s the problem with The Way Things Are Headed, isn’t it? The disparity has grown to such an extent that a fairly sizable number of matches each season are really not much more than exhibition matches for the top two, and we’ve become so used to this new world order that it only takes a match to feel competitive and we start considering the fact that Liverpool didn’t fire on all twelve cylinders to be some sort of character flaw, or something. It can’t be healthy, to be this way. Look. Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino both scored fine goals. It’s okay to shrug your shoulders and take the three points.
You’d bite someone’s right arm off for them if you were Newcastle United, because on the basis of their capitulation at Norwich City on Saturday you have to start wondering where their first win of the season is ever going to come from. With no-one expecting anything from them last weekend against Arsenal, they put in a reasonbly creditable performance. Goodness knows what happened to those players over the last seven days, but their dismal showing in East Anglia on Saturday doesn’t bode well for the rest of their season. Norwich City, meanwhile, demonstrated the value of intelligence scouting. Teemu Pukki arrived at the club on a free transfer, scored 29 goals last season, and has now scored four in two matches in the Premier League, including an opening goal at Carrow Road on Saturday that was straight out of the Jari Litmanen finishing school. Half Joe Camel and a third Fonzarelli, indeed.
Sheffield United were everybody’s pre-season favourites to go down, but they made it four points from two games when a goal from John Lundstram, scored two minutes into the second half, was enough to beat Crystal Palace at Bramall Lane. Chris Wilder might just be – as a song somewhere must surely go – a football genius in getting the club from League One to here in the first place. On the basis of what we’ve seen from their first couple of games, they might even be competitive. Crystal Palace, meanwhile, looked pallid and withdrawn. Is Wilfried Zaha’s summer dislocation the reason for this? If so, Palace supporters could be forgiven wondering whether he was worth hanging onto in the first place.
The other newly-promoted team, Aston Villa, took fifteen minutes to get going against Bournemouth, which was unfortunate since, by then they were two goals down, thanks to a dream start from debutee goalkeeper Tom Heaton, who clattered into Callum Wilson to concede a penalty kick in the forty-sixth second of his first appearance at Villa Park. Ten minutes later, Harry Wilson, the spermatozoon recently signed from Liverpool, scored a deflected goal but ran away with a face of the genuine delight at scoring that only comes with a debut goal from a youngster. That other team in claret and blue, Burnley, couldn’t scrape a result from a trip to Arsenal, for whom Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang offered a glimpse of what could be a happier season might look like, while the debut of Dani Ceballos was impressive. If Arsenal are still warming up, they could be in for an interesting season.
There was briefly beef over the departure of Marco Silva from Watford to Everton last year, but that seems to have dissipated somewhat over time, as though the supporters of both clubs sat down, gave it some thought, and decided, “You know what? May be this isn’t worth getting angry about after all.” Everton won by a goal to nil at Goodison Park on Saturday afternoon, a match decided by an early Caldeira Bernard before settling into an agreeable late summer’s afternoon slumber. Meanwhile, down on the south coast, it was Brighton & Hove Albion’s turn to get agitated over VAR with a disallowed goal, but Brighton’s performances over their first two games of this season have been so much better than most expected that the rage didn’t seem to dwell too long. Leandro Trossard, scorer of both their goal and their disallowed goal, looked very impressive indeed.
What, though, of the Premier League’s Rookie Managers Who Aren’t Rookie Managers But Kind Of Are And May Have Been Given Their Positions Because Of Who They Were As Players Rather Than What They’re Like As Managers? The reason people mock it is because it used to not work. Stuart Pearce. Alan Shearer. You get the picture. But what if it does work, in this day and age? It’s too early to tell, and Lampard remains a mixed bag. Chelsea were largely pretty good in the first half against Leicester City on Sunday afternoon as a match billed as a test of whether they’ll be able to cling onto to a top six place, in the first half, at least.
Their early goal came after seven minutes, gift-wrapped and sealed with a loving kiss by Wilfred Ndidi, whose dilly-dallying on the edge of his own penalty area allowed Mason Mount to nick the ball away from him and score. That was, however, roughly the high point of Chelsea’s afternoon. Leicester recovered their composure and, after Ndidi had redeemed himself by heading Leicester early in the second half, looked the more likely of the two teams to move on and win the match. James Maddison, in particular, had cause to hold his head in his hands when he blazed over the crossbar. Chelsea remain the Premier League’s curate’s egg, a mixture of good and bad, and Frank Lampard’s job is to iron out the bad whilst retaining the good. Simple, no?
And finally, on to Molineux last night and the match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United. Sigh. Okay. Soooooo… Perhaps it would be healthy to take a couple of steps back and ask ourselves the question of whether, in an overall sense, a draw was a fair result. Well, Manchester United bossed the first half and Wolves dominated the second, so…. yessss? It’s not quite that simple, of course, not in an era during which every single movement of every single player has to be analysed under an electron microscope. Very briefly, the Manchester United penalty was a pretty clear penalty – indeed, the lack of protest by the Wolves defender Conor Coady was so conspicuous by its absence that it was briefly tempting to wonder whether a penalty kick even had been given.
All of this proved to be something of an irrelevance when Paul Pogba smacked the ball against Rui Patricio’s legs and away to safety. There had to be substantial discussion of who, between Pogba and Rashford, should have taken the kick (after all, Rashford did successfully convert one against Chelsea last week), and certainly no-one was buying Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s post-match explanation that actually, Manchester United are now such a big club that they have two penalty takers nowadays. Well, that’s one more than they’ve got directors of football, at least. As with the Chelsea vs Leicester game, this was a tight-ish game between two well-matched teams. In neither case would it have been immediately obvious from the football on display that one was a pan-galactic megabrand. And perhaps that, when combined with the predictably frantic aftermath, is the problem. Stuck between commerce and sport, between the need for definitive decisions and “common sense”, we’re probably never going to be able to agree on what we want football to be again.