VAR & Football’s Unequal Evolution

by | Jan 18, 2019

In the end, Derby County found themselves digging their way out of the hole in which they’d found themselves in the first place. After having fallen two goals behind at Southampton in Wednesday night’s FA Cup Third Round replay, they hauled themselves back in to the match before going on to win the ensuing penalty shoot-out at St Mary’s. But things might have all been different. Before the scoring opened in the second half, Derby had a goal disallowed upon review by the most marginal of offside calls, certified by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) being utilised in the competition this season.

Generally speaking, the application of VAR during last summer’s World Cup finals in Russia was considered a success, but its return in the domestic game has seen the return of familiar complaints about the nature of its application. Certainly, it’s already changing the way in which we watch football. During extra-time in Wednesday night’s FA Cup match, a Southampton player going down under a tackle inside the penalty area was greeting by a vociferous chant of “VAR VAR” from the home supporters, for example.

What the disallowed goal during this match demonstrated, perhaps, was not so much an issue with VAR itself as with the laws of the game. Whether it was correctly called as offside or not remains a subjective question, and the answer to this question will vary depending on one’s allegiance at any specific moment, as well as on the different and varying interpretations of the laws of the game as they stand.

But therein lies the rub. When things go wrong, the blame will inevitably be shouldered by the technology itself, but there is perhaps a case for arguing that the big issue here isn’t so much the technology as the way in which it’s being implemented. VAR is used on the basis of “reviewable decisions”, and there are four “match-changing” areas for which it is called into play in the FA Cup and League Cup this season:

  • Goal/no goal decisions
  • Penalty/no penalty decisions
  • Direct red card decisions (not second yellow card decisions)
  • Mistaken identity

The guidelines are very thorough throughout in their repetition of the words “clear” and “match-changing.” What is clear from reading them – perhaps above anything else – is that those writing them want very much to give the impression that VAR will only be used to decisively define decisions that are obvious. The problem, however, is that what happens on a football match is seldom as clear cut as any booklet or PDF document might be able to make it sound, and under the goal/no goal section of the guidelines, the inherent contradiction at the heart of all of this rears its ugly head.”Goal/no goal” is defined thus: An offence by the team that scored the goal in the attacking phase that ended with the scoring of the goal, including:

  • Offence by the attacking team in the build-up to the goal (handball, foul, etc)
  • Offside: position and offence
  • Ball out of play prior to the goal

It’s confirmation that offside is included in the list of offences that must be taken into account by VAR that is the significant issue here, and it’s not the first time that the application of offside within a VAR context has come up recently, either. Following a narrow call during the League Cup semi-final between Spurs and Chelsea last week, Rory Smith of the New York Times commented that, “The problem with this Kane offside debate isn’t the camera angle or whose footage is better or whether VAR is a good or a bad idea, it’s that the way we do offside at the moment is completely, self-defeatingly stupid.”

And he’s right. In order to come anywhere near addressing this sort of “controversy” – and we’ll continue to work to the (potentially flawed) assumption that no-one involved in the advocacy or implementation of VAR is actually in favour of creating more controversy, since that would rather undermine many of the arguments for introducing it in the first place – we need to look at the offside rule itself. It’s been there for as long as the game has been codified, with “at least three” defending players required to be between an attacking player and the opposition goals for the attacker to stay onside.

When the law reduced that number of players from three defenders to two in 1925, there was an immediate upward spike in the number of goals being scored during matches, but teams and coaches soon started to find ways of luring opponents into offside positions, and in 1990 the law was amended to adjudge an attacker as onside if level with the second-to-last opponent, whilst further changes have introduced the concepts of “interfering with play, interfering with an opponent and gaining an advantage”, largely as responses to the growth in popularity of the offside trap.

The popularity of such phrases as “phases of play” have only fed further into the idea that offside is some sort of science which can be definitively and objectively measured, rather than something that was introduced in the first place to stop teams from just sending a player into the opposition’s penalty area and lumping in their general direction. “Goal-hanging”, as we might otherwise call it. But the increasingly technical nature of the game has had the somewhat perverse effect of rolling back a convention of favouring attacking players, which had pretty much been the orthodoxy behind the way in which the offside law had been headed for the previous two or three decades, at least.

Lines being drawn across pitches by television companies (as well as, after matches, by other substantially less impartial sources) are just one manifestation of this tendency towards forensic analysis in the media. We spend our lives poring over images and videos of borderline decisions, when it could be argued that the default decision should be that all marginal decisions favour the attacking player. Perhaps this is a shift in the culture of the game towards favouring defenders over attackers, but if this is the case then perhaps the authorities should come out and say as much, because it increasingly feels these days as though nobody properly understands the spirit and lettering of the law, or the point at which they intersect. How can a rule which should favour attacking players also accommodate offside decisions where 99% of a player’s body is level with a last defender?

The answer to this seems cultural as much as anything else. It seems as likely as not that there isn’t anybody in a position to do so who would come out in favour of a law change that explicitly favours defenders. The fundamental principle that football should encourage attacking football, that Goals Are Good, and that the game should be as free-flowing as possible remains intact, even though VAR can by its very nature only cause some degree of disruption to that flow, remains intact. So it might be argued that the fault of the media for spending so long poring over these borderline incidents as though they’re the only things that matter over the course of a match, with managers who seek to absolve themselves of responsibility for losing matches by focusing on them to the detriment of any other considerations in post-match interviews and press conferences, and with supporters themselves. After all, we all support the idea of attacking, free-flowing football until, it often seems, we are on the receiving end of a decision that contradicts this. Asking for logical consistency from football supporters has always been optimistic, but it’s felt increasingly impossible in recent years.

All of this leads us to two possibilities, should we wish to avoid the constant churn of the different form of “controversy” that VAR is starting to bring about. The first would be to remove offside from its jurisdiction in the first place, the implication here being that if an offside call can’t be determined the single set of eyes of a referee’s assistant in real time upon first viewing, then it shouldn’t be given in the first place. The second would be to streamline the law pertaining to offside, to remove these matters of inches or centimetres from the equation altogether, to commit the principle of “clear daylight” between players (which used to be familiar, although the phrase itself has never been part of the wording of the law itself) as being the point at which a player becomes offside. 

It certainly feels surprising that the laws of the game have not been more thoroughly reviewed in view of the introduction of VAR. If the technology is here to stay – and it continues to feel as though those who are continuing to oppose it are increasingly howling into the void – then it might be prudent for the IFAB (who ultimately determine the laws of the game) to confirm that they are reviewing them to see how they can accommodate VAR more effectively. None of this should necessarily have to mean changes to the laws of the game which would be to the detriment of the vast number of matches that will continue to be played without VAR present. It doesn’t seem unreasonable, however, to suggest that if the future of analysis of the game is to become increasingly forensic in its nature, then the laws of the game will also have to evolve in order to reflect this. What form this would end up taking, of course, is open to near endless debate. 

With VAR coming to the Premier League from the start of next season, the stakes are high. It seems unlikely that changes will be made to the laws of the game which reflect its introduction anywhere, though, whilst hoping for a change in the way that people watch, analyse and interpret the game seems even less likely than this. Those who run the Premier League, then, may have to decide where they want the dividing line to be, between the free-flowing football that people want and the inevitable occasional interruption that VAR will bring. But when we consider that ultimately the entire history of offside has been a game of cat and mouse between rule-makers and a game that wants all of the benefits of the laws for its own clubs with none of the costs, the likelihood is that the controversy will continue, whether we want it to or not. All that will change is that we will all have to get used to the creep of a subtly different type of controversy.