Video Assistant Referees: A Clear & Present Danger? 

by | Jan 8, 2018

The recent refereeing conspiracy against Arsenal served a dual purpose. It re-affirmed Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger’s not-at-all-crackpot theory that all of football is against him and his team (see the opening goal in last year’s FA Cup Final for detai…ah…wait). And it gave media pundits topical material for their “analyses” (heavy emphasis on the “anal”) of the potential impact of Video Assistant Referees (VARs), ahead of VARs introduction to competitive English club football this week (with Arsenal among the first four teams to be governed by the system. Of course).

VARs themselves will serve a dual purpose. One more scenario in which BBC radio commentator Alan Green can use his famous catchphrase “I don’t know what happened there.” And to eliminate “clear and obvious” officiating errors in four specific “match-changing” situations: goals, penalties, direct red cards and cases of mistaken identity.

Yet, even as I type, hours before VARs’ opening night, the strict limitations of this second purpose still seem grimly beyond the comprehension of those who, bar match officials themselves, will be closest to the system.

The two most recently-filmed scenes of “The Arsenal Penalty Controversy,” the potential follow-up to the 1939 film, “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery,” were instruction manual-appropriate examples of how VARs would and more importantly (it seems) would NOT be used.

As to whether Arsenal’s Calum Chambers intended to handle ex-Gunner Kieran Gibbs’ 88th-minute cross at West Bromwich Albion on New Year’s Eve, Planet Football was firmly split between those who thought he did (match referee Mike Dean) and those who thought he didn’t (everyone else…including Gibbs himself, who had no notion of appealing for anything more than a corner).

There was a similar division of opinion over the validity of Kieran Dowell’s 85th-minute penalty for Nottingham Forest at the City Ground yesterday, which sealed Arsenal’s first-ever FA Cup third round exit under Wenger. (Wenger, perhaps fearing a touchline ban which could last for the rest of his Arsenal managerial career, refused to comment in his post-match interviews)

As to whether Dowell’s ‘standing’ right foot touched the ball as he swept home the spot-kick with his left, match referee Jon Moss and the assistant he consulted, Ed Smart, stood alone in thinking “nope, nothing to see there,” rather than awarding a free-kick against Dowell for touching the ball twice before any other player did (as would happen if Dowell had made clean contact, struck the ‘frame of the goal’ and tried to net the rebound before any other player joined the fun).

In short, VARs should not and COULD not be involved in the decision against Chambers but certainly should and could be involved in the Dowell incident.

The Chambers decision was not whether he handled the ball, as it was clear and obvious (see below) and undisputed that he had, but whether he intended so to do, which is an offence. The decision against Dowell was specifically NOT one of intent. Unless he has a skillset way above English Football League Championship mid-table requirements, Dowell did not intend to strike the ball with both feet all-but-simultaneously. But that is an offence, even so.

The two-dimensional view of the Chambers handball, from the Sky cameras at the closest angle to Dean’s view, shows Chambers’ arm moving towards the ball and helps explain why Dean thought there was intent. Dean’s actual, three-dimensional, view ought to have shown Chambers’ arm in front of his body and his clear and obvious attempt to avoid a handball. That it didn’t was an error, as Dean has now reportedly admitted. But he saw the incident and had an extra dimension to his view. So, the VAR could only offer another subjective opinion. And in such circumstances, the on-field referee’s decision would stand.

Neither Moss nor Smart saw Dowell’s double-kick. Stills of the moment(s) of impact suggest Moss had recognised an old school friend in the crowd behind the goal. Smart would have been focusing on Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina’s pre-kick movements, so would at best have had only half a proverbial eye on Dowell. So, they had no option but to give the goal, as the kick’s trajectory suggested, but did not confirm, a double impact. A VAR would point them towards the correct decision, a free-kick to Arsenal, as soon as a replay revealed the double impact

I may have made these processes sound a bit Star Trek with all that ‘dimensions’ guff, and it may have taken minutes to write (and to read, if you are Donald bloody Trump, allegedly). But they are sufficiently immediate and speedy thought processes to avoid over-lengthy breaks in play. And the International Football Board (IFAB) guidelines on VAR use, published in March 2016, are sufficiently restrictive, by design, to avoid controversy.

On 7th December, the English FA website stated that VARs were to be “trialled for clear and obvious errors, or serious missed incidents, relating to specific incidents in three ‘game changing’ situations – goals, penalty/no penalty decisions and straight red cards, plus mistaken identity for red or yellow cards.”

The key words, and the ones most pundits and analysts appear to have missed, were “clear and obvious.” They were the key words too as the article continued: “The VAR automatically checks every such incident and if a clear and obvious error has occurred the referee is informed (and) can then confirm or change the original decision based on the information from the VAR,” or look at “a replay on the side of the pitch. The original decision is only changed if it was clearly and obviously wrong.”

This was wholly in line with the fifth of the “twelve principles” which the IFAB declared in March 2016 were “the foundation of the VAR experiment.” That “the original decision given by the referee will not be changed unless the video review clearly shows that the decision was clearly wrong” (their emphasis).

Clear and obvious, then? Not to Sky Sports. A 4th January article on their website asked, via headline: “Would VAR have ruled out Heung-Min Son’s goal at Wembley?” This was in reference to a disputed (in the Sky studio, anyway) tackle by Tottenham right-back Serge Aurier on Manuel Lanzini, which began the move spectacularly finished by Son from 25 yards, for Tottenham’s equaliser against West Ham last Thursday.

The article stated that “VAR’s” (which will cause anguish to apostrophe perfectionists) “are used to help the referee determine whether an infringement was made that should result in the goal not being awarded and if it was in use at Wembley, then the goal could have been ruled out if the officials deemed the tackle in breach of the laws.” But, as the match referee (Dean again) demonstrably saw the tackle, and instantly waved play on, the answer to the headline question was “no.”

As such, the hauling of VARs into Sky’s post-match discussion wasted valuable time which could have been spent listening to the collective footballing wisdom of ex-Spurs manager Tim Sherwood and ex-West Ham midfielder Joe Cole (don’t know why I’m saying that like it’s a bad thing). And the article’s extensive quoting of Sherwood’s uncertainty gave a (false) impression of controversy (“bullsh*t scandal creation,” as Ed Major neatly described such things to me on twitter).

This juxtaposition of the stated guidelines and ‘clear and obvious’ misinterpretations of them, reappeared three days later. Brighton and Hove Albion manager Chris Hughton has always struck me as one of football’s more intelligent and thoughtful protagonists, since the Ireland international’s days (as Aurier’s predecessor) as a Tottenham right-back. So, it was particularly dispiriting to read his comments prior to his side’s FA Cup meeting with Crystal Palace, the first VAR match of the week.

“I don’t think any technology will clear it completely,” Hughton told Sky Sports yesterday, “because still in some of our technology there is somebody that has to make a decision and we’ve already seen that you can have one panellist think completely differently to another.” Not in “clear and obvious” situations, you can’t.

There should, by now, have been enough media coverage of the VAR system to avoid such mistakes. It is, however, one thing to make instructions available (many national newspapers, for instance, have produced VAR guides – recently and last March, when their proposed use in domestic club football was confirmed). It is quite another to ensure that relevant people study them sufficiently. Thus, we should expect all sorts of inane questions and hogwash predictions this week.

One already common fear (phobia?) is that VARs will result in players and managers constantly referring disputed decisions. Yet the most cursory glance at VAR guidelines would confirm that players and managers can no more ‘refer’ VAR decisions than current on-field decisions. Players “using the ‘review signal’” (miming a TV screen) “will be cautioned,” say the guidelines.

In fairness, other expressed fears have been rational. In an excellent piece for the Football 365 website, John Nicholson disputes the very existence of situations which are NOT “game-changing” (“there is no hierarchy of action in a game, everything is connected to everything else”). And he envisages VAR-use extending far beyond current restrictions, a scenario rendered entirely plausible by the fate of cricket’s DRS (Decision Review System).

There is, of course, huge potential for football to learn from the ever-widening scope of DRS use, which has been easier to accommodate in cricket, given the game’s many natural breaks, than it could ever be in football. And Nicholson occasionally appears to pay as little regard to “clear and obvious” as other, lesser, commentators.

However, there will be huge pressure for VARs “to be consistent.” And Nicholson’s “hierarchy of action” could be made to seem the antithesis of “consistency” by certain, more ‘combative’ managers. Yes, Jose Mourinho. I’m seeing you here (indeed, the use of VARs in only one League Cup semi-final has already got some consistency-watchers twitching). The ability of those using VARs to withstand that pressure could be crucial to its success.

I’d be surprised if there wasn’t at least one savvy Brighton bookmaker offering tempting odds on Crystal Palace winger Wilfred Zaha “going down too easily” being the incident to summon VARs for the first time. I’m sure, too, that the “Kirkup cock-up” headlines are being templated, as match referee Andre Marriner will be video-assisted by Neil Swarbrick and Peter…Kirkup. And, by the time many of you read this, we’ll know how or if the VARs were involved and whether the headline appeared.

However, Wednesday night’s VAR will be under greater scrutiny, because of the teams involved (Arsenal especially at the moment), the relative importance of the game (a Cup semi-final rather than a last-64 game) and Sky’s bigger potential audience. And by Friday, England’s football media may have some hard information to horrendously mis-analyse. I shall, of course, report back, then.