VAR. You remember that. The utopian system that would allow referees to make mistake-free decisions for the rest of time. The endless, numbing debates that infected our Monday mornings would be gone. Every penalty, contentious offside, red card and handball would be rendered in absolute, indisputable truth.
But that didn’t happen, did it? Instead of removing the debate surrounding decisions, we simply now have videos and graphics with which to try vainly to make our point. Enhanced technology with which referees can hesitate, struggle and stretch for something resembling a conclusive decision. The trouble with technology is that, at least until Skynet finally gets around to triggering judgement day, it is still reliant on the humans interpreting it.
This article is not a hit piece on referees by any stretch. They are human and mistakes are an intrinsic part of our existence. In the original rollout, that’s exactly what VAR was there to offer protection against. Not a weekend goes by, even now, where you don’t hear an exasperated ex-pro spit the phrase “clear and obvious error”. Those four words were the original parameters for VAR. It was in place to mop up if a clear and obvious error had been made.
But it isn’t being used for that. It is now being used as a micro-management tool, trying to please every frame of a Premier League match from a truck in Stockley Park. The video assistants pore over the footage with the intricate care of Martin Scorsese assembling Killers of the Flower Moon. Every inch of footage is painstakingly scrutinised. Clear and obvious in the same way a minute sculpture of the Venus de Milo sitting on the head of a distant pin is clear and obvious.
Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United featured a four-minute VAR check for Anthony Gordon’s winner. This all-encompassing epic took in a potential foul, the ball going out of play and a possible offside. After an agonising wait, the goal was given by referee Stuart Atwell. But that was far from the end of the matter. Mikel Arteta raged in his post-match interview, “Embarrassing, it’s an absolute disgrace”. Warming to his subject, the Spaniard continued, “There’s so much at stake, we’ve put in so many hours to compete at the highest level and you cannot imagine the amount of messages we’ve had saying this cannot continue. It’s embarrassing.
Managers venting at refereeing decisions has been part and parcel for as long as the round ball has been kicked. But what followed is more unusual. Arsenal released a club statement backing their fuming head coach on Sunday evening. “Arsenal Football Club wholeheartedly supports Mikel Arteta’s post-match comments after yet more unacceptable refereeing and VAR errors on Saturday evening” it read. The statement ended, “PGMOL urgently needs to address the standard of officiating and focus on action which moves us all on from retrospective analysis, attempted explanations and apologies. We support the ongoing efforts of Chief Refereeing Officer, Howard Webb and would welcome working together to achieve the world-class officiating standards our league demands.”
It was a rare public broadside from one football institution to another. Not the emotional post-defeat words of an angered manager. Not a player speaking out of turn when put on the spot by a reporter. A carefully worded takedown of the very nature of refereeing as it stands to this day. Not just refereeing general, but the current interpretation of VAR specifically.
The Arsenal game was not the only flashpoint the controversial technology suffered in the Premier League this weekend. Manchester United saw Scott McTominay’s opener against Fulham chalked off in their eventual 1-0 win at Craven Cottage. A lengthy VAR check brought up the age-old “interfering with play” debate as Harry Maguire strayed narrowly offside, but crucially did not touch the ball. Eventually it was gleaned that his mere presence had been enough to change Fulham’s approach and lead to the goal. Again, can an error really be seen as clear and obvious when it takes several officials endless minutes to reach a conclusion?
Every fear VAR naysayers had at the inception of the technology has been realised. Celebrations are dying out because players know every single frame of the ensuing passage of play needs to be pored over. Games are slowing to a standstill for tedious, lengthy VAR checks. And rather than eliminating debate, VAR is merely enhancing it by playing such a huge role in almost every weekend of Premier League football.
The only thing clear and obvious at this stage is that the VAR experiment has not worked. The technology is almost too good. The officials are so beholden to it that, rather than using it to enhance their own decision making, they are becoming paralysed by its details. Clearly and obviously, VAR is not fit for purpose.
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