In the Premier League, VAR has exposed the limits of the laws

Perhaps, for you, it was way back on the first day of the Premier League season that the doubts set in, when Raheem Sterling’s armpit was deemed offside in Manchester City’s game against West Ham.

Or maybe you had a little more patience than that. Maybe you accepted that any innovation, any disruption, drags a learning curve in its wake. Your own tipping point might have come with Son Heung-min’s shoulder blade, or John Lundstram’s toe, or Sadio Mané’s hip.

Or it might have come at Anfield, where Liverpool squeezed out of 2019 with a 1-0 win against Wolves to maintain its 13-point lead at the top of the Premier League, thanks in equal parts to a goal from Mané, its visitors’ wastefulness and Jonny Castro Otto’s unforgivable inability to keep the arch of his left foot onside at all times.

There is one final possibility, of course, which is that no matter how long that list of insignificant body parts grows, your faith in the benefits that the video assistant referee (VAR) has brought to English football remains unwavering.

That would be an increasingly niche viewpoint. That Premier League weekend alone brought fans in Norwich, Liverpool and Manchester — among others — to the edge; games are more and more frequently being played out to a background hum of dissatisfaction at the decisions being made by VAR — always the institution, never an individual — and the prominence it has assumed. “It’s not football anymore” is the song that can be printed; there are a couple regularly heard in stadiums that cannot.

The complication is that in all of those cases, whichever referee is sitting in the Premier League’s broadcast headquarters at Stockley Park has reached the correct decision; or, rather, the referee has reached the correct decision, allowing for the margin of error inherent to the system. Otto’s foot, or at least a sliver of it, was offside in the buildup to Pedro Neto’s goal; so, too, Mané’s armpit and Lundstram’s toe and all the rest.

That is not to say the anger is illegitimate; it is just that it is misplaced. There is a tendency for both the news media and fans themselves to see goals ruled out by remote control as being “denied by VAR”, or goals or penalties awarded as being nothing more than the unpredictable whim of some all-seeing, unaccountable entity.

That is misleading. The job of the VAR system is simply to establish whether a goal should or should not stand in accordance with the laws of the game; it no more denies or approves goals than the referee on the field. The video is simply an instrument for enforcing the laws.

And in the case of offside, it has become increasingly clear that the problem lies within the laws. All that VAR has done, with its pinpoint cameras and its geometric lines and its limitless time in which to examine each incident, is to highlight it.

Otto was technically offside when he planted his foot a few yards outside the Liverpool penalty area, albeit only barely — by no more than the depth of the sponsor’s logo on his boot. But he was not offside in the sense that any fan, any coach, any player would understand it. “They say it gets the right decision,” the Wolves captain Conor Coady said after the game, “but I’m not sure it’s worth it.”

That may seem a trivial argument, but although the rules of football have a name full of grandiose self-importance — the Laws, always capitalised — they are not, actually, laws. They are the rules of a game. They draw their authority not from some celestial being or from centuries of jurisprudence, but from the willingness of participants and observers of that game to abide by them. They are a convention, not a covenant. Football is policed by consent, not by coercion.

As soon as they seem invalid to those who are playing and watching, then they are no longer fit for purpose. Otto, Sterling and the rest might have been offside by the letter of the law, but they were not by the spirit of it. In the case of football — unlike, say, criminal justice — the spirit of the law is what matters.

VAR has exposed that fault line, and to some extent we have nobody to blame but ourselves. It is managers who created a climate in which officials felt that only technology could save them from waves of criticism every time they got a call wrong, using the referees as a convenient scapegoat for their own failings.

It is fans who booed them off the field every time they made an incorrect decision — always, always just a tiny percentage of the decisions they had to make — and who, in extreme cases, hunted out their home addresses, chased them from the game. And the news media pored over their calls, with slow motion video and freeze frame and the benefit of hindsight, and told them they were not fit for purpose.

The solution, now, is not to turn back to those days, to tell the referees that they just have to fail on their own again. VAR can work, as it proved — admittedly achingly slowly — in allowing Liverpool’s winning goal. Nor is the solution to stubbornly proceed as we are, surrendering the game to unseen technocrats, making it perfect in a technical sense but unsatisfactory in a spiritual, sporting one.

Instead, it is to accept that the method of enforcement requires an update of the law. Perhaps that means, as has been suggested, that only a player’s feet can be offside, though that would not have saved Otto or Wolves. Perhaps it is a time limit on how long a decision can be analysed or how many replays officials are allowed to see.

Or perhaps it is changing the law so that it is fit for purpose now: a player’s whole body should have to be offside or that any decision requiring the drawing of lines for certainty should be ruled onside. There will always be marginal calls, of course; there will always be controversy. What matters is to minimize it, to regain that consent once more.

The current impasse works for nobody: not for referees, not for players, not for fans. The song has it right: It is not football anymore. That is not an argument against change, though. Football has always changed. The problem, at the moment, is that it has not changed quite enough.

@2020 The New York Times

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