‘VAR is creating problems to solve’: Son Heung-min incident underlines desperate need for overhaul

A former Premier League match official tells The Independent referees dislike VAR as much as players and fans, following another weekend of confusion and controversy

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
@MelissaReddy_
Monday 12 April 2021 21:05
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<p>Chris Kavanagh looks at the incident on his pitchside monitor</p>

Chris Kavanagh looks at the incident on his pitchside monitor

There are countless things to question about Jose Mourinho in his current guise; a manager out of touch, out of time, sans the masterful edge that marked him out as special.

Still, he has his acolytes. Few in the game are as divisive as the Portuguese, and yet on Sunday night, there would have been universal nodding to his “in football, you don’t know anything any more” regarding the use of VAR. 

Tottenham had been deservedly dispatched 3-1 by Manchester United, despite them being denied what would have been the opener after Scott McTominay was adjudged to have fouled Heung-Min Son in the build-up. The midfielder flicked his hand out, only to hold the Spurs attacker off, but brushed his face.

It was so clearly and obviously a foul that Craig Pawson, the man in the booth at Stockley Park, couldn’t rule on it and asked Chris Kavanagh to have a look on the pitchside monitor.

The referee took six replays to deduce the movement from McTominay was enough of a foul to disallow a goal it had no bearing on, but not enough of one to merit a second yellow card. 

The PGMOL issued a statement to Sky Sports to clarify the decision. “It wasn’t part of McTominay’s natural running movement,” it began, adding: “And it was careless.”

That take was ridiculed by the former players in studio as it is quite normal to fend a marker off that is behind you and is tugging on your shirt.

Earlier on Sunday, Newcastle were seething not to have been awarded what seemed a stonewall penalty after James Tarkowski caught Sean Longstaff with a seriously high boot inside the box.

“A kick to the head is not a foul, but a player collapsing after his face is barely touched is and we have the PGMOL coming out with all sorts of crap to justify the decisions and we wonder why there’s no trust in the process,” a former Premier League match official told The Independent.

“I have spoken to a few refs from the Select Group and they are as frustrated as everyone else. Some hate being a VAR because it is a completely different job to actually reffing a game on the pitch. 

“Some feel like they are being undermined by Stockley Park. I don’t know any official who agrees with the way offside is being reviewed and it doesn’t help when instead of admitting mistakes, the PGMOL tell us why wrong is right. We are talking about decisions more than we ever have because VAR is creating problems to solve.”

When Mourinho offered that we are now clueless about what we thought we knew about football, he was the most accurate he’s been in years.

“You don’t celebrate goals because you are afraid,” he said. “With contact, you don’t know what’s a foul or what is not. When you see the offside lines, you don’t really understand whether it’s offside or not.”

That last point is an especially huge issue at the moment, with an increasing amount of marginal calls being made.

“Offside is offside.”

“You’re either offside or you’re not.”

“Offside is a factual decision.”

Prior to the introduction of and during the infancy of VAR in the Premier League, that breed of communique coloured conversations. At Stockley Park, journalists and pundits were told that there would still be unhappiness at subjective calls – like the awarding of a penalty – but there could be no push back over the precision with offsides. 

The presentation given to players, managers and directors at every club underscored this too: there would be tight calls, but the technology would render them right. And then, the truth and reality of the situation where goals are being chalked off by the most borderline of margins, despite there not being the tools to definitively rule them out. 

Feedback to a survey from the Premier League last month sent to clubs particularly flagged the frustration with these decisions. It was the most unpopular element of VAR use, along with lengthy delays that erase emotion and celebrations.

The Football Supporters Association’s survey has been filled by over 20,000 fans at last count, with a lack of trust in the offside process a major finding again. 

This is no surprise given the methodology is flawed.

The broadcast cameras Hawk-Eye uses to identify the point of contact with the ball operates at 50 frames per second. 

Three consecutive frames are presented to the VAR to select this exact moment, which lies within one of those frames, but it cannot always be accurately determined.

The point of contact could have happened between two frames, with the VAR going with the evidence that shows the pass has definitely been released as the ball is in motion.

The VAR manually selects the offside point on the attacker and the defender. This is an inconsistent process, and during training runs, it was found that the same VAR could select a marginally different area on second calculation. 

Plotting the positioning of players with 3D imaging on a 2D screen is not precise. One VAR could decide to review a tight offside call, while another could feel the technology isn’t needed.

All of this is Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin labelled “subjective drawing of objective criteria”.

Painstaking offside checks, which can exceed five minutes in some cases, have led to referees missing other pivotal incidents in a period of play.

The Premier League’s motioning for a margin of error, as seen in the Champions League and Dutch Eredivisie, was denied by Fifa but is evidence that the current practice is unpalatable. 

The trials of semi-automated offside through the use of Artificial Intelligence is an admission that the current VAR implementation has failed on multiple fronts. 

It intends remove the situation, where as Arsene Wenger described, “the players’ positions have lines drawn to see if they are offside or not… We see many celebrations are cancelled after that for marginal situations and that’s why I believe it is a very important step.”

Semi-automated offside aims to remove the lag on decisions, providing a close to instant call on the majority of them. It would also do away with the delayed flags by linos that have annoyed defenders, but more significantly, it has led to some dangerous play.

There would be greater accuracy in the process, with Pierluigi Collina, chairman of the Fifa referees’ committee noting: “It will spot all offsides, even smaller than the one we are spotting today with the current technology.”

However, he also indicated there needs to be a balance between tech advances and the spirit of the game. This goes against his initial sentiments that “it doesn’t matter if it’s 2cm or 20cm. There isn’t a small offside and a big offside.”

The dissatisfaction from every facet of football – players and managers both past and present, media, supporters – has Fifa looking into the ruling out of a goal only if an offside can be clearly proven using the graphics. There is confidence that a margin of error will come into play across major leagues next season. 

Good, because we are currently witnessing football filtered by anti-emotion. And with detachment to the game ballooning during the pandemic, the love that’s left is being pierced by soul-destroying pedantry, which isn’t even accurate.  

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