I don’t want to appear to be swimming against the tide, in this of all weeks, and typing these words just a couple of days after our ground rang to chants of ‘It’s not football any more.’ But there are conditions in which I could imagine at least grudgingly tolerating the presence in the game of VAR.
I don’t mean I could imagine ever actively liking it. I don’t suppose anyone who pays to go to matches, as opposed to paying to watch them on television, will ever actively like VAR.
But a grudging toleration: I can think of circumstances in which that might be possible.
What if, for instance, you had a situation, during an important Premier League match, where an opposing centre-half, after chasing a ball with your centre-forward, went down in a heap by the advertising hoarding and then, for no natural reason anyone could think of, kicked upwards with the sole of his boot to catch that centre-forward in a highly sensitive area?
And what if neither the referee nor his two assistants nor the fourth official had a clear view of the moment (they’ve only got four pairs of eyes, after all), so the centre-half in question looked like going entirely unpunished for his actions?
And what if, at that point, somebody watching the match on a remote video feed got straight on the phone to the referee’s ear-piece and said, ‘You know what? You’ve missed a straight red there,’ and, as a consequence, the opposition’s centre-half was asked to leave by the door in the middle of the East Stand, and therefore wasn’t undeservedly on the pitch to score a massively wounding second goal for his team in the second half?
What if VAR was THAT kind of video referral system? A video referral system dedicated to the correction of ‘clear and obvious errors’, to snatch that phrase out of the ether. I probably still wouldn’t want it in the game, but I would at least see why people might say it should be.
Or what if – to choose another imaginary scenario at random – in the second half of that same game in which the centre-half’s martial arts moment hadn’t been picked up, your team scored a potentially vital, momentum-changing goal from a corner in the second half, yet there was a suspicion that one of your players, in the opposition’s penalty area, had pushed his marker. And what if VAR categorically dismissed that suspicion on the grounds that the available footage showed that your defender had himself been pushed, with the result that the goal was able to stand and the rest of the game took on a slightly different complexion?
What if that were the kind of thing we meant by VAR? Again, I think I would be a long way from buying an ‘I heart VAR’ t-shirt. But I would understand why people might stand broadly in favour.
Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of VAR we’ve got. Instead we’ve got a VAR that takes a highly selective view of violent conduct, indulges in a very approximate, even impressionistic, analysis of jostling in the penalty area, and denies Olivier Giroud a sensationally quick-witted goal because his toe-nail was offside at the moment the ball was crossed.
Which I’m not disputing, by the way. How can you? There are no fractional offsides any more: there is only onside or offside, as defined by the video freeze-frame and its indisputable coloured lines. (Although, is the technology able to establish the moment the ball was kicked as precisely as it establishes the whereabouts of the attacker’s toenail? We seem to take that on trust.)
But this is where we are with VAR: laser-hot on offside calls, but baggily imprecise on physical activity in penalty areas and by advertising hoardings – and all wrapped in a cumbersome, opaque and intrusive delivery system which nobody in the ground wants. Meanwhile Maguire’s explanation, that he was essentially breaking Michy’s fall with his studs, is one for the albums, another highly winnable home game against under-powered opposition has gone begging, and the gap between us and Tottenham, which was once as wide as the Atlantic and as hard to cross without a very big boat, has now somehow narrowed to one solitary point.
Still, the handy thing is that we have the chance to do something about that right away – specifically from 12.30pm on Saturday. My highly informed, data-rich, deep-dive scouting report on our opponents this weekend, based on having one eye and half an ear on their televised Champions League game against Leipzig last night, is that Tottenham are a side that likes to cede possession, get bodies behind the ball and hope that the opposition misses the plethora of chances that it grants them even so. (About four in the opening minute against Leipzig, and numerous others throughout.)
I kind of feel I’ve seen a lot of teams like that at Stamford Bridge recently – and one would have to say, the tactic has been surprisingly successful for them. It can’t go on forever, though, can it? On Saturday, if the fates are willing, it all changes.
The fates and, of course, VAR.