VAR performs its coup de moron

VAR performs its coup de moron

Whether VAR is still in its teething stages, and this is season five so it’s really debatable whether or not it should still be having growing problems, it will never be able to escape its fatal flaw. And that is it is still administered by humans. So it’s still going to be susceptible to human error, which the whole point of replay, and video review is supposed to do away with. When all of us baseball fans scream for automated strike zones, it’s to take the human out of it. Make it black and white. That’s what goal-line technology does. We get the picture, and it shows us whether the ball was over the line, or not. No interpretation needed. Goal or no goal. Works for everyone.

That’s what offside is supposed to be, too. That’s why we get the lines drawn and the semi-auto illustrations we saw at the World Cup. Maybe not as clean as the goal line technology, but close.

Except you actually have to use it.

To be clear, no one will ever know how Tottenham-Liverpool would have gone had Liverpool scored first. It might have still ended up 2-1 to Spurs. No one can definitively say that it cost Liverpool anything. It just cost us the match it should have been. Because this is a goal:

At the time, everyone watching was bewildered as to why there weren’t lines drawn or even a review that took more than five seconds. And when we found out, it got more farcical. It’s because the on-field official and the replay official were saying two different things and never bothered to try and figure out if they were saying the same thing:

That’s right, the replay official, Darren England, was so sure that it had been ruled a goal, because it should have been, he thought he was merely double-checking a goal. Simon Hooper, the on-field ref who had already biffed the Man United-Wolves game from the opening weekend, got the go-ahead that the call, the call only in England’s head, was correct. At no time did either say “offside” or “goal.” Was England not watching the game and never saw the flag being raised? Did he not see Liverpool not celebrating a goal? Usually pretty easy to spot. What did he do when he saw a free kick being taken instead of a kickoff from the center circle? Could he not chime in then? Freekicks are retaken all the time. Why did England just give up? Oh sure, it’s the “rules” that state when Spurs take the free kick that the decision is final. Except there’s nothing more important in soccer than a goal. If there’s anything worth going back for and maybe fudging protocol for once, it’s for a goal.

To be fair to Hooper, it’s not clear what more he could have done. His assistant raises the flag for offside. The VAR official tells him the call is confirmed. He can’t possibly know that the VAR official is reviewing for the wrong call unless he’s told. He can’t help it if no one comes to him immediately after to correct it. He’s made to look like an idiot when all he did was follow the calls of both his assistant and the VAR official.

Of course, it would be easy to solve this in the future, and it’s curious that there isn’t some protocol that the VAR official has to say what call is being confirmed or overturned. That they have to say, “Offside” or “no offside” or “handball” or “no handball.” The words have to be spoken. One of VAR’s many problems is its bugs only get fixed after they ruin something in a match. Not everything should need live testing. Someone has to anticipate this kind of thing, you’d hope.

It’s also pretty damn curious that no one gets access to the audio until well after the fact. Watch rugby sometime, and you’ll be shocked at the level of transparency in the officiating. We hear and see it all live. Every piece of communication between the on-field ref and the video review one is broadcast as it happens. No questions left.

Soccer doesn’t have that. We have no idea what they’re looking at, what they’re discussing. We already know last season a VAR official skipped over a review to keep the on-field one from looking bad, the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do. And it’s all behind some shield, which doesn’t provide it any credibility.

There are more calls for the whole thing to be scrapped, and it’s getting harder and harder to argue against that. Especially for penalties and red cards that two people can see two different ways. It’s still an interpretation.

But offside is supposed to be clear and binary. And it is. They just have to actually check for it.

Anyway, elsewhere in the Old Empire…

4. That isn’t really what they signed Sofyan Amrabat for, right?

We know that everyone would like to be Pep Guardiola, and if he’s doing something with his team then there are a lot of managers who are going to scramble to do the same to at least appear to be on the cutting edge. Or they just want the same advantages a particular tactic Guardiola has used got him.

So once Pep went to the inverted full-back moving into midfield with the ball, others followed. Namely, Liverpool, and Arsenal last year. Spurs are using it this year. Many others have dabbled, even if they don’t really have someone like John Stones who A. has midfield experience in his past and B. is also a great defender. Same for João Cancelo when he was doing it.

It can’t be what Manchester United had in mind for Sofyan Amrabat when they bought him. Amrabat was deployed at left-back, shifting to form a double-pivot with Casemiro when United had the ball and forming a box midfield with Mason Mount, and Bruno Fernandes.

But United’s problems, among a few, are what happens when they don’t have the ball. Teams have just been running past Casemiro as the miles on his legs have gotten awfully vocal and devilish this season. Amrabat is there to shore that up. But when asking him to bounce between midfield and left-back, he was certainly caught where to be sometimes. He committed five fouls. Jordan Ayew had the freedom of the entire wing at times. Palace’s midfielders found space in the middle a lot of the time. It felt like something put in for show instead of for effect.

United’s main problem is still finishing and being Marcus Rashford hot streak dependent, but this move from manager Erik Ten Hag just felt like trying to look busy.

3. Aston Villa!

While Spurs-Liverpool was the biggest match of the weekend and created the most headlines, Villa’s 6-1 thrashing of Brighton was the result of the weekend. While it was probably due, in part, to some lethal finishing rather than a completely smothering, 6-1 is 6-1.

Brighton’s usual tactic of using their midfield to draw out the opposition farther up the field than they’d like to go and exploiting the space behind them usually works a treat, but is really vulnerable when the opposition is playing a high line to begin with, as Villa do, meaning they can get up the field without leaving too much space behind them. And in Villa’s 4-2-2-2 set-up, John McGinn and Nicolo Zaniolo can press and get up the field, knowing that Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara are securely behind them. And those two are sure their centerbacks are securely close to them.

It’s still a risk for Villa, and Brighton certainly attempted to just go over their press enough (Louis Dunk attempted 13 long passes!), but when they execute as perfectly as they did, they kind of robbed Brighton of options.

Though everything looks great when Ollie Watkins is as punishing as Death right now, and who one expert left on his bench for his fantasy team this week. You get one guess.

2. How do you stop momentum dead cold? Be Everton

Everton have scored exactly half of their expected goals. No team has a bigger gap between their goals scored and their expected goals produced. Should they ever come close to lining those two numbers up, they’ll be fine. Except Goodison Park has been where strikers forget how their feet work for a while now.

1. Wolves crack the code

It actually isn’t a huge secret how to give yourself a chance against Man City, especially for teams farther down the table (which is admittedly everybody but you know what I’m trying to say). It’s just doing it that’s the issue.

Teams that play with wingbacks seem to have a half-step up, because they can easily fold into a back five, and nullify some, not all, of City’s stretching of the field that makes them so hard to deal with. If you win possession, ping balls diagonally to where City’s fullbacks would have been, except one plays as a winger (Kyle Walker) and the other is in midfield (like three different guys now). It’s hard to do, nearly impossible in fact, because City never lose the ball, and even when they do they usually foul before anyone can get their head up to hit those passes. And then they get reset.

But sometimes

Craig Dawson and Max Kilman were exemplary both in defense and springing these attacks on Saturday, hitting 8 of their 14 combined long balls successfully. And Wolves’ packed defense kept City to only 0.87 xG with a lot of potshots from outside the area. That doesn’t always work, mostly rarely works, because even with that Rodri will probably blast a comet home from 25 yards. At least it feels that way. Rodri was suspended on Saturday, and there you go.

Sadly for everyone else, Rodri’s suspension isn’t 25 games.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.