VAR’s Premier League bow provides cocktail of contrived and serious | Paul MacInnes

Grey areas were eliminated, celebrations compromised and dying swans killed off on the top flight’s opening weekend

The first weekend of VAR went well – in the sense that the new refereeing technology worked as it was supposed to. But does that mean everyone was happy? Hell, no! Here are a few of the issues that this first round of matches brought up, some contrived, some actually rather serious.

Doing away with the shades of grey

Raheem Sterling’s offside meant a ‘goal’ from Gabriel Jesus was disallowed against West Ham.
Raheem Sterling’s offside meant a ‘goal’ from Gabriel Jesus was disallowed against West Ham. Photograph: Michael Zemanek/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

Let’s start with the contrived. Gabriel Jesus had a goal disallowed against West Ham on Saturday after Raheem Sterling was ruled offside by the width of a unicorn’s horn. It meant the first thwarted celebration in the Premier League (more of that in a bit) but also provoked “lively” debate.

Football may be a game of opinions but it is always better when they are based on something factual. Instead, on Match of the Day, Ian Wright (to pick one, prominent, well-remunerated example) left facts to one side and luxuriated in emotion instead as he decried “offside by an armpit”.

Wright’s co-pundit Alan Shearer, a man well suited to his new role as sombre face of killjoy regulations, pointed out that there was no problem with VAR in this instance. It was applying the law and it was wrong to conflate one with the other.

Separate out the two, however, and Wright is still wrong. Not only is the rule the rule, it is there for a reason and that is to provide clarity. When Wright made the plea that Sterling “gained no advantage” by being offside by an armpit and Gary Lineker chimed in by calling for “leeway”, they were making emotional appeals that work for them but might be unpalatable to someone else.

With a clear rule you know where you stand. With “leeway” and “common sense” you open the door to subjectivity. And when you do that, more decisions become contestable and controversial, great for pundits but bad for football in general and referees in particular. Grey areas are a field day for those who like the words “incompetent” and “biased”. That the Premier League has chosen to go the other way ought to be seen as a good thing.

Matchgoing fans at risk of losing emotional high

Leander Dendoncker thought he had scored for Wolves – but the joy did not last.
Leander Dendoncker thought he had scored for Wolves – but the joy did not last. Photograph: Robbie Stephenson/JMP/REX/Shutterstock

So that is the confected controversy. Now for the real thing. When Gabriel Jesus “scored” that “goal” City fans in the London Stadium celebrated heartily. Those cheers were then stifled as the VAR check ran on and, finally, they were stolen by West Ham fans whooping at the news of it being disallowed.

Celebrating a goal has traditionally been an experience that is logical and emotional. First comes the knowledge that your team has been successful, then comes the freedom to revel in it among a group of like-minded people. Celebrating a goal in a crowd on a terrace is one of the best things in life. VAR could ruin it.

Disallowing a goal not just seconds but maybe minutes after it has been “scored” is going to have an effect on how fans celebrate. They are going to hold in the excitement. They are going to tell their brain not to jump to conclusions and their heart to keep calm. And if they do that, then the joyous chain reaction breaks down.

VAR decisions will surely be made more quickly as people get used to the tech but will they be fast enough to preserve that split second of explosive euphoria? And with VAR obliged to check on every goal, such decisions will be frequent. Willy Boly’s handball in the run-up to Wolves’ “goal” against Leicester was missed by Andre Marriner but it came up so quickly – and at such an oblique angle – that many other referees would miss it too. In that situation VAR must intervene.

This is a real problem but, unlike armpit offsides, it does not apply to all fans equally. Those watching at home have distractions. They can watch replays, get up and make a cup of tea, switch to another tab. For the casual viewer the “drama” of whether a goal will stand or not might even be enjoyable. For those in the ground, however, it kills the very reason they spend time and money following their team. Being a fan is about celebrating goals; the whole thing changes without it.

Dying swan is finally an endangered species

Miguel Almirón’s theatrics earned a yellow card against Arsenal.
Miguel Almirón’s theatrics earned a yellow card against Arsenal. Photograph: Greig Cowie/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

Finally, the good news: no one will have to endure Miguel Almirón being “clever” in the box again. The Newcastle United forward tried to con Martin Atkinson on Sunday by diving during the first half of the Toon’s 1-0 defeat against Arsenal. Atkinson called simulation and booked the Paraguayan. But, even if he had missed it and awarded a penalty instead, VAR would have been obliged to check the challenge and would have spotted Almirón falling, despite not being touched. The penalty box swan dive is now an endangered species. So that is something.


Paul MacInnes

The GuardianTramp

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