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Is the Premier League turning VAR into WWE?

Wednesday 19th February 2020
Just when you thought the Premier League couldn't possibly sabotage VAR any further, Chelsea welcomed Manchester United to Stamford Bridge.
Just when you thought the Premier League couldn't possibly sabotage VAR any further, Chelsea welcomed Manchester United to Stamford Bridge.

Every major sport on the planet uses some form of video review to support match officials. Only in the Premier League does it fail so woefully. That isn't the system’s fault. Rather, it’s the people who implement it.

The debate remains open as to who purposely or inadvertently undermines VAR. To minimise stoppages during play, the league initially advised on-pitch officials to accept the judgment of the man in the booth. After sufficient uproar, however, they relented and reversed their recommendation, telling match officials to use the sideline monitors. Despite the decree, the expensive devices continue to resemble a certain Steve Carell character. Come May, most if not all will be 38-match virgins.

Whether it's by league or match official's design [it's too farcical to be a natural phenomenon] the errors and inconsistency on display for the Chelsea/Manchester United match on Monday evening were only magnified. With no other fixtures on tap, everyone watched the system fail miserably.

The dark comedy began in the first half when Michy Batshuayi bowled over Harry Maguire along the touchline. From his back, the United captain removed the Belgian from the NHS donors list for testicular cancer victims. Post-match, Maguire plead innocence. He wasn’t trying to hurt the forward, just attempting to keep him from falling on him. An instinctive reaction, he termed it, regrettable in that he forgot he was wearing spikes. NBC studio analyst Kyle Martino recalled hearing a similar excuse somewhere.

“I didn’t hit him, officer. He walked into my fist.”

Martino also recalled when Tottenham’s Son Heung-min saw red after a strikingly similar incident. Identifying Anthony Taylor as the on-pitch official for both kick-outs, the American observed how VAR backfired, creating inconsistency where the system was intended to do the opposite. For Son, Paul Tierney elevated Taylor's original yellow card to red whereas Chris Kavanagh declined to do likewise with Maguire. Two referees are not always better than one.

It can’t be imprinted on your mind enough; the acts were virtually identical. Had Taylor gone to the video in both cases, identical decisions, either red or yellow, would almost certainly be made. While fans of two clubs would be happy and two aggrieved because you can’t please everyone, the desired consistency would at least be achieved with Taylor given the opportunity to correct his own errors. In VAR's current unpredictable state, the Premier League can only profit by giving fans 60 seconds to text in wagers on the eventual decision.

Further chaos awaited in the second half. First, Kurt Zouma appeared to level proceedings by deflecting in a flick-on header from point-blank range. Unfortunately, VAR chalked off the goal because Cesar Azpilicueta pushed Brandon Williams before flicking the ball to Zouma.

Again, the NBC play-by-play team and the studio analysts lost their heads because Fred initially pushed Azpilicueta into Williams. For the pundits, the first act negated any foul by the Chelsea defender. Fred did in fact give Azpilicueta a glancing, one-armed shove. Azpilicueta's two-armed direct contact with Williams carried far greater force. It’s possible Chris Kavanagh overruled the goal believing the Spaniard made a meal of the initial contact to his benefit. Certainly, he managed to get his head on the ball, previously impossible given he was travelling more towards goal than Willian's cross before the Brazilian redirected him. NHL fans and video officials can relate, given controversial VAR decisions regarding who initiates goaltender interference in that sport.

On the other hand, the NHL was clear and concise when suspending Edmonton Oiler Zack Kassian recently. Buried under two players following a collision along the boards, he kicked out at Tampa Bay Lightning defender Eric Cernak to extricate himself from the tangled pile. Kassian planting his skate blade directly in his opponent's chest resembles Son Heung-min and Harry Maguire's actions. Hockey players wear full-body padding which can mitigate the impact from a large blade. Footballers wear nothing more than shin pads to protect them from flashing studs. Maguire escaped punishment. Son received a three-game ban, Kassian seven. While broadcasters weren't too troubled by the kick in the moment, the NHL's disciplinary committee regularly acts retroactively to punish players who endanger others' safety regardless of the referee's decision on the ice. Should the Premier League follow suit?

Finally, Chelsea were denied another goal when Olivier Giroud was revealed to be offside by an instep. Again, Lee Dixon and co were gobsmacked, feeling VAR did the game a disservice because no one could possibly recognise the Frenchman was offside in real-time. Yet, correcting unseen errors is VAR’s purpose. Fingerprints and DNA allow us to catch criminals when there are no witnesses. We don’t say, “Oh well, no one saw anything; it’s all good.” In everyday life, that isn’t justice. In sport, it isn’t a level playing field. Dixon provides a uniquely enjoyable listening experience during Premier League broadcasts but he must decide whether he’s calling football or WWE.

Chelsea/Manchester United wasn’t a landmark day for VAR but it did serve to highlight the need for on-pitch officials to review their own calls even if it takes more time than trusting their colleague in the booth. Supporters' faith in that partnership is broken. Before it's irrevocably lost, the Premier League must get its act together.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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