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Raheem Sterling penalty shout v Tottenham reveals important VAR misconception

Tuesday 4th February 2020
Mike Dean said, 'Play on!' after Raheem Sterling tumbled with Hugo Lloris underfoot. He saw the critical fact everyone else overlooks.
Mike Dean said, "Play on!" after Raheem Sterling tumbled with Hugo Lloris underfoot. He saw the critical fact everyone else overlooks.

Before the fact, critics opposed to implementing Video-Assisted Review in the Premier League predicted the process would destroy the ‘fabric of the game’. While it’s difficult to argue that the time taken to review decisions doesn’t disrupt a match’s natural flow, the Premier League’s apparent solution to the problem draws ire in its own right. Match commentators and fans on social media want to know why the VAR rarely overturns the on-pitch call and, when there’s reason to do so, why the on-pitch official doesn’t sprint over to the pitchside monitor for a second look. The short answer is they are trying their best not to disrupt the flow you hold so dear, you numpty. The longer explanation delves into tinkering with things we don’t understand and the Law of Unintended Consequences [as in there always are].

But matchus interruptus wasn’t the only fear before the league finally sanctioned VAR. While fans repeatedly questioned every Premier League match official’s competency and integrity, they remained happy to accept officiating errors as the regrettable but natural consequence of human fallibility. As outraged as match goers are when decisions go against them, they don’t want their joy over an important goal crushed two to three minutes later by a person hidden in a dark room or a machine able to adjudicate a player offside by the breadth of his armpit.

On the other hand, because they question every match official’s competency and integrity, fans are happy a mechanism exists to make certain calls are made according to the rules. The recent change in the handball ruling, removing intent as a factor to be considered in the case of attacking players, exposed the unintended consequence such a mechanism causes. Applying video review by the letter of the law challenges the rules and referees’ ultimate purpose.

Simply put, rules and match officials exist to ensure fairness. In truth, a referee’s integrity isn’t as important as the game’s. Laws give everyone an equal opportunity to prevail but, at the same time, to make the game interesting.

Without offside, for instance, tactics, formations and [here we go again] a match’s organic rhythm can be severely limited by a forward allowed to camp out in the final third waiting for his defenders to win the ball and opt for the traditional route one clearance.

If it weren’t for red cards, the simplest solution to stopping Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or, these days, Erling Haaland, once and for all would be a well-timed Marcos Rojo special, aka a defender sliding two-footed and studs up into the player whose skill and ability embarrassingly outstrip his own. Tired of tall forwards winning balls in the air? Easy enough. Just take their legs out from under. The keeper wants to come off his line and claim that cross? No worries, a shoulder in the solar plexus will make him think twice.

We need rules or football regresses back to medieval town ball wherein slews of participants on either side were maimed and killed. That said, the game’s laws are written by humans every bit as fallible as the officials who enforce them. To mediate that contradiction, a referee’s judgment must be permitted to come into play. Officials require discretionary power. If VAR demands they adhere to the letter of the law, the game’s integrity suffers.

On Sunday, everything went wrong for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City at the Tottenham Stadium while the planets aligned for Jose Mourinho and Spurs. For the first hour, City were rampant. The Sky Blues amassed scoring chances in the double digits but converted none. A penalty was saved. Sergio Aguero couldn’t sweep a ball into a gaping goal from two yards. Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan similarly missed from more distant but nonetheless point-blank ranges.

Then Oleksandr Zinchenko was sent off for a second yellow card on the hour. Suddenly, City, as woeful in defence as they are imperious in attack, were a man down for 30 minutes. Tottenham took nearly full advantage, converting two of their three shots on target for a stunning victory.

As is his wont, Sterling became mired in controversy before the match turned. He escaped a red card despite a studs-up challenge on Dele Alli then went down easily under minimal contact from Hugo Lloris following the penalty save.

The rash challenge could elicit a red card depending on the match official’s determination of intent. Mike Dean chose to believe the England international was late in playing the ball rather than deliberately attempting to halt an opponent’s progress.

But Dean’s discretion was more critical to fair play in the second incident. Match commentators, studio analysts, Mourinho, City and Spurs' social media warriors all complained it was either a stone-cold penalty or Sterling escaping a second booking, this time for simulation.

By the letter of the law, one or the other was indeed the only conclusion to be reached. Either Lloris’ interference caused him to go to ground or he did so of his own accord to influence the referee. Yet, another factor exists which no one cares to consider because the rules don’t address it. Before contact was made and Sterling tumbled to the turf, he kicked the ball with pace over the touchline. If his forward momentum went unimpeded by the keeper or Sterling’s own opportunism, his heavy touch precluded any chance to keep the ball in play. Mike Dean saw this and exercised the proper discretion. When you cast aside allegiances and view the game from a neutral perspective, no player deserves a free scoring chance after conceding a goal kick. Nor then, is it worth anyone's time to judge whether he was fouled or trying to buy a call. Play on.

While a promising tool for making the game more about quality and skill, VAR needs sorting to develop from its infant state. Yet, so do certain rules as written. As such, the most vital tool to the game’s integrity is a match official’s judgment. Fans and commentators should resist the urge to lawyer results by manipulating the laws of the game and appreciate a referee who applies common sense to a situation.

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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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