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Are Premier League match officials undermining VAR?

Sunday 25th August 2019
Paul Tierney Pl Var Ios Mpalazzotto

Background image: Blue Budgie

The problem with VAR is not that it erodes the human element in football. It’s that it leaves it in place. VAR stands for video assistant referee, not assisted review. It’s a person watching a monitor to make a decision.

Instances where technology makes the decisions are much more reliable.

Take goalline technology. The chip in the ball crosses the sensors installed in the goalposts and the electronic signal informs the human immediately. Everything stops. The goal is awarded. The conceding team doesn’t protest. Everyone trusts the cold, unemotional precision the system provides.

Offside reviews are more complicated. A human must align the virtual grid with the attacking player’s forward-most body part, not including hands and arms which cannot be used to score. That takes a moment but remains an objective task with the video evidence available to viewers once the call is made. Again, arguments do not ensue. Everyone trusts the cold unemotional precision.

The thing no one trusts is the human fallibility which comes into play when deciding penalties and red cards. The human watching the video must make a subjective decision, applying his imprecise, sometimes emotional understanding of the rules of the game.

The match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace was a textbook example of how unreliable human judgment can be.  The referee on the pitch, Paul Tierney, made several dubious decisions including two that should have but did not give the video assistant pause.

On the first, former Chelsea captain Gary Cahill brought down Anthony Martial just outside the box. Martial had taken Marcus Rashford’s pass and a touch to carry him slightly to his left. Behind and to the right, Cahill pulled him down. Martin Kelly trailed the play and was making his way around Cahill on the opposite side to Martial. He could not have reached United’s No.9 before the quiet Frenchman got off a shot. As the last man, Cahill denied Martial a clear scoring chance, a red-card offence.

VAR upheld Tierney’s yellow card decision. Palace remained at full strength. BeIn Sports’ broadcast team seemed of two minds, first saying that Martial was in full control of the ball, his slight move to the left designed to create space for a shot. When the decision came down, he was suddenly moving away from goal and Kelly’s proximity allowed Tierney and VAR to say Cahill wasn’t the last man.

One announcer seemed to approve of the video referee backing Tierney as if he was there to protect his colleague’s job security when the sole purpose of VAR is to correct bad decisions. Solidarity has no place in the process. In fact, it completely sabotages video review as a useful tool.

In the second half, Kelly clearly brought down Martial in the box but Tierney waved play on. Again, VAR upheld the decision. Again, the commentators were of two minds. Before the VAR check, they were convinced it was a stone-cold penalty. Afterwards, they repeated their approval that the official in the booth was supporting Tierney on the pitch.

Seeing nothing wrong with that, they searched for a reason to deny a penalty that didn't call the officials' integrity into question. Martial managed to get off a shot while struggling to keep his balance. Perhaps his honesty in not going down worked against him, with Tierney not wanting to give him a second chance even though Kelly’s interference clearly and obviously hindered the scoring opportunity?

Ironically, Tierney also showed Daniel James a yellow card for simulation after which replays showed he was clearly kicked in the knee. If a player stays on his feet, no penalty. If he goes down, there is nothing in it. Based on the inconsistency in his performance on the day, Tierney is in the wrong game. Is the WWE hiring match officials?

Supporters of either side and the two managers naturally came down on opposite sides of the debate. I can guarantee you, however, that Palace fans viewing the match on television or internet cringed when they saw the replays of both incidents, fearing the worst. Roy Hodgson draped himself in old-school righteousness when denying the penalty in his post-match interviews.

No, I see things from a football point of view, not VAR or the fans’ perspective.

In other words, he is willing to gamble on human error falling in his favour during matches. Unfortunately, his stand on the issue is as inconsistent as match officiating itself.

None of this is to say United would have won the match but for the referee’s decisions. For their part, the Red Devils failed to drape themselves in clinical form. Their play was too ponderous to break through Hodgson’s well-organised defence until the 89th minute. Without picking up their tempo, it’s unlikely they’d have penetrated a 10-man Palace side either. In addition, Marcus Rashford missed the penalty that was given, just as Paul Pogba did on Monday last. Who is to say that whoever took the one that wasn’t would have converted?

The point here is that the Premier League needs to examine the human element in its VAR process. The decisions made in this match proved that even the term ‘clear and obvious’ means different things to different folk.

The rule book doesn’t state that contact must completely deny a scoring chance or that the last man rule doesn’t apply if another defender is in shouting range and might be able to throw off the striker with a well-timed and hearty “Booga Booga!”, although Tierney and his video assistant appeared to think it does.

That subjectivity is what VAR is intended to eliminate. When the match officials appear more concerned with making each other look good than making the right call, their lack of integrity mocks the process. Consequently, fans are right to wonder what the point in implementing VAR was if it isn’t going to be used properly.

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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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