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Two matches, two continents, more than two questions about VAR

Monday 28th August 2017
New ideas always draw criticism as people naturally resist change. Two matches on as many continents proved implementing VAR in football is no exception.

Leading into the first of autumn's three international breaks, there were two weekend matches on my must-see list. Friday was the fifth installment in the New York Derby. Saturday lunchtime (for me) brought Manchester United v Leicester City.

I have an affinity for New York. I lived there for a few years. Close relatives still do. My uncle took me to my first professional football match at the Meadowlands in 1977. You can't help but fall in love with the game when Franz Beckenbauer and Vladislav Bogicevic are the first players you see. The original Cosmos were long gone and I'd moved on to South Florida to live and Manchester United for my football before the NY/NJ Metrostars became the Red Bulls. Still, I noticed when they began signing interesting players like Juan Pablo Angel, Tim Cahill, Dax McCarty, Joel Lindpere, Thierry Henry, and Bradley Wright-Phillips. They grew on me, slowly becoming a second club.
Then Red Bull were gifted a truly villainous rival. Fergie's noisy neighbour, Manchester City, was granted a Major League Soccer franchise. That a team in a sky-blue kit would sign players I admired--Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa--and play in Yankee Stadium, where I spent more than one summer following my favourite baseball club, was utterly Machiavellian.

The plan was to go to sleep Friday night with a smile induced by a Red Bull win, then wake joyfully anticipating a third successive United romp. It didn't quite work out that way. Red Bull escaped with a draw, then United struggled mightily to overcome Leicester. On the other hand, both matches featured moments that re-ignited debate over video assisted review, and I do love me some debate.

The Premier League does not as yet use VAR. Two difficult offside rulings, double shouts for handball in one sequence, and a penalty saved by a keeper off his line well in advance of the delivery, all in one match, would appear to suggest it should.

On the other hand, MLS has implemented VAR. Yet, two stone-cold penalties ignored at Red Bull Arena begged the question why it had bothered.
Wearing black, Michael Oliver's day at Old Trafford was only slightly better than the players clothed in blue.

In the first half, his linesman ruled Juan Mata offside for what would have been the gnomish Castilian's inaugural goal in the new campaign, one he and United deserved with their near-total dominance over the ball. It was a close call that commentators, despite multiple slow motion, widescreen views, could not bring themselves to conclusively support or refute.

In the second half, Marouane Fellaini's insurance goal stood despite replays producing the same hesitation.

Well before the Belgian's goal, though, United had surrounded the Leicester 18-yard box. Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba, and Mata probed the left side of Leicester's defenses through a pair of short passes. Mata then attempted to cross. The ball struck Christian Fuchs' arm, the left back less than a yard away. Understandably, Oliver viewed the contact as ball to hand rather than the opposite. Nevertheless, it influenced his next decision, just seconds later.
United quickly regained possession, then worked the ball around to the other side of the 18, where Anthony Martial's cross struck Danny Simpson. Again, the ball was probably moving too quickly for Simpson to react. As he was some five yards from Martial, however, and one shout for hand ball had just been ignored, Oliver apparently felt compelled to punish this one.

The controversy didn't end there. By the time Romelu Lukaku stepped into the spot kick, Kasper Schmeichel had come several feet off his line, making it far easier for him to dive to his right to parry away the shot.
Struggling to explain how, in an elite competition, a penalty could be wrongly given then immediately followed by a potential goal illegally saved, Lee Dixon, the NBC match analyst, trotted out the old cliche, "These things tend to even themselves out."

Only when Dixon became confused over whether Fellaini had been offside for his strike, a half hour later, did he remark that, "VAR would have sorted that right quick."

Would it, though? Possibly not, when applied in the manner currently in use in Major League Soccer.

For much of the derby, Red Bull dominated City in a similar manner to United's Leicester bullying. In the first half, Michael Murillo snuck in the back door, chipping a ball over keeper Sean Johnson. It struck the near post. In the second half, Felipe's cannon from distance found the crossbar. A home goal seemed inevitable.
Then Sacha Kljestan dribbled towards the end line to the left of Johnson's goal. He floated a cross to the back post. Bradley Wright-Phillips was waiting. As he went up to meet the ball, RJ Allen barged into him from behind, sending Wright-Phillips face first into the upright.

Referee Allen Kelly was unmoved. As ESPN's Adrian Healy and Taylor Twellman wondered why there was no review, play continued. City mounted a quick attack against a stunned Red Bull side. David Villa calmly split the centre halves with a one-touch through ball that an overlapping Maximiliano Moralez slid past Luis Robles to put the visitors undeservedly ahead.

The Red Bulls did not cave, though. They kept the pressure on. Kljestan dribbled through a knot of defenders, laying off a pass for Wright-Phillips, who was bundled over. The intended pass caromed off defender Alexander Callens heel back to Kljestan. The former Anderlecht forward danced into the box, where RJ Allen again announced his presence. His second collision wasn't nearly so violent as the first but Kljestan went to his knees easily. Kelly, momentarily in a more charitable mood, pointed to the spot.

This time there would be no save. Gonzalo Veron drove the ball under the bar exactly where Sean Johnson's head would have been had the keeper not guessed wrongly and lunged to his right.

Although the final score would read 1-1, the controversy wasn't complete. City attacked directly from the restart. Moralez ran to the end line to the goal's left. Just before he ran out of real estate he lashed a ball diagonally back across the six-yard box. Villa was waiting to head it into an open goal. To stop him, Red Bull defender Jonathan Lewis channeled his inner Leonardo di Caprio, leaping out, head thrown back, arms akimbo, as if to shout "I am the king of defenders!"
The ball struck his arm halfway between shoulder and elbow. Charity has its limits. Kelly made no call. There was no review.

As it turns out, MLS protocol for VAR permits the match official to decline an opportunity to review a play. Should a referee feel confident he has made the correct call, as Kelly apparently twice did, he has the right to ignore advice from the video official to confirm it through replay, to see the play in slow motion, from more than one angle, without a player possibly running across his line of sight.

As referees typically don't know and therefore don't believe they've made an error until well after the fact, such an option is ridiculous. It completely undercuts VAR's purpose: to make more correct calls.

When the Premier League is ready for VAR, this is a policy it should not adopt. Major League Soccer, when it reviews its VAR operation at season's end, should abandon it. That they wrote it into the manual in the first place is astoundingly self-destructive.

It isn't as though there isn't a local VAR operation from which the league could have learned. The National Hockey League has perhaps the most refined VAR set up in professional sport. Its policy allows coaches to challenge critical calls in the goal area and offsides, as well as for the league to review plays in real time from a remote command centre.

Offsides are tricky. Even with a static line demarcated as the direct linear focal point for the infraction, rather than football's triangulated calculation that estimates where the rearmost defender is and when the delivered ball is released, hockey linesmen were discovered to be alarmingly inaccurate with their decisions when offsides became reviewable. Goals that were scored thirty seconds or more after the violation were being disallowed.
The NHL is stubbornly sticking with its flawed offside policy but has all other aspects of VAR down cold. MLS and the Premier League could learn from the good as well as the bad.

For instance, when a goal is scored but not seen by an on-ice official, the horn is sounded. The referee is informed. The goal is confirmed via video, awarded, and announced to the crowd. The game clock is reset to the point the goal occurred. Play then resumes. The referee has no option to decline the process.

Goals are rarely missed in football--yes, yes, put your hand down Mr Lampard--but stone-cold penalties are. As a video referee is an accredited match official, he should be able to decide whether he would have made a critical call differently than the referee on the pitch, then mandate said referee initiate a review. Only after consultation and review should the on-pitch official have the right to overrule his video counterpart.

It's simple. It's common sense. It's about using the proper tools to make the correct call as frequently as possible rather than allowing luck to "even itself out." The best players in the world deserve the best possible officiating. End of.
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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