It was touted as the missing element that would clear the inconsistencies that football was riddled with but it’s fair to say that while the introduction of VAR has been a welcome development in the sport, especially during the just concluded FIFA Women’s World Cup, it hasn’t quite hit the high notes in the Premier League.
The concept itself seems quite laudable especially when one considers its potential to clear up inadvertent errors by referees that lead up to match-changing decisions but since the start of this season’s Premier League where it has been introduced, VAR has been anything but smooth sailing.
The euphoria that greeted its launch gradually wilted as incidents that threatened to mar the game’s spontaneity began to pile up. After what had been a quiet introduction on the opening day of the season when Liverpool took on Norwich, VAR was suddenly in the spotlight the next day as Manchester City traveled to London to take on West Ham United. It didn’t take long for City to assert their authority in the game as they took the lead in the first half through a Gabriel Jesus well-taken goal.
Things got to a head in the 53rd minute after Raheem Sterling is slipped through on the channels by David Silva. The England international then has a lookup before rolling the ball across the face of goal for an onrushing Gabriel Jesus to finish with aplomb in what could have been Man City’s third of the afternoon. The joy for City’s travelling fans was short-lived, however, as the men in the VAR room played with their buttons and informed the referee that Sterling had been practically an armpit’s hair offside when he received the ball from Silva. It was in the spirit of the game the right decision of course but tell that to the thousands of City fans in the stadium who were already delirious that their team had killed off the game only to see the goal chalked off for a decision so marginal, that even the 3D lines drawn on the VAR monitors to prove a point seemed rather inconclusive. What happened to the good old rule of giving an advantage to the striker?
Thankfully, City went on to win that game on a weekend where there were in total 70 odd VAR decisions made across the 10 games that were played across England in the Premier League. City boss Pep Guardiola pointed out after the game that “You have to be mentally strong when VAR is not on your side. You think at 0-3 the game is almost over but at 0-2, the game is completely different. You have to be calm and be strong. It is going to change the dynamic, not just for the team but for the spectators.”
A week later, his team was again at the end of another VAR decision which this time, proved to be an agonizing one as a goal scored in stoppage time by Gabriel Jesus against Tottenham Hotspur is again ruled out for an inadvertent handball by Aymeric Laporte. It seemed a bit déjà vu for City who had also been at the end of a similar decision in April this year at the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
Much like last week’s decision, this too seemed technically correct but must have left a bitter taste in the mouths of purists who want to see the game played without interference from referees who are stuck in a little room analysing every minutiae detail of the game.
VAR is not necessarily a bad thing but it is the inconsistencies in its application that seems to fall foul of the spirit of the game and have irked a few managers in just two weeks into the new season. There will be improvements as the season progresses and while its proponents continue to point to its accuracies and potential to cut out refereeing errors, there is, however, no doubt that it will continue to polarize opinions.