Another weekend, another round of VAR controversies...surely it's time to stop this madness?
Let’s talk about video assistant referees. Again.
The system which has turned football into a computer game, played by folk cocooned inside a bunker at Stockley Park, and is succeeding where hundreds of carefully orchestrated PR campaigns have failed by persuading previously partisan supporters to sing with one voice.
“Sod VAR,” or words to that effect, is the now the most popular chant inside Premier League stadiums up and down the country.
And yet, as Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder lamented late on Sunday night, the authorities are not listening. Coaching staff, players and most importantly the fans - without whom the game would wither - find themselves being effectively being patronised by those who cling to the misguided belief that a sporting contest between fallible human beings can be turned into an exact science. As events since August have proved beyond doubt, it can’t. Nor should it.
Wilder, who at the beginning of the season was willing to give the idea a chance, was speaking after two more controversial calls cost his team dear during their fixture against Manchester City.
The first saw a Lys Mousset ‘goal’ disallowed for the most marginal of offside decisions. The second came when referee Chris Kavanagh obstructed John Fleck during the build-up to Sergio Aguero’s opener. Both, as even Pep Guardiola acknowledged, proved to pivotal moments in a fixture eventually settled by Kevin de Bruyne’s finish.
Although the latter was unfortunate - a recent law change, unveiled over the summer, would only have permitted the action to be restarted if the ball had struck the official - Mousset’s effort would definitely have stood before VAR’s introduction. And Wilder’s reaction, the painted-on smile he wore throughout the post-match media conference failing to disguise his utter exasperation, was important too. Because, as he also detailed other dubious rulings over the course of the weekend, it betrayed the depth of dissatisfaction within the business about how matches are now being governed.
“Do we want people drawing silly lines all over the place? Do we want people putting blurred lines on things that no one can understand? No. But that is what we’ve got,” Wilder said, trying his best to fathom why Stuart Attwell, the man tasked with reviewing Kavanagh’s actions, had wiped Mousset’s effort from the scoresheet.
“If it had been stopped,” Wilder continued, turning his attention to Aguero’s strike. “Then I don’t think there would have been too many complaints. Let me put it like this, and I’ve got the ultimate respect for Pep and his club, if it had happened the other way around then I think a lot more might have been made of it.”
Nuno Espirito Santo, Wilder’s counterpart at Wolves, had been saying something similar earlier in the evening when his team appeared to be the victims of two more VAR-induced miscarriages of justice. Together with United, the Portuguese’s side sit at the top (or should that be the bottom?) of the table calculating VAR overturns. Clearly, despite supposedly being implemented to make football fairer, many people feel the same unintentional biases remain. The rankings prove unfashionable Brighton and Hove Albion have profited the most. But perceptions are important. In fairness, some of the criticism being levelled at VAR is erroneous. The incident involving Mousset, like the one last month when John Lundstram’s big toe strayed beyond the line during United’s draw with Tottenham Hotspur, confirm the offside law, rather than video reviews, is no longer fit for purpose after being tweaked more times than the tuning knob on an old transistor radio. Football is a game of small margins, so we are told. But not that small, surely?
Yet VAR, and the clamour to embrace it without properly considering the implications, is symptomatic of the drive to overcomplicate a game which used to be so beautifully simple.
And that is a dangerous situation to be in.