Kevin Gage's Sheffield United Column: Football wasn't broke but we tried to fix it anyway with VAR... here's how I would improve the use of the technology

It just had to be us, didn’t it? Wherever, whenever football controversy occurs, it’s a safe bet that Sheffield United will be involved somewhere along the line!

Monday, 18th November 2019, 12:10 pm
Updated Monday, 18th November 2019, 10:14 pm
Kevin Gage Column

We’ve had our fair share of headlines over the years, but this time we came to the football world’s attention for something as trivial as a line drawn across a TV monitor.

Yes, it’s been over a week since John Lundstram’s boot caused uproar, causing millions of words to be spoken and written about something as relatively trivial and mundane as an offside decision.

Although with each Premier League point now being valued at around £3m, we can understand why there is such a pressing need to try to get all decisions right.

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So as the VAR furore dies down a bit, I thought now would be a good time to bring it back up to the boil! It’s simmered away in everyone’s minds, and we’ve all had time to stop and reflect for a while.

I include myself in this by the way as I was very quick to agree with various high profile TV pundits’ assessments in the hours and days after, showing how the red and blue lines were in the ‘wrong place’, or Lundstram’s boot was ‘blurred’, or the offside lines weren’t straight, etc etc.

However, after taking it upon myself to research more about how the VAR system actually works re offside, I’ve realised that the pundits, shooting quickly from the hip, had got it wrong. According to the VAR tech guys with their state-of-the-art, laser-guided, military grade, high-definition, computer-generated offside line-design system, John Lundstram was indeed, to the letter of the law, offside.

Or at least his big toe was anyway, and seeing as you can poke a ball into the net with your big toe, then it’s offside. Harsh, but rules are rules.

I’m not wasting time by trying to explain how the particular VAR offside-line drawing technology works, mainly because even after reading it, and as an non-tech person myself, I don’t truly know all the intricacies, but I do know enough to trust them when they say it does work.

The trouble is, I think it works too well! The people who operate the system in that bunker in Stockley Park, London are now adjudicating on decisions to within a few inches either way, simply because they have the tools to do so. Not only that but they are making calls that no linesman or woman (I still refuse to call them Assistant Referees by the way) in the history of world football has ever been able to make consistently accurately without guessing.

No lino has ever raised his flag because they thought that an attacker’s foot/head/knee/toe or, taking it to extremes, his big nose (!) was a few inches in front of the last defender, yet a computer operative in a bunker is able to spot it and raise a virtual flag! It’s ludicrous!

You’ll see if you look at the freeze-frame of the Lundstram incident again, the linesman was actually in a perfect position right in line with the play. If he can’t spot an offside foot/toe no more than a few yards away, how’s he going to see one across the other side of the pitch? I’ve asked the question but we already know the answer…. He can’t.

VAR is used to check Sheffield United's David McGoldrick's goal before it was eventually disallowed during the Premier League match at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium: Bradley Collyer/PA Wire.

Even if he had some kind of yet-to-be-designed, computer aided, telescopic goggles maybe incorporated into a pilot-style helmet, he would still be unable to judge if a player was a few inches offside for one quite simple reason, and one that hasn’t even really been mentioned in all the uproar. It’s this: How can a person accurately focus on two different images many yards apart at exactly the same moment in time?

Are we actually asking a lino to run down a line, and to stay directly level with the last defender, watching that defender at all times, and yet know the exact moment when the ball is played forward in order to be able to make an ‘offside’ call? That ball might be passed from 30-40+ yards away and way out of his field of vision. You can’t focus your eyes on two places at once and even after switching your gaze, it takes a few moments to re-focus.

So making a tight offside call in the speed of the modern game is a physical impossibility, and even if you have Marty Feldman type cross-eyes, it can’t be done! If we were making up the rules of football from scratch we’d see the lunacy of it based on the limits of a humans physical ability, yet we expect them to do it, AND get all these decisions correct! Linos have been guessing all this time, since the game was even first invented!

So what’s the answer? Do we alter the rules of the offside law to accommodate the new technology? Do we use VAR sparingly for offsides and let it be used in other areas only like penalties, or mistaken identity? Do we scrap it completely? If you are wanting an answer from me, I’m afraid I haven’t got a definitive one.

David McGoldrick of Sheffield Utd celebrates scoring before it was ruled out by VAR: James Wilson/Sportimage

Just like football, VAR is all about opinions. In my opinion, I still believe technology has a valid place in the modern game, and despite the calls for it to be scrapped, it’s not going to be!

As stated already, it’s not the technology at fault; it’s the implementation of it that’s currently proving the issue, and perhaps a bit more common sense and less secrecy re the methodology used might be a way forward.

If we also then accept that linemen have been guessing for decades, then maybe lets help them to be able to have a chance at making correct decisions. They don’t currently focus on big toes, feet or knees to judge offside. Linos have to use bodies, purely because they are human beings with eyes and not computers with lasers.

Maybe the law needs changing back to the old ‘daylight’ between players rule and use a players torso/body as a guide? Just a thought….

Obviously after all the recent publicity, offside has been the hot VAR issue, but it’s already proving a good thing for the game in some other areas. One of these is, apparently, there is less ‘diving’ (or cheating to give it its correct terminology) as players realise they may con a referee, but not a room full of video-tape operatives miles away.

A new generation of football players will also now grow up realising it’s maybe best to stay on their feet in the box these days, rather than throw themselves to the floor at the slightest contact. The game itself is also evolving in general as reflected in the actual number of offsides recorded in the game.

The stats are quite startling. According to Opta, in the Premier League season 1997-98 there were an average of 7.8 offsides per game. Its been declining ever since and last year it was down to 3.8. After 12 games this season, even in our new VAR era it’s dropped again to 3.6. And it’s not just the Premier League….The 1990 World Cup finals had 8.5 offsides per game, whereas in 2018 at the first VAR World Cup it was just 2.7.

Why have these numbers declined so much? Across world football it may be that attacking players are learning from all these tech-tools and getting much better at timing their runs and therefore getting caught offside less often. Defenders are certainly quicker and more athletic than ever before and maybe are less inclined to ‘hold the line’ and play for offside?

The days of Arsenal’s Tony Adams and Steve Bould’s style of standing bolt upright with one hand in the air, appealing for offside to the officials seems to have long gone. I think these days, defenders are usually as quick as attackers and happy to drop off a few yards and race them to the ball, rather than stand their ground and hope to get a tight offside call go their way.

One thing I WOULD like implemented though is this. There are pitch-side TV monitors in every ground in the Premier League yet no referee has even gone over to get a second look at an incident. It’s utter madness and makes no sense whatsoever. The referees are being over-ruled by unseen, unheard people in that bunker in London.

The referee needs to be the sole and final arbiter for their decisions on the pitch, it’s as simple as that. Why are the TV monitors there if they were never intended to be used? Answer: because they were intended to be used, but someone, somewhere has so far this season said they are to be left redundant. Why is that?

I’ve personally witnessed the pitch-side TV monitor system working perfectly in visits to stadiums in the USA for MLS games. The ref is called (or decides) to run over to the touchline, takes a second look via the monitor and makes a decision. The fans all know it’s him making the final decision based on what he originally saw (and felt) in real-time match conditions, and despite a few disgruntled boos of frustration, fans accept it.

How simple can it be? I’m sure he can take verbal guidance from a bunker tech-bod if need be (and another bunker-based ref if absolutely necessary), but give him the authority to referee the game as he sees it himself, even if he sees it in replay a minute or two after the event.

In my personal conclusion, the game ain’t broke, but we’ve tried to fix it anyway. We appear to have the correct tools for the job. Use them sensibly and only use them if we absolutely have to. Leave one man in charge of the job, on the ground, in the heat of the action. If he asks, advise him and help him, but let him do the job he’s paid to do.

Football is still the beautiful game, and it’s more beautiful on the pitch than ever before. Let’s not let VAR turn it ugly.