Three minutes and 47 seconds is a long time in football. An awful lot can happen. Twenty years ago in the Nou Camp it was long enough to enable Manchester United to recover from a position of defeat at the end of 90 minutes against Bayern Munich and, with the German club’s ribbons already on the trophy, to use added time first to draw level and then to win the Champions League final. Those three minutes contained as much drama and emotion as some entire seasons.
At Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium on Saturday three minutes and 47 seconds was the length of time in which no football took place at all. On the hour, two minutes after Son Heung-min had put the home side ahead, Sheffield United celebrated an equaliser when David McGoldrick applied the finish to Enda Stevens’ cross from the left. But then the referee, Graham Scott, passed the decision over to the VAR room at Stockley Park. Twenty-two players stood around waiting as, 20 miles away in west London, it took almost four minutes of deliberation to conclude that John Lundstram had been offside by the length of his big toe when he received the ball on the right wing before sending in a cross that was half-cleared to John Fleck, who fed the ball to Stevens before it was turned across to McGoldrick.
Several objections were raised against the decision. First, if Lundstram was offside, it was immaterial because so much else had taken place before the move reached its conclusion. That’s hard to defend because his part in the action was intrinsic to its outcome. Second, it was a marginal decision made by a system whose terms of reference are supposedly confined to identifying “clear and obvious” errors by the officials on the pitch. That one holds a little more water. Third, how can we be sure the VAR technology is capable of operating to such fine margins? Answer: we can’t, and decisions as close as this will continue to be subject to the officials’ interpretation.
And so Lundstram’s big toe takes its place alongside Roberto Firmino’s armpit, the piece of the Brazilian’s anatomy judged offside a week earlier when he scored a disallowed equaliser against Aston Villa. Subsequent arguments concentrated on whether Tyrone Mings’ knee had played Firmino’s armpit onside. That is what we have come to.
At this point in the argument it is customary to try and disclaim Luddite tendencies. Not here, however. This column believes that an experienced rugby referee’s intuitive judgment on whether a touchdown has been made amid a pile of bodies will almost always be more reliable than the examination of seven different angles provided by slo-mo TV cameras while the players stand around getting cold. It believes that cricket’s ball-tracker is inherently suspect because it attempts to predict the behaviour of something whose unpredictability is one of the fundamental features of the game. It thinks that installing sensors to ensure that grand prix drivers stay within track limits is an insult to the memory of those whose limits were defined by brick walls.
Straightforward in/out decisions – adjudicated by HawkEye in tennis or football’s goal-line technology – are one thing. Any decision involving a judgment call is another matter altogether. And, as we are now painfully aware, some decisions in football will always be a matter of judgment rather than fact. Would Pep Guardiola have gone into such paroxysms of rage on Sunday had the referee on the pitch been the sole arbiter of the double handball incident that directly preceded Liverpool’s opening goal at Anfield on Sunday? The implication that VAR has made adjudication infallible might just be exacerbating anger at justice supposedly denied.
Human fallibility is removed from sport only at the risk of destroying the precious flow and expression of spontaneous emotion that makes it different from, say, the opera. The remoteness of the VAR decision-making process is in itself an alienating factor; it might be mitigated by greater use of a pitchside screen, but to have the referee dashing back and forth is simply another form of interruption.
VAR is like Brexit. Whatever sensible arguments are to be made in good faith on either side they are swamped by the damage it has caused, by the expense and the bother and the division it has created, as well as by the lurking suspicion that its existence serves somebody else’s interests, in this case the people who supply the technology and the broadcasters who welcome another source of debate for their celebrity pundits.
So here is a constructive suggestion. Wait until Boxing Day, when half the Premier League season will be over, and press pause on VAR. Run the remaining 19 games without it. Monitor them very carefully. See how many marginal decisions are made and examine the outcomes and the reaction. Then compare them with a very careful analysis of the first half of the season.
The comparison cannot be exact but it might tell us something. More importantly, perhaps, it might give spectators as well as players a chance to think about what kind of football they want to see.
Perhaps the result will be a discovery that people preferred the old, pre-VAR atmosphere of hurling vain abuse at allegedly blind refs to the new world of having to wait to unleash their joy in a process of gaudium reservatum. Or maybe it will become obvious that the technology is, in fact, getting nearer to the point where it can clear away all doubts over potentially contentious decisions and thereby make the game a better, more contemporary spectacle. Either way, given the state we’re in, it’s got to be worth a try.
The Guardian Sport