Clear and obvious, a phrase often used when there is a debate about VAR in football. The technology that was introduced to weed out the controversial decisions, the human errors and the referee misjudgments, has become the very reason for controversy in the Premier League and indeed other leagues including the UEFA Champions League, this season. VAR, or Video Assistant Referee, is where technology is supposed to be used to give referees the precise video footage with better angles and views than what the on-field referee or the linesmen may have had, for certain decisions. These include Goal or No Goal, penalty calls, and direct red cards. Yet, some of the decisions that have been taken even with the use of VAR are far from what you would call clear and obvious.
As we roll towards the halfway mark of the Premier League football season in England and as the fans slowly return to the stadiums to cheer their teams after a dreadful year away because of the Coronavirus pandemic, VAR continues to be at the receiving end of criticism, be it on social media or in debates with football pundits or pretty much heated arguments between football fans. Pretty much every Premier League club has been at the receiving end of some fairly questionable VAR decisions, whether they went against or in favor of them. Let us take a look at some of the most controversial decisions delivered this Premier League season by VAR, thus far, featuring Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Leeds United, Manchester United and others. This isn’t an exhaustive list since these controversies happen every weekend across multiple games, but you’ll get an idea. I am sure some of you will point to some other decisions as well, saying they were blatant howlers led by technology.
The Armpit: Aston Villa vs Liverpool, November 2
At the beginning of November, a Roberto Firmino goal was ruled No Goal because well, his armpit was offside. The Premier League attempted to clarify the decision on social media by suggesting that the red line they drew in parallel with the Villa defender was aligned to Firmino’s armpit and was therefore slightly offside. Let us just say, this clarification became the focal point for more jokes on Twitter. Liverpool came back to win that game 1-2.
Don’t Point: Crystal Palace Vs Leeds United, November 7
Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford had a goal disallowed, for, pointing to his teammate where to ping the pass. VAR again drew a red line and a blue line and because Bamford had an outstretched arm pointing to where he wanted the ball played, VAR believed he gained a positional advantage in comparison with Crystal Palace defenders. No goal.
No Blessings Here: Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur, November 21
Whether the ball struck Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus on the elbow or the shoulder, his assist for the last gasp Aymeric Laporte was ruled as a handball and therefore no goal. The Premier League again had to issue a clarification saying that the ball hit Jesus on the elbow which falls in what they call the “red zone”, which starts below the armpit. “I don’t know the rules anymore, honestly,” said Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne after the match.
Clear and obvious intent to hurt, part 1: Manchester United Vs Chelsea, October 24
It was advantage Chelsea as Manchester United defended in their own box. United defender Harry Maguire and Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta went for the ball. Maguire headed it clear. But television replays showed that Maguire went over Azpilicueta, with both arms and shoulders to get an advantage. This is mostly a penalty offence. Yet, while the on-field referee was unsighted and the game continued, VAR also refused to step in and didn’t classify this as enough for a penalty. We have seen softer ones given, haven’t we?
Clear and obvious intent to hurt, part 2: Liverpool vs Everton, October 17
There are two sides to this debate. One that says a certified reckless challenge must be duly rewarded with a red card and one that says the play had been called offside, and therefore stopped. That is what happened in the Merseyside derby when Liverpool’s tower of strength Virgil Van Dijk went for a ball played on call. He probably didn’t realize that offside had been called, and neither did Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. A two-legged challenge followed on Van Dijk. VAR official for the game David Coote initiated a review for a possible penalty by checking the offside once again. This means he classified this tackle as a penalty offence, and one where a card would have been brandished. However, once the offside was confirmed, VAR decided not to pursue why they were reviewing this in the first place—the possible penalty Pickford went scot free while Van Dijk’s serious injury caused by Pickford’s lunge will probably see him miss the rest of the season.