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Football achieves clinical accuracy with VAR... but sacrifices a little of its soul

VAR controversy reared its head in Man City’s opening clash with West Ham

In Summary

• VAR controversy reared its head in Man City’s opening clash with West Ham

•City thought they had scored a third only for Raheem Sterling to be ruled offside

City's Sergio Aguero scores their fourth goal from the penalty spot
City's Sergio Aguero scores their fourth goal from the penalty spot
Image: REUTERS

It is not much to ask that, having spent hundreds of millions investing in football, those who own and run Premier League clubs at least know why they lose or win.

Yet as the directors and officials of Manchester City and West Ham gathered after Saturday’s game, neither group had a clue why Sergio Aguero’s penalty was retaken.

They thought they did, but they were wrong. So were former professionals including Mike Summerbee, Sir Trevor Brooking and England manager Gareth Southgate. They all presumed, as the majority in the stadium did, that West Ham goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski had come off his line to make his save. Only later, if watching Match of the Day, would they have realised that the retake was the result of encroachment by, in particular, West Ham’s Declan Rice.

Now VAR may be the modern way and its opponents depicted as a Luddite tendency. That those who pay to watch the game — whether as fans, or owners — should not be in the dark about the essentials of what they have seen should be given.

And while Aguero’s penalty was immaterial to the outcome this weekend, that won’t always be the case. On another day, a retaken penalty could be all that separates two teams chasing the title; and the prime motivating factor in the outcome will be a mystery to all but a privileged few.

The reason for the re-shoot was sent, by email, to members of the press about 10 minutes after the incident; perhaps when the Premier League heard even City’s fans, whose team had benefited from the call, serenading the officials with a chorus of, “What the f*** is going on?”

Later, City’s directors were of the opinion that they would rather have the release of endorphins that accompanied their lovely, third, disallowed goal and let Aguero’s penalty miss stand. And that’s the flaw in VAR. Nobody is disputing the decisions were correct. Yet in achieving clinical accuracy, football has sacrificed a little of its soul.

For VAR’s inadvertent mission is to erase the special moments that form the emotional peaks of the game. When a goal is scored, the question being asked is, ‘How can we disallow that?’ The same principle when a penalty is saved. A moment of high drama — the pinnacle of a goalkeeper’s performance — is followed by an attempt to have the kick retaken.  The authority is not tossed to VAR because the referee suspects an infringement, but because that is the way the game is now to be played. Goals are reviewed as a matter of course; penalties, too. There were City players encroaching as well as Rice; so why wasn’t that also a factor in whether to retake?

Not that it would have changed the result — but the disallowed third might have. It came shortly after half-time, with the London Stadium quietened and flat after City took a deserved 2-0 lead. All the momentum and noise surrounded the champions. Yet after the VAR delay, the reprieve was celebrated like a West Ham goal. Suddenly, the stadium was alive.

West Ham forced an excellent double save from Ederson. Had that gone in, that final 30 minutes would have been completely different. And all because Raheem Sterling’s shoulder had strayed offside. It was a disproportionately negative development from the most minor of infringements.

Southgate said it echoed what happened to England in the Uefa Nations League semi-final. They thought the game had been won by Jesse Lingard, VAR ruled out his goal on a fine margin, England were utterly deflated, Holland — who thought they had lost — emboldened. There was only one winner after that. Players will just have to learn to handle those extremes of fortune, but it is another complexity resulting from VAR.

These, however, are teething problems, compared to the absence of information. Is it really impossible to provide those in the stadium with the necessary facts? “The goal was disallowed because Sterling was in an offside position, starting at his left shoulder.”

“The penalty will be retaken because of encroachment by Declan Rice.” It doesn’t seem such an unreasonable demand given the price of admission; and certainly not for several hundred million pounds.