Jog On VAR! Five of the Most Controversial Decisions So Far

Back in the early 1990s, when the Premier League was just a twinkle in the eyes of corporates, anyone suggesting that fans in attendance would one day pay upwards of £50 – and do so simply for the privilege of cheering a goal twice – would have been dismissed as a lunatic. 

Nearly 30 years on from the Premier League’s launch in 1992, that scenario is a reality. Indeed, such is the new level of pessimism amongst fans of many success-starved teams, they will not even celebrate a whistle-clean strike from 30 yards until the conceding team has kicked off. 

Naturally, the first half of 2019/20 produced a number of flashpoint moments of VAR controversy, which cast further doubt on the integrity of the correlation between the new technology and the once-beautiful game’s age-old rules. 

Man City v Tottenham – 18 August 

The first notable VAR controversies of this campaign took no time at all to arrive, and duly did so in Man City’s opening duo of matches. On the opening weekend, Raheem Sterling had seen a goal chalked off merely for having an ‘armpit’ offside, but with City running out 5-0 winners (vs West Ham) on that occasion, it mattered little. 

It mattered a lot, however, when Gabriel Jesus scored in the dying seconds of City’s opening home game, to apparently make it 3-2 and match main rivals Liverpool’s early return of six from six. The cheers of the City faithful were soon silenced by the Etihad Stadium’s first-ever major VAR review, and it would prove an unfavourable one, declaring Aymeric Laporte to have committed a handball in the build-up. 

The call was undoubtedly a harsh one, which provoked afresh the belief that handball protocol must now follow a more distinct party line in relation to VAR. It is still an element to the game that is interpreted differentially by officials, with the ‘intent’ of the offending player, and whether they are attacking or defending, remaining the principal crux of a handball decision. 

Leicester v Bournemouth – 31 August 

Elder fans will often bemoan how protected players are these days, and with many examples of play-acting during the Premier League era going unpunished, the expectation is that VAR will see anything more than a slight nudge as a foul to be pounced upon with great prejudice. However, there have been extremes at the other end of the spectrum, where challenges will not incur the wrath of officials when richly deserved, due to a lack of diverse camera angles on the VAR replay. Earlier this season, Leicester midfielder Youri Tielemans caught Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson high on the ankle in a tackle that could easily have caused serious injury. With Premier League predictions relating to Bournemouth’s top-flight status hinging largely on Wilson’s fitness, all those connected to the club were naturally incensed. 

Countless players in the past have walked for less, and Wilson’s teammate Steve Cook was amongst the first to speak out, simply stating: “It’s a red card. There is no point in VAR”. He also compared the challenge to one made by Brighton winger Florian Andone the previous week, which had been punished with a straight red card. 

While officials would like to stem the regularity such contentious moments, the very same day brought another serious flashpoint in the cursed life of Premier League VAR… 

Crystal Palace v Aston Villa – 31 August 

Sometimes there are examples of daylight robbery that seemingly transcend the twin polyps of human error and VAR’s growing pains. Trailing 1-0 deep into stoppage time at Selhurst Park, ten-man Aston Villa had fought like the lions that adorn their chest to wrest back a losing cause. It seemed as though their efforts had been rewarded when Henri Lansbury struck home an apparent equaliser. 

After a lengthy consultation with the disembodied powers lodged inside VAR’s ivory towers, Kevin Friend decided that Jack Grealish had dived in the build up to the goal. Though diving is technically a foul, its application in this context showed just how ruinous VAR could become to the spirit of the game. 

Certainly, but for quick policing – in the charmingly British form of raised batons – this VAR decision may well have sparked Selhurst Park’s second-ever player vs fan skirmish in the Premier League era. 

Brighton v Everton – 26 October 

Everton’s awful start to 2019/20 got several shades worse in the closing minutes of their defeat at the AMEX Stadium. With the Merseysiders leading 2-1 and largely controlling affairs, an utterly meaningless long ball – the type Brighton had so aimlessly launched throughout the preceding 75 minutes – found its way into the Everton box. 

Michael Keane duelled with Aaron Connolly, and when the latter fell down seemingly nowhere near Keane, the belief was that Connolly would be booked for diving. Intervene the authorities did, but it soon became apparent that a penalty was in the works for Brighton, and it was duly awarded – and dispatched. 

By virtue of the Premier League’s very first VAR-awarded penalty, the Seagulls eventually won 3-2, giving themselves a lifeline by capitalising on Everton’s newly-unfocused, furious defensive line. Replays showed that Keane unknowingly trod on Connolly’s toe, causing the fall, but many still questioned whether or not Connolly could have stayed upright. 

It was only by means of Connolly going to ground that the review ever took place, setting a poor precedent for officials, as the issue of simulation continues to dog the modern game. 

Aston Villa v Liverpool – 2 November 

Aston Villa may well rue throwing away these points come the end of May, but that they managed to take a 1-0 lead into such a late stage is down to overzealous officialdom. Simply put, an apparent equaliser was ruled out for offside because the Brazilian’s armpit was beyond the last defender when the ball was played. 

Actual decision aside, the sheer waste of time spent reviewing a perfectly legitimate goal alone was beneath contempt. It would have been awarded without hesitation in any other preceding Premier League season, but with VAR clearly desperate to justify its presence in a new league, the officials saw fit to enact the bizarre. 

Ultimately, if nothing more than an armpit is now needed to provoke an offside call, then the game is about to enter a dark era of low-scoring encounters and constant delays. 

What will be done? 

While VAR was a welcome addition to the World Cup in 2018, its reputation for fairness has crumbled quickly in the febrile environment of the Premier League, where millions of pounds, personal futures and top-flight status are potentially at stake. 

While VAR has made a number of contentious calls for and against Liverpool and Manchester City over the past few months, those moments have proven inconsequential in the context of the title race. Sadly though, it is likely to be just a matter of time before a contentious decision is made that seriously impacts upon the relegation battle, such is the congested nature of the league’s nether regions. 

In February 2020, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters declared that VAR would not be scrapped in 2020/21, despite fans largely wishing for it to be expunged. He reinforced the league’s commitment towards refining the system in relation to the game’s rulebook, but the dissatisfaction remains as strong as ever. 

We here at WFRF HQ certainly won’t hold our breath… 

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