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Watching the Lascelles and Kane VAR decision unfold – I realised it has created an unexpected problem…

4 weeks ago
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I think it’s safe to say we’re all bored of the VAR debate.

Whether you like it or not, it’s here for now and labouring over the rights and wrongs of individual decisions made by VAR week by week soon becomes tedious.

So I apologise if I repeat anything that was obvious to everyone else, or that has been covered elsewhere, but among all the discussion of the pros and cons there is one outcome that wasn’t apparent to me until Sunday.

Ignoring the specifics of the individual case, the Lascelles/Kane (non) penalty decision provided a moment of clarity that made clear a fundamental change in the game I had not previously appreciated.

My objections to VAR have, up to now, been based purely on my own enjoyment of the game. I don’t want to be stood holding on interminably for a decision, I want to understand the decisions made without waiting for Whatsapp to confirm what my mates at home have seen on TV.

I at least want the ref to understand why he made a decision and convey that decision to players and crowd, rather than being told by an eye in the sky about some infringement he missed in the run of play that technically means the goal doesn’t stand.

I want to celebrate with wild and unfettered abandon once I see the ref and linesman have agreed it’s a goal within seconds.

I want to laugh and gesticulate at opposition fans as soon as a ‘goal’ is ruled out that we had all feared was perfectly fine.

I don’t want that intense, immediate joy filtered through the prism of a 20 second delay while forensic teams check, double check and triple check the decision and any pleasing sense of getting away with something is expunged. I’m happy with some decisions being wrong for my selfish enjoyment but I can see that’s all personal preference and debatable.

None of that matters here. For the record, my view is that the Lascelles decision should have been a penalty, he reminded me of Steven Taylor in his attempts to seem innocent while clearly gaining an advantage for Newcastle unlawfully. But that’s not important to the point I want to make (eventually). I’d have been raging if it was a Newcastle attacking player impeded in the same way by a Spurs defender and we got nothing but that’s neither here nor there.

My realisation could have occurred after any debatable decision in any game, but what became apparent to me on Sunday, is the incontrovertible fact that referees are now more inclined to abdicate the responsibility to make any decision whatsoever. To me, Mike Dean clearly had little appetite for calling the ‘foul’ and was happy to let VAR pull him back only if he had missed something flagrant. Indeed, if he genuinely thought Kane wasn’t impeded by someone that failed to make any contact with the ball then he should have taken action against Kane for a dive. He didn’t, because he didn’t fancy making either call, and by design, he doesn’t need to anymore.

Watching the game I thought this was as it has always been. Decisions have always been bottled. But afterwards, when justifications started being made by pundits that this was VAR working at it’s best, I started to think through the implications on how it changes the game and how wrong-headed it is if this is what is supposed to happen.

The edict on VAR is that it’s sole purpose is to support referees. Unless a decision is blatantly wrong, VAR won’t overrule a referee. It’s a fine principle supposed to infer on referees their control of the game. But in practice we now see that referees prefer not to have ultimate control, they clearly relish handing off these decisions.

The Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOL) that are in charge of these things, issued a press release after the game stating “It was considered not to be a penalty by the on-field referee. As this was a subjective decision, the VAR deemed that there was not enough evidence to overturn the original call and so stuck with the on-field decision.”

But that’s not true is it? The referee thought better of making himself look daft (of course) and told players challenging him that VAR would sort him out if it needed to. This is human nature and I do not blame Mike Dean one bit. Referees (humans) are far more inclined to make a decision that means they have missed something in hindsight than they are to go out on a limb and be shown up as having been proactively wrong, so they will avoid making any call, rather than risk an incorrect one.

While weak officials have always been part and parcel of the game, we have now built into the game a feedback loop where a referee is incentivised to not risk any decision they have the remotest doubts over, entrusting VAR to make the call, but VAR will not overrule any decision there is the remotest doubt over, entrusting referees to make the call. A form of analysis paralysis. Had Dean awarded the penalty on Sunday, there can be no doubt that VAR would have backed him up on it and the PGMOL would have released the exact same statement, only removing the word “not”. Through genuine good intention and everyone wanting to get it right, we’re going to get more wrong.

Worse, the faulty system self-perpetuates as a success, because the commentariat assure us the decision was “right” purely by virtue of the fact that the decision was subjective and so the referee’s decision stood, regardless of whether it was “right” or not. Regardless of the decision the ref made or not, he would have been equally “right” and VAR would have been working as designed if they’d made the opposite call.

If 100 neutral supporters could watch a replay and 80 think it’s a foul and 20 no foul, I’d want that to be given as a foul more often than not. However, we have implemented a system where the best referees (trusting VAR) and VAR boffins (trusting refs) will almost always be inclined to decide it wasn’t a foul.

VAR is not just a helpful tool, assisting referees to make decisions and supporting them in those decisions. It’s a crutch that referees will lean on too heavily, one that changes the course of games by the nature of it’s very existence, before it even intervenes to reverse a decision. It’s not using technology to ensure clear decisions, it’s removing the necessity for decisions from the hands of both the referee AND the technology at the same time and making an absolute statement that subjectivity cannot have any place in the game. Wherever a decision is subjective, no decision will be made by anybody. Good news for clever defenders like Lascelles.

In The Coen Brothers film “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, Ed Crane kills the man his wife was having an affair with. For the trial, his attorney, Freddy Riedenschneider, comes up with a crazy defence based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which he incorrectly attributes:

“They got this guy in Germany, Fritz Something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it’s Werner. Anyway, he’s got this theory. You wanna test something, you know, scientifically – how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap. Well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. You can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would’ve happened if you hadn’t-a stuck in your own goddamn schnozz. So there is no “what happened,” not in any sense that we can grasp with our puny minds, because our minds – our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the “Uncertainty Principle.” Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s on to something.”

Spoiler, the Judge doesn’t fall for it. Ed gets the death penalty. But I was reminded of this when I realised that the awareness of VAR looking at decisions is changing how decisions are made. Those questionable decisions are, in turn, informing the VAR decision that was supposed to validate the original call. Maybe if the Judge in Ed Crane’s case could have left it to VAR, he might have bowed to it’s more informed view and they could have looked at it enough times to be sure that the judge was right not to be 100% sure. Freddy might have got Ed off.

As VAR develops in use, and referees are re-assured by this self-referential cycle that they’re getting it right, even while many believe they got it wrong, maybe the majority of decisions that aren’t entirely open and shut will start going the wrong way.

Will this lead to perpetrators getting away with all sorts of misdemeanours nobody involved has any incentive to challenge? Safe in the knowledge the rubber stamp system will confirm they got it right by letting it go the vast majority of the time. Is it good for the game that only egregiously bad fouls are punished? Is it good that anything that has any doubt is less likely to be judged with an informed opinion at all, either by an impartial man in the middle or in the video room with the benefit of replays?

Aren’t we sacrificing getting the vast majority of subjective calls right, just to ensure that those occasional objective decisions that go the wrong way are caught?

You can follow the author on Twitter @bigchrisholt

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