The problem with VAR at the moment is the balance of decision making. It's predicated towards disallowing goals and favouring defensive decisions.
Let’s face it, we’re all terrible people. I’m not suggesting that you, dear reader, take pleasure from pole-axing a beggar with a shovel then doing a victory jig when you hit the sweet spot. Or giving a cyclist a cheeky wink once you’ve ran them down with your Fiat Punto. Nor indeed am I suggesting you have a playful chuckle as you stand back to admire your work as the local orphanage burns to the floor. I am talking in the football sense of course.
Human beings are imperfect and I would love to say that the only thing that I derive pleasure from is seeing Spurs do well and succeed. I wish it were true but social media and that growing resentment of other teams, of behaviours and attitudes getting knock down a rung or two, is frankly joyful too. I equate it to working in customer service. You derive pleasure from seeing good things happen to decent people and seeing idiots being denied what they want.
In football we are used to commentators, fans and journalists setting a narrative. For example the positive glee I heard in Gary Neville’s voice when the 92nd minute dropped last week was almost confirmation to me that he was willing City to win. We weren’t great in the game but we were always in it and Neville made it sound like it was even worse than the reality (in combination with Martin Tyler who I’m convinced also doesn’t like us). In fact, I’m not sure Sky likes us and I’m even surer that in Man City we just lost another off our collective Christmas card list.
When the late, late goal came Sky seemed quite exultant. Pep was hugging Aguero and the injustices of the game had been put right. Fans cheered with relief and the feeling that all their attacking endeavour had achieved a natural justice. Then in a moment of magic the goal is reviewed and disallowed. The star prize is being taken back. The fans are denied late in the game against Spurs again. It was the Bulls Eye moment where the star prize was towed away from the scene in front of the contestant’s eyes. Man City’s speedboat was wheeled away.
The Spurs fans in the away section are chanting VAR to ‘Kumbaya My lord’ and the natives are beyond restless and certain body fluids are beginning to boil. I loved this moment in the Champions League and loved the moment last Saturday. Maybe we didn’t deserve the draw and City fully deserved to win by a country mile. But that is a part of football. That sort of result is possible and VAR spotted an infringement that no one would have seen but in the rules of the game it was fair game to disallow it. Truth be told we’d scored two goals that, whilst nicely taken, were in every way preventable and this came from just 3 shots in 90 minutes. It’s either sublime or ridiculous and I’m not really sure where I rest on it.
Schadenfreude is a part of our collective mindset. We laughed at West Ham fans last season predicting they would finish above us. We poke fun at idiots ranting on AFTV. We give a wry smile to City fans who feel utterly cheated by the result on Saturday. We take joy from their belief that their club are owed something, no matter if that expectation is realistic or hokum. Let’s be fair, there are plenty of opposition fans and clubs who take pleasure from our trophy cabinet. The West Ham official account congratulating Liverpool on the Champions League win should not be forgotten or forgiven either. Ultimately everyone gets stick and we naturally revel in our rivals failure.
It’s also right to expect some VAR decisions to run against us. The only benefit we have is that we can also view these decisions with a bit more balance because we’ve gained from VAR and at some point that debt will be repaid. I am no great one for faith but I believe in karma.
The problem with VAR at the moment is the balance of decision making. It’s predicated towards disallowing goals and favouring defensive decisions. Therefore you are going to see more goals disallowed this season than ever before. It’s either a long time overdue correction or stifling attacking creativity. There are clear arguments to say that VAR can destroy the joy of a goal and denying that moment of sheer elation. However, from the other side I can definitely vouch for the massive sense of relief when you realise you haven’t lost or gained from the call.
If you are a purist it will be hard to adapt to VAR and the sense of enjoying a goal only to have it chalked off is a difficult circle to square. There are two things that need to happen. We make sure that only certain classes of incident are subject to VAR including incidents which are ‘clear and obvious’ and secondly the review time needs to be really quick. The reviews almost need to be seen like pit stops in F1. Accurate, effective and fast. They need to clear decisions within 30 seconds so that if there is hubris it does not reach the point of causing trauma to fans in the stadium.
There is also an argument that ‘if we had VAR, we would have won more games’ is not true. Players will inevitably change the way that they play. Diving won’t be easy to get away with and it will force players to be more honest. VAR has to change the game to some extent as much as it will need to change to better compliment the game.
I don’t think that you can entirely eradicate the dark arts. Keepers will still take an age to take goal kicks and players will draw fouls and the occasional tug and barge will still happen too. Without sounding horribly cynical, I think the dark arts are necessary, especially when you consider the vast difference in quality between teams in the Premier League. In fact most sides need some kind of psychological edge and while it’s not pretty it can be very effective. Even City, for all their dominance, racked up 14 fouls against us. Intelligent foul play is still a tactic, make no bones about it.
It’s a difficult juxtaposition making the game fairer without sanitising it to the point of blandness or loss of aggressive competitive attitude. The challenge for the FA is to make sure the balance remains right and the game is not turned in to farce, as it clearly did in the FA Cup tie between Spurs and Rochdale in the 17-18 season at a very snowy Wembley. That game in itself tells us that it has improved a lot since that point but we still have a long way to go. Until that time I hope it will be denying our rivals last minute goals and not ruling any of ours out, all the while we’ll continue to be terrible people.