VAR. I hate it. It is ludicrous that officials are determining offside by the position of an atom at the edge of a toenail, the furthermost tip of a hair, or some other nanoscopic extremity.
Ruling out Teemu Pukki’s goal against Spurs, and rendering Mario Vrancic’s sublime pass irrelevant, was crushingly dispiriting.
But I wasn’t surprised that such a moment happened.
For almost 30 years, in newspapers and TV and radio broadcasts, I argued against the introduction of technology into football matches. One of my oft-made contentions was that sterile science would wreck the passionate hurly-burly of matches.
But, let’s be properly informed about what is happening and why we have arrived at the current craziness. Otherwise, our rants can seem like mad howls at the moon.
Let’s start with how a Video Assistant Ref uses technology to review a potential offside.
First, the VAR has to decide the moment to look at. Law 11 says offsides concern “the moment the ball is played or touched by a team-mate”. So the VAR stops the replay of the action at the very beginning of that moment.
I always believed that it wouldn’t be possible to determine that instant with precision. But with cutting-edge systems, it is — pretty much.
There is a tiny amount of possible error, but, just as in tennis and cricket (in which the trajectory of the ball is guessed by computer programmes), that degree of error has been accepted because it is so small. After all, it is much, much smaller than the degree of error when humans rely on their own eyes and minds.
Next, the VAR has to mark the position of the part of the relevant attacker which is nearest to the goal-line. And then do the same with the defender.
The VAR ignores the hands and arms (because you can touch the ball legally with any part of your body other than hands and arms).
But the picture we all see — with red and blue lines drawn across the pitch and dotted lines ascending to the relevant players — is not the image the VAR uses.
All Premier League pitches have been “mapped” by taking a huge number of images and measurements to create 3D computer models. The computer model of, say, Carrow Road, enables any point on or above the pitch to be meticulously marked by manoeuvring a grid and creating crosshairs in the appropriate place. (Sometimes TV shows that process happening, briefly, during the initial phase of the off-side check).
If the VAR, using the 3D model’s crosshairs, identifies bit of a foot on the ground as the foremost part of the relevant player, the system generates a line across the image of the pitch from that point. If the foremost part of the player is above the ground, the computer produces a vertical line to the ground and then generates the line across the pitch on the ground.
At this stage all the lines being looked at — the grid, the crosshairs and the vertical lines — are only the width of a single pixel. As soon as the two lines across the pitch have been placed (denoting the position of the two relevant body parts) it is apparent to the VAR which line is nearer the goal-line. That is when the much thicker red and blue lines and dotted vertical lines are superimposed so that they are clearly visible on TV screens.
The 3D computer model takes into account the fact that the image being looked at will seldom be at a right angle to the pitch. So, to the human eye, the vertical lines do not always look perpendicular. It can also appear that the crosshairs have not been placed on the correct body part — that a player’s head might be further forward than his knee, for instance, and yet the knee is being used as the definitive body part. The thicker lines inevitably look closer to each other than the pixel-wide lines and the vertical dotted lines often look wonky.
According to the geeks who devised the software, though, they are correct. Our eyes are deceiving us, or our minds are ignoring parallax.
Another problem is that the dotted lines frequently seem to be pinpointing an armpit, whereas in many of those instances the area being considered by the VAR is part of the chest, immediately above the point where the dotted line has ended.
None of this explains why on earth the VAR is looking at infinitesimally small points on the outer periphery of bodies.
That is happening because, for all the decades that I was arguing against the introduction of technology in football, TV replays in super slo-mo and from countless angles were creating the impression — bogus to my mind — that referees make lots of mistakes. The cacophony of criticism became so loud that the game couldn’t hear anything else. It drowned out reason and debate.
Technology became inevitable because everyone, even (eventually) referees themselves, came to believe that it would offer precision and accuracy.
Offsides are the most difficult judgement match officials have to make. They require an assistant ref to watch two places at once (the pass and the player it is aimed at) and assess fast-moving peoples’ changing positions relative to each other.
Errors about offside can win or lose matches. They can decide relegations and titles.
So, everyone assumed, introducing accuracy into deciding offsides would be A GOOD THING.
Law 11 says: “A player is in an offside position if any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line) and any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent. The hands and arms of all players, including the goalkeepers, are not considered.”
So the only logical, fair way in which a VAR system can be implemented is to precisely determine if any part of the head, body, feet … and so on.
Don’t blame the law, either. It’s not possible to frame a law which says “most of the body must be nearer the goal-line”. Imagine the arguments about cases involving slightly more or less of the body.
If you tried to say “half the body must be nearer the goal-line” we’d need ten minutes of computer analysis of the image and mathematical calculations.
This doesn’t exonerate the Premier League, though. They decided to tweak the FIFA protocols on the use of technology. FIFA state that a VAR can only become involved “in the event of a ‘clear and obvious error’ or ‘serious missed incident’.” It was the Premier League who decided that offside (and encroaching at penalties) should always be checked and ruled on by the VAR.
And if the current uproar forces alterations to how technology is used, those changes must not be made mid-season. Otherwise, someone will score a Pukki-esque goal against us and it will be allowed to stand. For consistency and fairness, the madness has to be allowed to continue until the end of the season.
Then, perhaps, another part of law 11 will be thought about and applied. The bit that says: “A player is not in an offside position if level with the second-last opponent or last two opponents”. It could perhaps be an unwritten agreement that if only my toenail is in front of yours, we’re still level.
But that would be ignoring the letter of the law, which is problematic if we want the rest of the laws applied consistently.
So here’s a radical proposal.
Let the on-field refs and their assistants — highly trained, highly prepared, highly skilled and utterly neutral — make their best possible judgements and get on with the world’s most popular game.