My joy knew no bounds when Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was first introduced. I was convinced the game would be transformed and remove those pesky grey areas that caused endless arguments. It would give referees the chance to review a contentious incident; and pick up anything that might have been missed in open play.
But to say I’m disappointed with VAR is the understatement of this or any other century. It’s slow, confusing and often fails to achieve its primary purpose: To eliminate errors affecting the outcome of a match.
However, does the ability to replay an incident multiple times make an official any more likely to make the right decision? And how have the Hammers fared this season against this invisible ‘second’ opponent?
At home to Spurs, we endured what felt like the longest VAR decision in history. Aaron Cresswell was adjudged to have handled and referee Peter Bankes awarded a penalty. However, four minutes passed before the decision was reversed. It felt a lot longer as fans had time to get a burger and didn’t miss a thing.
VAR was in evidence again at Nottingham Forest. Said Benrahma’s goal was disallowed when Michail Antonio ran into Orel Mangala in the build-up. Referee Rob Jones disallowed the goal when advised to check the pitchside monitor. The issue here isn’t necessarily the operation of VAR but how referees interpret the game. A foul could easily have been given either way, but a tech-free decision may have favoured the attacking team.
The first weekend of September was Black Saturday as a shaky edifice came crashing down yet again. West Ham were trailing Chelsea 2-1 with seconds to go. Maxwel Cornet had scored a perfectly good goal that was initially given by referee Andy Madley. But VAR whispered sweet nothings in his ear and Andy was moved to consult the pitchside monitor.
The goal was subsequently disallowed for a foul by Jarrod Bowen on Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. I would seriously ask ‘what foul’ as Bowen merely brushed Mendy’s shoulder following through. But it didn’t stop the 6ft 4in, 14-stone goalie writhing on the floor in convincing agony. If there was ever a case of a referee watching the reaction and not the incident this was it. David Moyes raged at the injustice and called it a scandalous decision.
It was indeed and is now symptomatic of the chaos inflicted by VAR on a regular basis. A similar incident occurred at Newcastle where Crystal Palace were the visitors. An own goal by Tyrick Mitchell put the Magpies ahead. However, referee Michael Salisbury ruled the goal out for a foul by Joe Wilcock on Palace goalie Vincente Guaita.
As before, the referee was initially satisfied but subsequently changed his mind after consulting the pitchside monitor. The supreme irony is that both goals would have stood without VAR. Referees routinely stuck to their decision because they were in control. Now VAR sows the seeds of doubt. With a baying crowd and players eyeballing them, officials are more likely to use it like a comfort blanket.
That fateful trot to the touchline usually ends in a reversal. But it only reveals an uncomfortable truth that hides in plain sight. Equipped with this technology, we expect officials to arrive at the correct decision every time. More precisely we look for decisions that favour our own team.
Thomas Tuchel and Patrick Viera were the managers of teams that benefited from the Black Saturday decisions. Both quietly murmured their agreement with the referee’s decision. If David Moyes hadn’t been on the receiving end would he have complained quite so bitterly? Or have the courage to call out a decision that was patently wrong? If the boot was on the other foot, can we honestly say that Lucasz Fabianski wouldn’t have pulled the same trick? Players don’t adhere to a knightly code when they pull on a West Ham shirt.
VAR magnifies everything that is wrong in the modern game. Players are no longer coached to stay on their feet. They hit the deck with clinical precision, dive to win penalties and overreact to get players sent off. I was certain VAR would pick this up and eliminate simulation; but if anything it’s worse than ever.
Are players now too good at hoodwinking referees, or is football simply evolving into a non-contact sport? It’s time for players to take responsibility for the environment they’ve created and stop blaming VAR.
There was a time referees only got one look at an incident. Now they should have greater certainty with a refined system to back them up. But it only really gets the obvious decisions right; VAR will call offside decisions correctly even if it is mind numbingly officious.
But everything else is at the mercy of a pause and play button. Referees have been usurped and the human element is stripped from a game that once thrived on simplicity.
It’s a bit like a hot date that hasn’t worked out, and it might be time to say goodnight?