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The Angle

VAR Needs to Go Back to the Drawing Board

by on 2 May 2018

The argument for adding Video Assistant Referees to soccer was not a bad one. There was a lot of money getting sprayed around at the game’s highest levels, and if referee mistakes were affecting how that money got distributed, it warranted consideration on how to fix that problem

After about 10 months of VAR, however, I think it’s time to recognize that the system is a massive tire fire. VAR is not making the game better, and I’m not talking about sacrificing flow for the sake of getting it “right.” In truth, VAR isn’t even getting it right. If technology isn’t solving the problem it’s supposed to solve, then all we’re basically doing is playing with expensive toys.

This is obviously an opinion piece, but I’d like to think I’m going to make a pretty strong argument based on some concrete examples. A few ground rules:

When we are evaluating offside decisions on television, we have to consider the fact that the angle provided by the camera does not always provide a true view of the play. We need to do a brief discussion of optics here. Apologies for the science, once I’m done with my article, you should feel free to go back to ignoring global warming, but for the duration of this article you’re going to have to accept some scientific truths.

If a person is looking directly down an offside line, it’s fairly simple to determine if an attacker is beyond the second to last defender (or ball, as the case may be). However, once a person (say, the assistant referee) gets caught off that line, it distorts the decision. A player may look onside or offside who was not. This is called a parallax effect (no, I did not make that word up).

In the breakneck pace of professional soccer, assistants are still expected to try to hold that line, but they get the benefit of grass cuttings (typically every six yards or so) that can assist them to try get decisions correct if they get off the line. Nonetheless, falling off the line can have a drastic impact on the accuracy of decisions.

It’s important to recognize that VAR views of offside decisions suffer the same parallax effect that ARs are subjected to. If we are going to use VAR to evaluate an offside decision, that camera angle either has to be on the offside line, or be able to use field markings to properly evaluate a decision. And remember, a decision can “only be changed if the review shows a clear error – ‘was the decision clearly wrong?’ ” That’s right out of the VAR manual.

Incident #1: Real Salt Lake vs. LAFC, March 10

This was probably the most egregious VAR error to date. LAFC’s 33rd minute goal was utterly ludicrous in that not one but TWO LAFC players were offside on the play.

On the freeze frame, Steven Beitashour is CLEARLY offside when Diego Rossi plays him down the right wing. The top defender is a few feet up field from him, and David Horst is clearly on the grass cutting, also up field.

Compounding matters, Beitashour squares the ball for Latif Blessing for the tap in. But at the moment of Beitashour’s cross, Blessing is a yard deeper than the 6-yard line and clearly deeper than the ball. He’s offside on this touch.

The AR’s position on the first decision is actually pretty good… he just blows it. On the second decision, he’s behind the play now and Blessing will look onside on a straight line drawn from the AR through the ball. What I simply cannot understand is how the VAR doesn’t overrule this play. Using markings on the field, this is easily definable as a clear mistake.

The only thing missing from this incident to complete the farce is Mike Petke yelling “Pass ’em out Trey” in the postgame press conference.

Incident #2: LA Galaxy vs. New York Red Bull, April 29

LA Galaxy were furious after this match that several decisions did not get reviewed, but this one is agreeably reprehensible. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores on this play to give the Galaxy an apparent 3-2 lead with 12 minutes to play, but the AR flags for offside. On the freeze, this is a circumstance where the TV view is actually pretty close to the offside line. It might be a couple yards up field from the line, but that would actually benefit Ibrahimovic. If you slide the view towards the goal line, this would move the defender deeper with respect to Ibra’s position, and likely make Ibra appear even more onside.

When you take into account these optics, it’s utterly insane that VAR doesn’t overrule the offside decision and give the goal. The defender in front of Ibra has his back foot even with Ibra. The only possible body part that would be deeper is Ibra’s arm, and that can’t count in the decision. This is a good goal. This is a clear error by the AR.

By the way, New York was given a penalty four minutes later and won this game 3-2. I’d argue the penalty decision was correct, but numerous Galaxy players disagreed.

Incident #3: Minnesota United vs. Houston Dynamo, April 29

VAR gets this one right, but it’s going to set us up for the problem with our last two cases, and also further proves my point with the error in the second example. This was Ibson’s match-winner on Saturday.

It’s understandable that VAR will review this. The angle is not in line with the offside line, which will be the ball when Miguel Ibarra plays it. If the camera was slid towards the goal line to get that view, Ibson will look further up field (thus be more likely to be onside). Even so, on this view we can use the remnants of the football goal line as our best marker. It looks like that in the worst case scenario Ibson is at least even with the ball when Ibarra plays it. He might even be further up field… we can’t know for sure unless the angle is down the offside line. This goal was correctly not overturned…

Incident #4: Portland Timbers vs. Minnesota United, Ibarra Goal, April 15

… which makes these last two examples even more dumb. Ibarra’s late first-half goal would have cut Portland’s lead to 2-1. The camera angle is down the 18… if we were to slide it to the offside line, even with the ball when Jérôme Thiesson plays it, Ibarra will be further up field than he appears in the review, pushing his position closer to being even with the ball.

We cannot see how far over the turf cut the ball is due to the mass of players. I do agree that—based on this angle—Ibarra LOOKS like he is closer to the goal line than the ball. But the reason for that is the parallax effect. If I use that turf cutout as a guide and draw a line through the ball along the cutout… Ibarra looks like he’s onside.

Here’s the problem with this review: the evidence is not conclusive. I can’t say that this is a CLEAR error, and VAR requires a CLEAR error to overturn a decision on the field.  This is a definitive overstepping of the VAR’s ability to make a decision on this play.

I know, somebody might be reading this and will claim I’m being a homer. Fair enough…

Incident #5: Portland Timbers vs. Minnesota United, Adi Goal, April 15

… This goal would have put Portland up 4-1 (or 4-2, has they not screwed up Ibarra’s goal). It’s close. Unlike Ibarra’s goal, we don’t have any field markings to help us, though there is a turf cut that allows us to draw a line, and that line may suggest Thiesson is deep enough to keep Adi onside. Counterpoint… if we correct for parallax, Adi will appear deeper than he does from the camera angle.

Nonetheless, you cannot argue this is a CLEAR error. This camera view does not clearly indicate whether Adi was offside, so overturning this goal is—once again—a case of VAR overstepping its mandate. If we follow the mandate, this goal should have counted.

That’s five examples from this season, four of which show a VAR failure per IFAB’s mandate. That’s simply unacceptable. VAR was supposed to correct clear and obvious errors. In four of the five examples I’ve provided, on what are supposed to be straightforward offside decisions, VAR either failed to punish clear infractions, failed to correct clear mistakes by the AR, or punished infractions that were anything but clear.

These mistakes are utterly undermining the role of assistant referees in the match. If you look at the positioning of the ARs in these examples, sometimes it’s pretty good, sometimes it’s off a yard or two. When they are off, it’s possible for the AR to make game-critical errors. But I would argue if VAR is going to make arbitrary decisions to overturn field decisions that defy the laws of optics, then there is zero reason to ask assistant referees to be calling offside any more. Just give the VAR a buzzer to electroshock the referee when he sees an offside.

We already had limits on human performance and judgment having an effect on critical match decisions before we implemented VAR. VAR was supposed to fix this. It’s hasn’t… and that’s not even bringing into arguments over penalty kick and red card decisions, both of which remain entirely subjective and are as maddening as ever.

Here’s a legitimate counter-argument to my hyper-specificity of these incidents. These judgments are so incredibly close, we need to allow for some flexibility. The spirit of Law 11 was to eliminate clear cherry-picking, if a player is trying to honor the Law and happens to be a foot or two offside, we shouldn’t be nitpicking these decisions down to the inch. We should trust the AR’s decision on the field if it looks close.

My response is… fair enough. Then Ibarra’s goal against Portland should have been allowed, and Adi’s goal against Minnesota should have been allowed. The Ibra decision still looks incorrect, but the AR will have the best view, and I’m fine with trusting him. I agree… we shouldn’t be worried about inches on offside decisions. But that means we don’t need VAR to worry about some attacker’s foot being four inches beyond the second-to-last defender’s pinky toe.

Either we’re enforcing this down to the black and white last inch, or we’re not. It can’t be down to the subjective decision-making of the individual VAR’s sensitivity. The biggest gripes with officials is that they will call a foul or penalty at one end for one team but then inconsistently apply the Laws when faced with a mirror situation for the other team. Doing this sows confusion amongst the players over what is permissible (see: handling).

The application of technology to offside decisions requires the same consistency. Frankly, if a VAR can’t look at an offside decision the first time and decide if it’s correct within five seconds, if they need to hit the arrow buttons on the keyboard to advance it 1/60 frame by 1/60 frame, then it’s no longer a clear error. VAR needs to be used correctly. Right now… it’s not.

Mostly, though, I don’t think that tweaking a defective system in matches that count is appropriate implementation of experimental technology. Just wait until this garbage happens at the World Cup this summer.

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