Chelsea: VAR is perfect system for officials and fans who prefer not to think

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 22: Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea in gestures to the official during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Stamford Bridge on September 22, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 22: Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea in gestures to the official during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Stamford Bridge on September 22, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images) /

VAR had as much impact on the outcome of Chelsea vs. Liverpool as anyone wearing Blue or red. If only Michael Oliver’s signature moment from the game was outrunning Jorginho.

Cesar Azpilicueta has done a lot in his 12 years of first-team football at Osasuna, Marseille and Chelsea. One thing he has not done is a score a goal with his left foot. Thanks to VAR, that streak remains intact.

Azpilicueta’s left foot kicked the ball into Adrian’s net 13 seconds after Mason Mount’s left foot was stationary in an offsides position. The Lilliputian magnitude and significance on the run of play (he touched the ball once, eight seconds after the offsides) of Mount’s encroachment across the cordon sanitaire is the perfect juxtaposition to the lengthy passage of play before Azpilicueta consummated the action. Like the call against Tottenham’s Heung-Min Son several weeks ago, this decision shows that VAR is not taking errors out of football, just thought.

The lines on the VAR display remove decision-making and judgment from the referee’s toolkit. The referee is merely enunciating what the lines show him, devoid of any context or assessment on the game. For the thinking referee, of which there are few, this sets up a conflict with the spirit of the Laws of the Game. The Notes on the Laws of the Game say “referees should apply the Laws within the ‘spirit’ of the game to help produce fair and safe matches,” and the Introduction to the Laws speak of the beauty of the game as much as fairness (both are mentioned twice, in different forms).

The spirit of the game, the spirit of the Laws and the beauty of the game are not served by adjudicating whether or not something happened with total, mandatory disregard for whether that happening impacted the fairness, beauty or integrity of the game.

Including these values into the assessment would seem to require the referee watch the video replay in motion, rather than the static display of the lines. Watching the play unfold would help the referee determine if the player being offside conferred any advantage on his team. A player standing still, like Mount, or retreating back across the offside line at the moment the ball is played, as happened to a Lioness at the Women’s World Cup, steals no advantage for the team, and may even place them at a disadvantage compared to if he or she was doing the same thing in an on-side position.

Referees are already trained and empowered to make such assessments based on their understanding of the game and their real-time observations.

Playing an advantage requires the referee to decide if the fairness, beauty and integrity of the game demands an immediate stoppage of play or a delay to see how the play unfolds. Referees take particular pride when they play the advantage and a goal results, because it shows that they read the flow of play correctly and a more positive outcome resulted than would have if they had blown the whistle. Players appreciate when advantages go their way, but they also respect the competence referees show when they make the proper call to let play continue.

In this respect, the human visual system is a better guide to the effects of offside than the lines on the screen. What people deem “optical illusions” are different ways the brain follows, interprets and projects movement. A player standing still or running the opposite direction of the rest of the play may “look” onside even if she is offside. This coheres with how that movement against the run of play presents a disadvantage to the player and the team, even if a snapshot stolen from that movement indicates an advantage.

The other aspect of the Mount / Azpilicueta offside call that required a mandated disregard for thought and discretion was the 13 seconds. Nothing on the VAR screen indicated the amount of time that had passed between Mount’s left foot and Azpilicueta’s left foot.

If Chelsea had been playing Maurizio Sarri’s trademark brand of tippy-tappy keep-ball, 90 seconds of wholly unbroken mindless possession could have elapsed between Mount’s offside and the goal. Would that have come back? If a referee cannot exercise that judgment after 13 seconds, on what basis could you say 90 is too many? 60? 45? 30? 14?

And what about the phase of play argument? Many times a shot or the opposing team touching the ball signifies a new phase of play. Tammy Abraham took a shot and two Liverpool players touched the ball – albeit one accidentally, one reflexively – before Azpilicueta put his boot to it.

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This is all just on the human side of things. As one graphic going around Twitter on Sunday showed, a camera tracking at 50 frames per second players moving upwards of 15 meters per second can not accurately align events at the scale of inches. In those cases, VAR cloaks a falsehood in absolute authority.

Unfortunately, absolute authority is what a lot of people want.

Many referees would rather cede their judgment and all its pesky responsibilities to VAR than make and defend decisions. Many fans who have already declared “end of discussion” on this or that coach or player want to do the same about officiating decisions. They take refuge behind their “I guess you’d rather they get the calls wrong” strawmen and the gossamer moral authority of a system that supplants the spirit of the game and the spirit of the Laws with a martinet’s devotion to the Law itself.

Football is the beautiful game because it’s a game of intelligence, judgment and appreciation. We shouldn’t let it slip away (!) because it makes a few things easier for the schoolmarms and scolds, and definitely not because a few lines on a screen said so.

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Thinking is hard. We know. We’ve lost a lot of readers over the years because of it. But we’ve also gained and kept a few, too (like you!). The players and coaching staffs put more thought and difficult decision-making into the games than most of us can imagine. The officials owe them some basic response in-kind.