3rd December 2023
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9 mins

"Clear and obvious error". I'm sure any football fan (even an armchair fan like myself) is tired of what this means being debated every week. A lot of people say that it's not VAR that's the problem, but how it's being used - like most things, the people in charge don't really know how to use the tools at their disposal.

In around 2017-2018 or so, I remember there was a spate of really egregious offside calls that changed the course of several matches. Players scoring while yards offside had their goals stand, and players yards onside were having their goals chalked off for offside. We weren't talking marginal calls here, these were absolute howlers, where someone who had only had the offside rule explained to them five minutes prior could have told you the call was wrong. I can remember Alan Shearer every week on Match of the Day pleading with the lawmakers of the game to give the refereeing teams more help, because they clearly needed it. Mistakes happen, but at this level something needed to be done to prevent such clangers from changing the outcome of games - let's not forget teams have lost out on the title or have been relegated by a single point, so this mattered.

At the 2018 World Cup, VAR was first introduced. I distinctly remember seeing a graphic on the BBC coverage that outlined where VAR would get involved, and its scope was limited to ensure that it didn't creep in to every decision. The phrase "clear and obvious" was drilled into us to reassure everyone that it would only be used to correct decisions that actually needed to be corrected.

Fast-forward half a decade, and I think it's safe to say most people are sick of hearing about VAR and the latest mistake being discussed at length on Match of the Day. I don't know about other leagues, but the English game just hasn't seemed to have got to grips with it.

Let's compare it to goal line technology. This was brought in after several mistakes (let's not talk about Lampard's goal any more than we need to), and has been a huge success, barring one weird situation where it stopped working and didn't pick up a goal for Sheffield United. The reason for this is simple - it is objective and accurate. The ball is either over the line or it's not, is accurate down to the millimetre (as Liverpool are well aware), and there is no ambiguity whatsoever. If the referee's watch buzzes it's a goal, if it doesn't it isn't. Simple.

Now, contrast that to VAR, and particularly the most controversial use of it - offsides. After every goal we have the delight of watching them spend the next several minutes drawing lines to work out if someone's toenail or ear is a micron offside, taking all the enjoyment and excitement away from not only the players, but the thousands of fans standing around waiting for a decision to be made.

The first problem I have with this, is who actually asked for this? Genuinely, who asked for every goal to be forensically analysed in this way? I don't remember this being part of the World Cup, and I don't see how this fits into the remit of "clear and obvious". It's worse when decisions take three or even as long as five minutes, completely killing the flow of the game, only for it to be disallowed anyway. If it's that close then just give the attacker the benefit of the doubt like they always used to.

The main problem I have with it though is that when you compare it to the objectiveness of goal line technology, drawing lines to determine offsides is and always will be subjective. I guarantee that if you take some of the extremely tight calls from this season and give them to ten separate VAR teams, you will not get a unanimous decision. There have been countless mistakes made even with the forensic examinations, some even leading to apologies (Liverpool with an infamously terrible one against Spurs). So if we go through all this waiting for the lines to be drawn, and it is still subjective and there are still mistakes being made, then what is the point?

I think everyone has forgotten why the offside rule exists. It was brought in to prevent teams from gaining an advantage from keeping a man up front and lobbing the ball over the defence or hoofing it up the pitch, and having a player one-on-one with the 'keeper, because it would just be silly. Ultimately its purpose is to stop the attacking team from gaining an unfair advantage.

Looking at some of the tight offside calls that have led to goals being disallowed, for a large portion of them I would have a hard time being convinced that any measurable advantage has been gained. If someone is a matter of centimetres offside, or they go from being onside to offside within one or two frames of video footage which would be fractions of a second in real time, then what tangible advantage have they gained in that situation? Are they saying that if they were 2cm further back, they wouldn't have scored the goal? Nonsense.

Now I know there has to be a line (figuratively) drawn somewhere, otherwise if you allow an inch you need to allow two, and three, and four. But that's the whole problem with the way the technology is used. We've established it is not an objective call and is inherently subjective, so why even go to all the bother of drawing the lines if we can't be 100% sure even after doing that? Instead we should embrace the fact it is subjective. The officials seem so hung up on the letter of the law that they've forgotten about the spirit of it, and the problem it was trying to solve. I don't think anyone necessarily expects decisions to be 100% accurate, but going to these lengths gives the illusion that it is going to be 100% accurate, even though it's very easy to see that it's not.

Instead, it should be taken back to the clear and obvious threshold, and have a more efficient process for closer calls.

If we have another instance of a player being yards offside for a goal that was given or yards onside for a goal that was disallowed, mistakes that are plain to see, then overturn it and carry on. If it's so obvious that it's not even remotely up for debate, quickly correct it and restart the game.

For goals where there doesn't seem to have been any blindingly obvious mistakes in the on-field decision but it's close enough that it warrants another look, then give the VAR and assistant VAR 30 seconds to rewatch the footage in real time. No slow-mo, no lines. Just watch it back at the same speed the linesman would have seen it. And if within 30 seconds you cannot see any reason to change the decision, then clearly there was no significant advantage gained. Surely, if a player has gained any sort of meaningful advantage from straying offside, you would be able to see it without needing slow-mo and lines drawn on the screen. This brings us back to the spirit of the law.

This goes beyond offside calls too. We've seen replays of challenges that when slowed down or shown as a freeze frame of a foot planted on someone's ankle, look bad. But when played back in real time it's a different story. Ultimately the VAR team shouldn't have access to anything the on-field officials didn't have access to, in terms of what they would realistically have been able to see for real. So no slow motion, no freeze frames, no zooming in, and no lines. Just play the event back in real time and make a decision the same as if you were on the field. Because if you can't make a decision from a real-time replay, then how would a linesman have been able to see - and if we're going to check a goal for offside regardless of whether the flag goes up, why are they even there? I think it would make everything a whole lot simpler to review a regular replay, correct any obvious mistakes, and get on with the game.

Will there be mistakes? Yes! But if there's still mistakes even when they watch it back ten times and spend several minutes drawing lines, then how would that be any worse than what we have now? What seems to piss everyone off the most is when they spend all that time looking at it and still manage to get it wrong. If you go into it knowing that it's only addressing obvious errors and giving 30 seconds to review anything tighter, instead of giving everyone the false impression they're going to come to a 100% accurate decision, there should be fewer complaints for very tight calls that end up being wrong. Give the linesman and attacking player the benefit of doubt, and let the games flow.

Until we have a system that can come to a 100% accurate objective decision the way that goal line technology can, then take care of the obvious howlers, apply best efforts to closer calls, and leave the rest down to linesman. Otherwise we may as well just get rid of them completely.