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It was the sort of match the English love to call “a cracking game of football” — an engaging, attack-happy holiday treat between runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool and up-and-coming Wolves. Or at least it was until the video assistant referee once again ruined it for a global audience numbering in the tens of millions.
The Reds won again in the end, 1-0 on Sadio Mane’s first-half goal. That’s not what most of those who watched on Sunday will remember. What will stick with even some Liverpool supporters is how the course of the contest was changed (and not for the better) when VAR overturned what in any other league in the world would have stood as Wolves’ well-earned equalizer just before halftime.
The decisive play happened shortly after Mane’s strike had correctly been allowed to stand. Replays of the sequence leading up to the opener clearly showed that Reds midfielder Adam Lallana had used his shoulder instead of his arm to direct a pass into Mane’s path, overturning referee Anthony Taylor’s on-field call.
Wolves players and fans didn’t like it, but this was VAR at its best. Unfortunately for them, VAR at its absolute worst was about to follow.
On a well worked-play with just seconds remaining in the first half, Pedro Neto fired what should have been the equalizer past Reds keeper Alisson Becker.
Alas, the stirring response was snuffed out because winger Jonny was allegedly a hair offside, Neto’s beautiful finish relegated to a footnote in the match report by a system that lacks both precision and common sense.
VAR, or rather the Premier League’s use of it relating specifically to offside decisions, has been a major talking point all season. Even more so in the last few days, which have seen several results altered by the English top flight’s insistence in trying to measure offside down to the millimeter.
Never mind that the while the technology being used can apparently determine players’ exact body position on the field, there is far less certainty about the cameras’ ability to determine with 100% accuracy the moment a pass is played. There’s a margin of error there, and Neto’s would-be first Premier League goal falls into it, just as Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki’s did a day earlier against Tottenham.
The lack of common sense is the bigger failing. VAR has been used successfully in the men’s World Cup (if not the women’s) and in the UEFA Champions League, the only competitions more prestigious than Premier League. But the Prem’s insistence on adhering to the letter of the law and not the spirit continues to be mind-boggling.
Premier League officials treat offside as a black-and-white, yes-or-no call. Makes sense. It is in theory. In practice — in the real world — the fact is that some offside decisions are simply too close to make with absolute certainty. And in those cases, it feels flat-out wrong to overturn a goal using technology that still isn’t perfect.
Scoring goals is really hard in soccer. Surely it would be in the sport’s best interest to apply the same “clear and obvious” standard used before overruling penalty decisions to offside calls as well.
For the most part, fans, managers and players in the world’s top leagues have embraced the arrival of VAR. Most of the time it works wonderfully. It’s made the game fairer and better. But in England, the interpretation of the offside law by video assistant referees has the viewing public aghast.
There’s a visceral sense of injustice when a goal like Neto’s or Pukki’s is taken off the board, and it‘s because nobody seems at all convinced that the correct call is even being made. That’s a problem. Nobody wants this, and the Premier League needs to figure out a way to fix it quick. After all, isn’t getting it right the whole point of VAR to begin with?
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