Rhys Wallis looks at the chaotic start to the football season, that has left many questioning the laws of the game
Since its inception into the Premier League, VAR has never strayed away from the headlines: after every match, it would seem, one of Alan Shearer, Gary Neville, Chris Sutton or Jamie Cartagher seem to be on the airwaves moaning about the procedure, the officials, or something similar.
It pains me to say it, but sometimes they do make a good point. It would be so easy to paint VAR as the villain of any piece on this matter, but football, as with life, is anything but simple. The concoction of process, officials and laws are what make the English FA’s VAR debates seemingly louder and more heated than the rest of the world – but what actually are those procedures and laws?
A few weekends ago, the particular law under the spotlight was the handball law – for footballing legal eagles, that’s covered in Law 12, Fouls and Misconduct – with Crystal Palace defender Joel Ward and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Eric Dier both being penalised for what were judged harsh handball offences, and Chelsea’s Kai Havertz left unpunished for what seemed to be a more blatant offence in the lead up to a goal.
Looking at each decision, one-by-one, the Joel Ward penalty decision came first. This one looms very harsh, and no matter how much of an appeal the opposing captain provides, it’s hard to believe any self respecting referee would blow for a penalty.
But that is why we have VAR.
On replay, it shows, clearly, that the ball strikes Ward’s hand, and that, in the opinion of the referee and VAR official, “the hand/arm has made [Ward’s] body unnaturally bigger” – that’s all it needs to do under the Law for 2020/21. Penalty given, legally, the right decision. Harsh? Possibly. Wrong in any aspect of law? No.
Then to Eric Dier, which capped a dreadful weekend of decisions that put a less than impressive spotlight on the game. Steve Bruce – the Newcastle manager – even admitted he felt it wasn’t a penalty, so it’s easy to imagine the reaction of José Mourinho. Neverthelss in law, it was correct.
Once again, I completely understand why Referee Peter Banks didn’t give the decision in real time (no way am I making that call on a Sunday either) but once again, VAR did its job. Unfortunately for lovers of the game, there was no distinction made between accidental and deliberate handball in the case of Dier’s action. Law 12 only states: “It is an offence is a player … toucher the ball with their hand/arm when the hand/arm is above/beyond their shouder level” – and Dier’s arm was above shoulder level when the offence occurred. It may be the harshest decision we see all season, but in law, it once again was not the wrong decision.
Finally Kai Havertz vs West Brom. This wasn’t given, and again, whilst the law prevailed, common sense did not. Havertz’s hand does touch the ball, but wasn’t ruled as incidental because it wasn’t necessarily a handball, but because it did not lead directly to the goal scoring opportunity for Tammy Abraham, who scored to make it 3-3 late in the game.
As the West Brom defendence had time to clear the ball to a different Chelsea attacker, who then created the opportunity, it’s not technically a VAR reviewable play and if it was reviewed, which it was (just to make sure it wasn’t reviewable) law 12 was upheld – the handball, accidental or not, did not immediately lead to the goal scoring opportunity. VAR got it right again. The referee here did probably miss the handball offence, but was obscured and being human, it’s hard to give him too much criticism. So where should the frustration from this weekend be directed?
The International Football Associtation Board (IFAB). IFAB write the laws, they give then directives on how to apply the laws – the referees merely follow IFAB laws and guidance: it’s not their fault that this year, the handball law has been made more punitive and confusing. It’s not even the fault of VAR.
Last season, VAR was being used incorrectly, without the head referee coming over to the screen to stay in charge of the match: this year there is little to no issue with VAR and it’s interventions within matches. VAR is doing what it was meant to do: getting decisions right. It’s highlighting bad laws, not necessary bad officiating. If you want to complain, don’t come after the men in the middle: go straight to the top.