VAR began its life in the Premier League last weekend. Well, more accurately, it began its public life in the Premier League. The technology was tested behind the scenes for two seasons before being rolled out this year. As with any technology rollout, VAR hasn’t been universally well received; there have been a lot of shouts about how it doesn’t work, isn’t necessary, etc.
One of the biggest complaints about VAR in the Premier League is how it deals with offside. Offside is a notoriously fluid thing, it can happen anywhere in the attacking half, and it is also dependent on who’s in the neighborhood, as it were. A player can be in an offside position and not be offside because he’s not impacting the play, while a player who receives a ball with just a couple fingers or a toe in an offside position gets whistled.
That’s the odd nature of offside for you - its application is fluid, but its definition is binary. The laws of the game say that you are in an offside position, or have committed an offside violation if a number of conditions are met.
In the Premier League over the weekend, there were a number of goals overturned due to VAR showing the player was offside. It’s important to note here that VAR cannot be used for every offside call; the only offsides that are reviewable are ones where a goal is scored. And this is where the complaints start. Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, in particular, had a goal overturned by the thinnest of margins thanks to VAR concluding he was offside, which leads to my least favorite complaint ever:
Recently, some incredibly tight decisions have been overturned by VAR to rule out goals, leading critics to claim the millimeter margins are not within the spirit of the rule.
“The spirit of the rule”, however, is not the point. A player is either offsides or they are not, there’s no accommodation for “but it was just half his foot” or whatever. All that VAR does is add a layer of technological precision to a previously imprecise rule. Whether you like that precision or not pretty much telegraphs how you feel about VAR.
How the Premier League feels about VAR may well be changing. After this weekend, the league has decided they want to “reconsider” how VAR handles offside. As it is currently implemented, VAR is the final authority for all offside decisions, but the league (and IFAB) is already pondering modifying that (for next season, they can’t make rule changes in-season) to hold offsides to the “clear and obvious” standard used in other VAR situations.
In other words, the league wants goals like the Gabriel Jesus goal to stand, and VAR is getting in the way of that. While I support evolving technology, I also think that in this case, the technology is less of a problem than the rule itself.
Think of it in terms of the ball. If the entire ball does not cross the entire line, it’s not a goal, or the ball is not considered out of play. That seems to be a different standard than “but it was just half his foot” being enough for an offside call. I’m not going to oversimplify to the point where I say the entire player must be in an offside position for the play to be stopped, but is it not worth looking at how the offside rule is written, and somehow modifying it, to adapt to an age where we can Zapruder-film a replay to the point where we call an offside because a big toe was across the line?
I am a supporter of VAR, but as mentioned, I also support its evolution in cases like this. I just think, in this particular case, if using less VAR is the answer, the wrong question is being asked. Let’s look at evolving the offside rule as well.