Saturday 19 August 2017

Aidan O'Hara: Video replays will ensure that nobody makes any decisions

Lewandowski and Suarez incidents show just how difficult it will be for new ‘VARs’ to get every decision right

When Laurent Koscielny barged into Robert Lewandowski, the referee gave a penalty and a yellow card, before changing his mind to a red. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
When Laurent Koscielny barged into Robert Lewandowski, the referee gave a penalty and a yellow card, before changing his mind to a red. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

In the first-half of Friday night's Wales v Ireland game in Cardiff, the Television Match Official interrupted play to point out potential foul play when Jonathan Sexton's head collided with Jonathan Davies's knee.

A slightly bemused referee Wayne Barnes asked "what am I watching here?", a minute was wasted checking something that was clearly accidental and Wales moved on with a lineout.

From that play, Wales produced a move that ended with George North scoring but the crucial pass in the build-up looked distinctly forward, yet there was no sign of the TMO review and the try was awarded.

In that two-minute period, an incident was reviewed which was obviously fine and one which needed another look wasn't checked. And this is in a sport where, we are told regularly by those who want greater technology introduced into football, that "it only takes a couple of seconds" to make the right call.

Also last week, plans were announced for a video assistant referee (VAR) system which will be trialled in the FA Cup from the third round next season.

Obvious

The plan that obvious mistakes will be corrected is laudable but, in practice, it will ensure that referees or their assistants running the touchline will be reluctant to make any decisions on the field for fear of being proven wrong by a colleague watching on television.

The four areas in which the VAR can assist are 1: Decisions around a goal; 2: Penalty calls; 3: Red card offences which the on-field referee hasn't seen and 4: Mistaken identity.

The introduction of goal-line technology has been an excellent addition to the Premier League because it takes a couple of seconds for a referee to check his watch and determine whether a ball has crossed the line. In the four examples in which the VAR can be called, however, it's impossible for the time period to be so short.

The approach is meant to provide "minimum interference - maximum benefit" according to David Elleray, 62-year-old much-missed former Premier League referee who is now the technical director for the International Football Association Board, which acts as the game's law-making body.

The VARs will be able to recommend a review, however, only the referee will be able to call for one and must have given a decision before a review can be made which can only be changed if there is a clear mistake.

Two incidents from the Champions League, however, sum up just how difficult this is going to be in practice.

The first came in Bayern Munich's 5-1 victory against Arsenal and while it was slightly pathetic from Arsene Wenger to put so much emphasis on the referee's performance, his point about the crucial incident was valid.

When Laurent Koscielny barged into Robert Lewandowski, the referee gave a penalty and a yellow card, before changing his mind to a red. Presumably, this is exactly the sort of case in which a video referee would adjudicate and, in all likelihood, conclude that the decision to award the penalty was correct. They would then decide whether Koscielny's push had been deliberate or not and therefore whether the card should be red or yellow.

The problem here, however, is that Lewandowski was offside when Frank Ribery's pass deflected off an Arsenal player and into his path moments before he took possession and got his body in front of Koscielny.

With no offside given, the referee would probably ask his VAR whether Koscielny should get a red or yellow card but all of it should be moot because, if the correct decision had been made in the first place, Lewandowski would have been offside. Arsenal would have had a free out, a 1-0 lead and 11 players on the pitch.

According to Elleray, it will also "be much more difficult for players to dive and get a penalty because they'll be reviewed", another lovely notion which brings us to the second key incident when Luis Suarez won a penalty against Paris Saint-Germain.

This, again, would be a crucial moment that would be up for review but, unlike goal-line technology or offsides, this is entirely subjective which makes it impossible to find the sort of definitives which the technology is meant to achieve.

Some would see the PSG defender Marquinhos not watching the ball, putting his arm near Suarez's neck and decide that this justified Suarez throwing his arms in the air while screaming to earn a penalty.

Others, like Ewan Murray in the 'Guardian', see "a blatant act" of gamesmanship in an article headlined "Luis Suarez's dive exposes Barcelona's cheating". As one colleague likes to put it, the Suarez incident was probably a penalty and a dive but try contemplating that with 96,000 in the Nou Camp and millions at home waiting on a decision. It would cause as many arguments as it's meant to solve.

Incident

In cricket, umpires award far fewer "no-balls" (where a bowler steps in front of a line that he's meant to stay behind), because they know they can check the incident if a batsman is out and they rarely bother if he isn't.

Translated to football, this will mean marginal offside calls aren't given because it stops the play and they would risk being proved wrong. Instead, play will continue and it will be reviewed if a goal is scored which is all very fine until an unreviewable mistake - a corner for example - results in a goal being scored and the fans change their chant to "whose the b****** in the studio".

Elleray cited the infamous Thierry Henry and Diego Maradona handballs as incidents which would have been spotted by replays but that sets the bar pretty low for on-field officiating which should have spotted those fouls in the first place.

Such blatant mistakes are rare but incidents like Lewandowski or Suarez happen in almost every game which, without the review system as used in cricket, will put 100pc of the responsibility on officials to get the right call and, as a result, make players even more likely to pressure under-fire officials.

It's a nice idea to try to help referees but as long as on-field behaviour remains the same, very little will change. If they want a sport where referees are respected, rarely publicly criticised and occasionally canonised, they might want to try rugby.

Irish Independent

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