Saturday 24 August 2019

Keith Hackett: 'VAR flaws mean offside rule must be changed to mitigate fractional calls'

Raheem Sterling remonstrates with ref Mike Dean during a VAR review. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley
Raheem Sterling remonstrates with ref Mike Dean during a VAR review. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley

Keith Hackett

The decision to rule out Gabriel Jesus's goal for Manchester City at West Ham on Saturday as Raheem Sterling's armpit had strayed offside highlights everything that is good and bad about the video assistant referee.

Technically, the decision - made by the VAR official and relayed to Mike Dean at the London Stadium - was correct. Sterling's shoulder was probably an inch offside, according to the lines drawn on the pitch when the pass was struck.

But when a margin is that tight, how do we know for sure that the VAR technology itself is accurate enough to rule definitively one way or the other? VAR cannot know for sure exactly when the pass was played - as in the very moment the player's boot struck the ball. But without knowing that, it becomes impossible to know if Sterling was definitely offside.

VAR was not designed to rule out what would, in the past, have been considered perfectly good goals - it was designed to eliminate major, obvious errors. My fear is that we are going down a path where definitive judgments are being made without conclusive evidence. I do not think any true football people want to see goals ruled out where fractions of an inch are involved.

There is a way of mitigating against this, for offsides at least - change the rule so that a player is only offside if there is daylight between him and the defender. That way, even if we accept an element of inbuilt inaccuracy with the VAR technology, it would not result in a wrong decision.

On a broader point, I do not see why football should not adopt some of the practices of cricket, for example, where the "umpire's call" judgment acknowledges that there is a margin of error involved in the technology and gives the benefit of the doubt to the on-field official.

Having this in football would guard against another of my fears - that the referee loses authority over the game. As a general rule, I would prefer the referee to go over to the pitchside monitor and take a decisive judgment on the TV evidence they are being presented with, rather than just accepting the word of the officials in Stockley Park. We have to be mindful not to slow down the game to a crawl, but it is crucial that the referee remains the ultimate arbiter.

Overall, I think everyone should have been happy with how VAR was used on its first weekend of Premier League action. The process was generally quick, the right decisions made and players seemed to accept the verdicts.

My last plea, however, would be for an even greater emphasis on transparency. The Premier League should publish, as a matter of routine, a breakdown of all the VAR checks made during a match, detailing what they were for and what the verdict was. I would also be keen on the video footage being studied in Stockley Park being played on the big screen inside the grounds, so fans can understand what is happening in real time.

Innovations can be hard to gain acceptance - the more transparent and open the authorities are about how they are being used, and why, the better for everyone. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Keith Hackett is a former FIFA referee

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