Real Madrid, Manchester City and the Aesthetics of VAR

On the day that the Premier League voted against the introduction of VAR, here are some aesthetic considerations in assessing technology in sport.

by Jon Mackenzie

(Photo credit: Steindy)

It was the evening of February 28th – the night that Tottenham beat Rochdale in the FA Cup Fifth Round replay.

My phone pinged, signalling that someone had slid into my DMs. It was a Spurs-supporting friend.

Can I commission you (without money) to write something looking at the possibility that VAR may prove to be ‘conservative’, in the sense of reducing average goals per game, for the following reasons:”

 He then went on to outline a number of, on the whole, compelling arguments – or, at the very least, interesting arguments.

I smiled, slipped the phone back into my pocket, thought about his suggestions and promptly forgot about the message altogether.

Lahoz-ing the plot?

I was taken back to that message on two occasions this week. The first was on Tuesday night when I found my timeline awash with the most earnest members of the Twitterati furiously educating the BT Sport pundits or referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz (or both) on the offside rule.

Lahoz had adjudged Leroy Sane’s goal to have been offside when subsequent replays had shown the ball to have come off James Milner rather than Sane’s teammate Gabriel Jesus.

Had we had the benefit of VAR, the goal would almost certainly have been given (rules about when the referee blows the whistle notwithstanding). VAR 1, ‘conservatism’ nil, it seemed.

However, there was another aspect of this consideration to be taken into account. If the goal had stood, Manchester City would be 2-0 on the night, 3-2 on aggregate, with Liverpool staring down the barrel of a potential upset.

Instead, they made it through to halftime, by which point they were able to steady the ship, Mohamed Salah putting them on level terms and diffusing all tension with his smartly taken goal in the 56th minute. 

Making a Buffon of himself

A second occasion presented itself the following day. After capitulating to a 3-0 loss at home to Real Madrid the week before, Juventus had managed to achieve the unthinkable and scored three goals in the Santiago Bernabeu to put the Champions League holders on the brink of a remarkable exit.

“Ronaldo will score… he always does,” was the whispered watchword in pubs around Europe. Little did they know.

With the game entering injury time, the ball was delivered to Cristiano Ronaldo on the right who managed to find Lucas Vasquez in the Juventus box.

Unmarked? Not quite. Mehdi Benatia was close enough to the Madrid midfielder to clatter him to the ground, prompting referee Michael Oliver to raise his whistle to his lips and point to the spot.

Within thirty seconds, Gianluigi Buffon was heading off the field red-carded with Gonzalo Higuain coming off so that Wojciech Szczesny could face Ronaldo’s penalty. 

By the time Ronaldo had stroked the ball high and wide past the goalkeeper, the tie was over and crisis was averted.

The favourites were heading through to the next stage despite the unfavourableness of the conditions.

Parallel universes

In this case, VAR would not seem to have changed anything. Even if Michael Oliver had not given the penalty, it’s hard to see the VAR not referring him back to the decision to have a second chance of looking at the altercation.

But what would have happened if Michael Oliver had not given a penalty without the backup of a VAR? With the game only minutes away from finishing, it’s likely that extra time would have followed.

Add to that the fact that, given the monumental nature of the moment, it could have been a Real Madrid player who was sent off rather than Buffon, putting Juventus in the driving seat for the closing stages of the match. Although that is to stray too far into the realms of possibility.

None of which is to say that Michael Oliver should be encouraged, as Gigi Buffon did after the game, to make a decision on context – of course he should not.

But had he made the wrong decision, wouldn’t the outcome have been better for almost everyone involved in the watching of the game, with the exception of supporters of Real Madrid?

A question of aesthetics

Here’s the thing: my friend’s question about the implicit conservatism of VAR is more properly a question about aesthetics.

If, as he suggests, the implementation of a Video Assistant Referee results in fewer non-penalty goals (which certainly seems to be the case in MLS), is the net result a less exciting football experience overall?

In the current edition of the Pickles Magazine, there is a feature on VAR titled “Could VAR deny us football’s most iconic moments?” Again the issue is aesthetic – nowhere is the question about rightness or wrongness prompted, only the question about the ‘iconic’.

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Jon Mackenzie

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