One of the worst byproducts of VAR is less the implementation itself and more how it dominates the discourse. The football becomes secondary.
Sean Longstaff closed his eyes and hoped for the best in the Burnley six-yard box.
His plunge towards the ball was a courageous decision, but sadly his head was met with the flying boot of James Tarkowski. It wasn’t intentional but the centre-back’s foot was high and dangerous, not to mention he was blocking any chance Longstaff had of scoring. A clear infringement, if ever the stratosphere of social media saw one.
Unfortunately, referee Anthony Taylor didn’t have the luxury of a wide-screen TV to see the incident.
Despite the gesticulations and screams of Longstaff clutching his face on the floor, he dismissed it at first. But soon the proclamations of the rest of the Newcastle players, in particular a fervent Matt Ritchie, were enough to have Taylor ask for a check.
This is stonewall, we all thought from home. Yet after pausing the game for a minute or so in the drawn-out affair that so many bemoan, the decision went against Longstaff and Newcastle. All that for that.
The incident compounded a later decision. Son Heung-min, like most competitive of players at the elite level, instinctively went down after feeling Scott McTominay’s hand hit his face, before the midfielder advanced the ball towards the Spurs box and Edinson Cavani plunked the ball in the net.
Craig Pawson, the man in the booth, couldn’t rule on it and so asked Chris Kavanagh to have a look on the pitch-side monitor. Six replays later, it was concluded that McTominay’s flying arm was enough to disallow Cavani’s goal – but not to provide the Scotsman with a second yellow card. It was another bizarre, head-scratching move.
Back to the studio, former players spat and bellowed at a safe two-metre distance, chewing over the meatiest part of the game. This time, however, they were not tussling about the lack of Spurs’ guile – something which was so brilliantly supplied before by Roy Keane and Jamie Redknapp – but instead VAR, the problems with VAR, the implementation of VAR, how VAR ballsed up a Newcastle penalty earlier in the day and how VAR has ruined every conceivable positive facet in football.
Viewers, who had just witnessed a breathless Sunday of football following three exquisite matches, could enjoy further scope in the Son-McTominay saga as it spread into the post-game press conferences: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer accused Son of cheating (as a side note, the scorpion and frog analogy is extremely applicable for professional footballers in such cases), then Mourinho, perhaps more knowingly, provided further gold dust for reporters by snapping back at Solskjaer while incredulously using Son as a dummy target for his side’s hapless loss, before the Korean was then racially abused on social media by cowards.
And so the toxicity rolled on into the night and the following day’s press, where headlines and articles (this one included), have filled column inches with the bile that took place as the header, and the other brilliant feats of the weekend an afterthought.
Nowadays grievances of contemporary football coverage either seem to be about VAR or the constant stream of aggravation over it. Talking points are mainly controversial VAR or refereeing decisions, seldom are they anything more.
Exemplary play, ingenious tactical adaptation by coaches, inspired substitutions, great goals, showboats: all are largely pushed down to make way for the more pointed – and supposedly more interesting – discussion of how bloody shite VAR is.
It’s an issue that’ll never lightly leave. Our own interpretation of the rules of the game is quite often at one with the rules themselves. What is seen as a fair challenge by the consensus of supporters can actually be a professional foul within the sport’s statutory law.
The trouble is the that rulebook is tampered with every season. Slight changes here and there over time causes a huge discrepancy of protocol every season, meaning it’s near enough impossible for supporters to keep up.
This is a weekend where Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin single-handedly pulled them from the abyss of relegation with a sublime assist and goal against Burnley; where David Moyes and Jesse Lingard have carried West Ham further into unchartered territory, making Champions League qualification almost tangible; and even Arsenal and Manchester United served up some excellent victories given the context.
But all this sort of sporting prospect has been bowled over in terms of media coverage to make way for Mourinho’s: “Son is very lucky that his father is a better person than Ole.”
The media has run with stories on the fallout of the incidents that have taken place. Pieces are designed to whip up a further frenzy and generate traffic to an audience who, in fairness, seem to relish the excuse to rage.
This VAR generation is nothing new.
Try thinking back to the pre-Brexit years, the era we were supposedly without fuss or faff in football, the halcyon days when everything was pure bliss and rose-tinted and speckled gold. That’s right: it’s non-existent. There’s always been mud. The Premier League has always been entangled in such conversations about how the game is now ‘gone’ and in grave need of fixing.
Only now we seem to revel in the controversy of it all, whereas before it would’ve been more an afterthought. Or at least the vitriol, such as Pizzagate, would not have been as rancid and depressing.
We all know the reason. The sport’s ambiguity in the rules has always caused this controversy, as well as the fact the blame still does not entirely lie with VAR itself but with those who use it to make decisions.
Perhaps better training is required of referees. Maybe VAR – which worked better at the 2018 World Cup – needs tinkering with.
The ultimate solution will come from brains brighter than the one slamming fingers on a keyboard here before you, but at least we can surely and collectively agree that something must be altered or will we be hammering the same stale old topic over and over again while the greatest stories are left unpicked.
Jacque is on Twitter