On 18 November 2018, England’s top tier agreed to introduce the Video Assistant Referee, more commonly known as VAR, to the Premier League. The system would be implemented in the 2019/20 season.
VAR was previously tested in the EFL “Carabao” Cup and FA Cup competitions, and based on this usage, the EPL decided to fully introduce the system to the league. Having already been used in many other leagues throughout the world and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the EPL felt it was time to implement VAR.
According to the International Football Association Board, the objective of VAR is to provide a system that will overturn “clear and obvious errors” and to correct “serious missed incidents” in order to make football better.
To Manchester City and their supporters, however, VAR has done everything but improve football. Since its introduction in the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League and the 2019/20 EPL, Manchester City have fallen victim to several VAR incidents.
Manchester City’s Troubled History with VAR
The first incident occurred on 20 February 2019 when Manchester City traveled to Schalke for the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. During the match, full back Daniel Caligiuri danced at the top of the Manchester City box and unleashed a shot toward goal. His effort was blocked by City centreback Nicolás Otamendi and referee Carlos del Cerro Grande awarded Schalke a corner. After a review of the play via VAR, however, del Cerro Grande reversed his decision and awarded Schalke a penalty. According to VAR, the ball had struck Otamendi’s arm which was deemed to be in an unnatural position. City would go on to win the match 2-3, but many argued the Argentine could have done nothing to move his arm.
City would fall victim to another VAR decision just two months later in the second leg of the Champions League Quarter-final against Tottenham Hotspur. Trailing 1-0 on aggregate, City knew they needed to come out strong. The Sky Blues would score an early goal, but Tottenham Hotspur then scored two goals in quick succession to take control of the tie. By the start of the second half, Manchester City were ahead 4-2 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate.
What transpired was the first of two unfavourable decisions against the club. During the 72 minute, Spurs won a corner. The ball was delivered into the box and striker Fernando Llorente sent the ball into City’s goal but replays showed he had handled the ball. To the surprise of many, VAR allowed the goal to stand and this led to a series of boos from the City supporters.
Minutes later, Manchester City believed they had won the game on aggregate in the 90+5 minute when City winger Raheem Sterling sent the ball past Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. To the dismay of the City fans, however, the goal was disallowed by VAR as Sergio Agüero was deemed to be offside. Some argued Christen Eriksen’s deflected backward pass should have played Agüero onside, but City lost on aggregate and were eliminated from the competition.
VAR Saves Tottenham Again
Unfortunately for Tottenham Hotspur and their fans, the VAR incidents with Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League would not be their last. Four months later, Tottenham Hotspur found themselves in another predicament with VAR at the Etihad Stadium.
On 17 August, Manchester City welcomed Tottenham Hotspur on Matchday 2 of the 2019/20 season. During the match, two questionable decisions occurred. The first came in the 11 minute when City were awarded a corner. During this incident, Erik Lamela had his arms around Rodri’s neck and chest in the Tottenham penalty area, and as the corner was taken the duo fell to the ground. City’s supporters shouted for a penalty, but referee Michael Oliver waved play on. According to the rules, incidents in the penalty box may be subject to VAR review yet for some reason Oliver chose not to use system that was designed to resolve these difficult decisions.
The second, but more obvious incident occurred toward the end of the match. Despite vastly outplaying Tottenham, City found themselves level at 2-2. In the 90+2 minute the hosts were awarded a corner and moments later Gabriel Jesus scored what was believed to be the match’s winning goal. Oliver, however, reviewed the goal (which is custom of each goal scored) and VAR deemed the inswinging corner had struck the arm of City defender Aymeric Laporte prior to ball finding its way to Gabriel. The goal was overturned due to a handball incident and the match would end 2-2.
What VAR missed, however, was that the ball had also struck Oliver Skipp’s arm as Skipp was tugging on Laporte in this incident. Given these replays, it was precarious decision to disallow the goal as the ball had struck the arms of both Skipp and Laporte. Instead, Oliver should have called for a drop ball situation. Whilst City fans claimed conspiracy against VAR, Tottenham supporters celebrated as the system had saved them from yet another blemish.
City supporters soon took to social media criticising Tottenham and its supporters for the decisions that prevented City from winning the match. What is important to note, however, is that these controversial decisions are not Tottenham’s fault. Rather, these decisions are at the discretion of an imperfect VAR.
What is more worrisome, however, is that IFAB Secretary Lukas Brud believes it will take 10 years before VAR is fully understood. Therefore, is VAR really worth the wait?
VAR Is Supposed to Help Improve the Modern Game – It’s Done Anything But
The recent use of VAR has demonstrated there is still much work to be done before it is fully implemented and understood in the modern game. Unfortunately for City, they have fallen victim of a few poor VAR decisions, albeit they are not the only team to suffer this fate.
For example, during the first leg of the Ajax vs Real Madrid matchup in the Champions League Round of 16, the Dutchmen incorrectly had a goal disallowed as Dušan Tadić was deemed to have impeded Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Moreover, during the second leg of the Round of 16 tie between Manchester United and Paris Saint Germain, the Red Devils were awarded a last minute penalty after VAR deemed PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe handled the ball in the box (similar to Otamendi’s penalty against Schalke). United would go on to score the penalty and advance in the competition.
With these examples in mind, it appears many decisions are still subject to interpretation of the referee rather than identifying a clear and obvious error. In other words, there is still much to be done before VAR is perfected into modern football. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the referees to get these decisions right. Otherwise, if these imperfections and issues are not addressed, VAR will surely hinder the quality of football.