Tottenham Hotspur scored a perfectly good goal on Saturday at Leicester City. It was a particularly good one, too, one that would have doubled Spurs’ second-half lead.
Then VAR overstepped its bounds and intervened.
Twenty minutes later, Tottenham had conceded twice and lost to Leicester 2-1. It has itself to blame, yes. But it can also point fingers at a system in need of a rethink.
Tottenham’s disallowed goal
VAR did not overstep the letter of the law, but did overstep the bounds of common sense. It decided that Son Heung-Min was offside in the buildup to Serge Aurier’s would-be goal:
The review took roughly two minutes, from goal to decision. Offsite video assistant referees tinkered with and scrutinized a red line that initially connected a specific spot on the pitch to Son’s shoulder, then after a small movement to another part of his shoulder, then another.
(Meanwhile, match-going fans sat on their hands, unable to see any of this – a major problem, but not the one we’re going to discuss here.)
The problem with VAR’s offside use
The idea behind VAR’s use to rule on offside calls is that offside is a factual decision. Either the attacking player is ahead of the last defender, even if ever so marginally, or he isn’t. Because it’s supposedly black-and-white, there’s no need to clear the “clear and obvious” threshold. Technology makes “factual” equal “clear and obvious.”
But would any human in his or her right mind conclude that Son being offside was a matter of fact?
A player is considered offside if a part of his body with which he can legally score a goal is offside when the ball is played to him. The distinction, therefore, is between a player’s arm and his torso. But nowhere do soccer’s rules define where, at which part of a person’s shoulder, the arm ends and the torso begins.
Nor is that possible to define. Every person’s anatomy is different. Did VAR have an X-ray view of Son’s body on Saturday? Were they able to scrutinize his anatomy, look for a specific bone or muscle, and decidedly rule – definitively, clearly, obviously – that said bone or muscle was, as a matter of fact, ahead of Leicester defender Jonny Evans’ knee?
There’s no need to answer those questions. They’re farcical questions to begin with.
How to fix VAR’s offside rules
The theory behind VAR’s use in offside situations is sound. Many have argued that the “benefit of the doubt should be given to the attacker,” or for a tweak that would require “daylight” between the attacker and defender for offside to be called. Or for the “clear and obvious” standard to be applied.
But none of those solve the problem. They just shift the problem. Rather than dissecting decisions like the Tottenham-Leicester one on Saturday, we’d be dissecting whether there was “daylight,” or arguing about what constitutes “clear and obvious.” Either argument is equally absurd, or even more absurd than the one that cost Spurs.
There is, however, room for some sort of “clear and obvious” distinction. Or at least common sense. It is not “clear and obvious” where Son’s arm meets his torso in the example above. When the offside rule invites vagueness like that, the considerations must change. There is no chance the video assistant felt 100 percent confident in his decision on Saturday. If he isn’t, his decision shouldn’t be “no goal.”
In other words, offside is factual, yes. But in some some cases, there’s no way to be completely certain of the facts.
VAR worked well earlier in the game, ruling out a Leicester goal that was clearly and obviously offside. But the situation that arose in the second half requires a fix.
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