Another day, another VAR controversy. On Sunday, it was the penalty that never was. Or at least that was until it wasn’t. With no end in sight to the apparently relentless stream of damaging decisions, Matthew Philpotts cuts through the noise to try and establish the real impact on our season of Stockley Park’s machinations. You might just be surprised by the outcome…
Obvious (adj.) – easily perceived or understood; clear, self-evident, or apparent (OED)
When is clear and obvious not clear and obvious? When it’s VAR, of course, and obvious requires 53 freeze-frame replays, five minutes of deliberations, and an unravelling of The Mystery of the Rustling White Undershorts of which Baker Street’s finest would have been proud. Clearly my dictionary is in need of updating to reflect the new semantic reality we inhabit.
I wouldn’t mind, but Sunday’s magical disappearing penalty wasn’t even close to being the most egregious misapplication we’ve seen this season of a technology that was supposed to eliminate controversy. Tell me, PGMOL, how’s that one coming along?
As fuck-ups go, the implementation of VAR in English football takes some beating. Any trust in officials or transparency of decision-making replaced by despair-inducing incompetence and lurid conspiracy theories that test even the most level-headed among us.
But here’s not the place for furious ranting into the void. Well, it is. But not only. For, here, we also offer a calm and reasoned counterpoint, courtesy of the lovely people at ESPN, who’ve been keeping track of every single VAR overturn this season, just so we don’t have to.
What do they show? Well, it might just surprise you.
Inconvenient Truths I: Decisions do balance out
Let’s start with a question. What do we think is our net total of overturned VAR decisions so far this season? In other words, how many more decisions have we had go against us than in our favour?
Must be three or four. Even five or six?
Well, it just so happens that the overturned penalty decision against Arsenal brings the number of VAR decisions against us exactly in line with the number in our favour. Nine decisions have been overturned in our favour; nine decisions have gone against us. As a result, we’ve gained three goals of our own and had four opposition “goals” disallowed (+7); we’ve conceded one goal and had six of our “goals” disallowed (-7).
Drearily and disappointingly, it turns out that refereeing decisions really do balance themselves out over the course of the season. Even if the furious baying mob of Twitter conspiracy theorists won’t welcome the tiresome inconvenience of facts.
And the more games that are played, the more balance comes into the decisions: three games ago, we were still +3 net beneficiaries. And then came Fab’s curler at Everton, Wilson’s offside against Southampton, and the Arsenal (non-)penalty.
And, lo, the truest truism of all football truisms became true.
Inconvenient Truths II: No “Big Six” bias
And it’s not just us. Below are the figures for VAR interventions across the whole Premier League this season.
|Team||VAR decisions||Net outcome|
Of course, confirmation of LiVARpool’s status as the unquestioned kings of Stockley Park is immediately, well… clear and obvious. Good to know something is. Meanwhile, Brighton fans won’t have needed to see the data to know how they’ve suffered this season.
But the table also shows that these clubs are unrepresentative outliers. What’s more notable is that the vast majority of teams have a net balance of decisions with only one or two in either direction.
What the table also amply demonstrates is no evidence at all of bias, conscious or otherwise, in favour of the self-appointed (former) Big Six and against the “other 14”.
Damn. More of those pesky dreary facts. I’m really such a lot of fun at parties, you know.
As we can see, five of the “big” clubs have actually been net victims of VAR this season. And Liverpool apart, it’s the smaller teams – Brentford, Fulham, and Forest – who have had more than their fair share of VAR-inspired good fortune.
Truly, Richard Masters must move in the most mysterious of ways his corrupt wonders to perform.
Our Season in VAR
Of course, it’s not as simple as the outline figures above. There are plenty of other factors to consider beyond the simple number of overturns. What about the match context and the impact on the result of these decisions? Above all, how many of those decisions for and against were justified and how many were just plain wrong?
A more in-depth consideration of our VAR overturns suggests the following.
1. Perception vs reality
Again, what’s noticeable is just how far the reality diverges from our collective folk memory of injustice and incompetence, and this is best exemplified by the first part of the season before the World Cup break.
I mean we were robbed of points in that period, right? The winner at home to Palace was overturned by a spectacular show of incompetence, the clear push on Willock completely overlooked. Two points stolen. Then, two failures to overturn stick in the mind: Isak’s offside second at Anfield, and the obvious pull on Longstaff in the box at Molineux. More points gone?
But that Molineux match was much more notable for an overturn in our favour, the distinctly soft push on Fraser that ruled out their second and allowed us to equalise. If the roles had been reversed, you can guarantee we would still be howling with injustice.
And then there’s Man City at home and two interventions on our behalf – Miggy’s equaliser and Trippier’s rescinded red card. Not to mention Fulham, where VAR’s fifth minute intervention to have Chalobah sent off effectively gifted us the match before it had even begun, and Bournemouth at home, where our equaliser was a VAR present from the spot.
In fact, we had six positive overturns in that period and only one against. So much for misfortune and victimhood.
2. Quality, not quantity
Where there is a stronger case for grievance is in the quality of decisions, rather than their quantity.
For sure, plenty of the decisions against us have been uncontroversial. Willock’s early goal against West Ham springs to mind, where the ball was clearly out of play. That’s what the technology is for.
But there have also been some absolute howlers. We’ve already touched on the Palace winner, but that pales compared to the Geordie Maradona’s towering header at the City Ground. Clearly, a defender booting the ball against an opposition player, not once but twice, can only logically be an accidental deflection. Silly me.
And it’s here that we get into VAR overreach. Give someone a job and a title and they’ll invent work to fill it – it’s the cast-iron law of modern managerial bureaucracy. Rather than judging obvious errors, VAR officials have turned offsides and handballs into a set of considerations so arcane and complex that Kafka cut them from early drafts of The Trial for fear of stretching incredulity.
Not that it would matter if they actually got all the decisions right.
But to Palace and Forest (plain stinkers), we can add the penalty at Brentford (retchingly pungent), Wilson’s goal in the same match (distinctly malodorous), and Sunday’s penalty (unpleasantly whiffy) as decisions which struggle to reach the threshold of clear and obvious. That’s more than half of the overturns against us.
3. But what about the points?
The one saving grace in all this? Those decisions have rarely been influential, let alone decisive, in the outcomes of matches.
I’ll be honest – few things boil my piss more than the logical fallacy of taking a questionable decision in isolation, straightforwardly adding or subtracting a goal from the final score, and coming up with a fantasy points total we would have had, but for the nefarious machinations of VAR.
For one thing, that method completely overlooks the questionable decisions in our favour. For another, it rests on the ludicrous assumption that nothing else in the match would have played out any differently in the event of a more favourable refereeing outcome in a key goalscoring situation.
An early goal on Sunday and things might have been very different. Then again, we might have missed the penalty and/or Arsenal’s superior quality might have won out anyway. Who knows?
What we can say for sure is that the howlers at Forest and Brentford didn’t stop us collecting three points, nor did the recent overturns against Everton and Southampton. In fact, there’s only that Palace goal that’s had a near-certain material effect in denying us points this season.
We can hardly lay claim to VAR victim status.
Whose Bias is it Anyway?
All of which makes for thought-provoking stuff, since it suggests that the main (cognitive) biases surrounding VAR are not so much in the minds of the officials as in our own perceptions of the process.
Indeed, just this week our resident TF éminence grise made a fascinating case (see above) for the notion of “psychological slavery” as an explanation for imbalances in the operation of VAR in favour of the dominant clubs in England. But the ESPN data resolutely fails to support this, not matter how persuasive the case feels intuitively.
Of course, there’s a notable gap in the their analysis of VAR interventions. As events at the London Stadium showed last weekend, it’s often a lack of intervention that seems to favour some teams over others. Is it significant in this context that those five “big” teams in the lower half of the VAR table have had below average numbers of interventions?
Perhaps, and we can point to notable non-interventions in our experience of VAR this season too. But I struggle to explain why a pattern of favouritism, if there was such a thing, would not also manifest itself in the figures for overturns.
The more likely explanation is just that while we remember high-profile cases in favour of Man Utd or against ourselves, none of us can begin to remember the opposite occasions: a non-intervention against us simply doesn’t lodge in our consciousness. Our fan memories just aren’t wired that way, susceptible as they are to enough forms of cognitive bias to make a psychologist blush: availability bias in the examples of decisions that spring to mind, confirmation bias in the selection of decisions that fit our prior assumptions, group think in the collective perception of our imagined reality, and negativity bias in the over-privileging of decisions that go against us.
For that reason, our subjective perceptions are just about the worst possible evidence base for assessing VAR.
Which is not to say that VAR is anything but a shit storm of incompetence and inconsistency. It’s just one that affects every club in (more or less) the same way, and ultimately that’s to the detriment of our experience of the match in so many fundamental ways.
Locked away in their bunker on a business park under the Heathrow flight path, far from the increasingly maddening crowds and beyond our control, the VAR officials are creating a bizarre and exasperatingly artificial construction of football that goes against the instincts and spontaneity that are its greatest strengths.
And meanwhile all we can do is look on in ever greater incredulity and despair, like Gabriel Oak as his sheep are herded unwittingly off the Weatherbury cliffs into oblivion.
Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731