Date: 2nd September 2019 at 7:00am
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VAR has divided opinion in football since its introduction at the start of the season. Its operation again came into sharp focus this weekend as Villa were denied a (probably ill-deserved) point at Crystal Palace when Henri Lansbury’s ‘goal’ deep into injury time was disallowed, a point which might well prove crucial at the end of the season.

Parking to one side Aston Villa’s inept display, the main (indeed only, sorry Roy Hodgson) talking point has to be match referee Kevin Friend’s decision to chalk off the goal and instead book Jack Grealish for an act of simulation in the build-up, an interpretation which has been widely called out as one of the worst of all-time.

The Premier League have since clarified that VAR checked Friend’s decision to book Grealish in case the referee should have awarded a penalty to Villa for a foul by Gary Cahill. But VAR was not used to rule on the goal itself as the whistle had apparently been blown before the ball hit the back of the net, a point made by BT presenter Jake Humphrey on social media.

I’ve not seen conclusive evidence that Friend blew for simulation before Lansbury scored, but the fact remains that a poor decision was made and then compounded by the VAR ‘non’ intervention.

VAR is supposed to correct “clear and obvious” errors in four areas: goals, penalties, straight reds and mistaken identity. With regard to goals, the reviews will generally centre around offsides or potential foul play in the build-up – handball, a shirt pull or hold, that kind of thing. There appears to be no provision in the guidelines for what happened on Saturday.

The managers were predictably split on Friend’s contentious decision. Roy Hodgson was put out that the focus would be taken away from his side’s performance, building on their unlikely win at Old Trafford last weekend. He waffled about accepting the referee’s decision, a position it’s unlikely he would have taken had the referee ruled out a late Palace goal.

“If the referee had given the goal, I wouldn’t be here making any comment about it, and I don’t intend to [talk] about him not giving the goal. I accept his decision 100% and I am happy that he didn’t make another decision, of course.”

Dean Smith was less understanding:

“No one could understand why it wasn’t given. I spoke in the week about VAR and subjective decisions but that system is meant to right wrongs. I wondered what I’d be like when that system went against me. He got a nudge from Zaha in the back. As he offloads it, Cahill comes into the tackle as well. Simulation? No chance! I’ll probably get some waffle about the reasons, but it was a poor decision.”

To Smith’s credit, he maintained his composure and conducted himself with amazing dignity and professionalism, considering the jaw-dropping incompetence of Friend’s bewildering decision. Kevin Friend has previous, of course, when it comes to making questionable decisions against Villa, prompting many on social media to cry foul and suggest darker forces may be at work.

On the evidence of the Arsenal/Tottenham match on Sunday afternoon, people may have a point. Towards the end of the game, Harry Kane burst past Sokratis and immediately went to ground, looking for a penalty. As many fans will know, this is not unusual behaviour for the England captain.

Referee Martin Atkinson was unmoved and penalised Kane for simulation. But significantly, no yellow card was produced for Kane. Compare this outcome with Kevin Friend’s decision to book Grealish for an act of simulation; Grealish was fouled yet stayed on his feet for as long as possible, laid the ball off to Lansbury and categorically did not claim a penalty.

This lack of consistency is as abysmal as it is predictable. Both decisions (and consequences) did not fall within the VAR remit and therein lies the rub. I’m not remotely interested in Kane’s non-booking per se, but in the context of what happened to Grealish, serious questions need to be asked.

Many fans lament the increased use of technology – it slows the game down, it takes away the passion and spontaneity, blah, blah, blah. But in the billion-pound arena of modern football, such contentious, abysmal and, frankly, plain wrong decisions by essentially unaccountable individuals make a mockery of the spectacle the Premier League strive to promote.

Among other things, VAR is meant to correct “clear and obvious” mistaken decisions by the on-field officials but, significantly, failed to do so on this particular occasion. The successful introduction and integration of this technology will take time and we can only hope that the powers-that-be will learn from this and adapt the rules and regs accordingly. The outrageous mistake by Kevin Friend has little to do with VAR, save for the fact that the VAR was not in a position to correct Friend’s error.

This will not be the last time this season that we are on the wrong end of a bad decision. There is an old cliché that these things even themselves out. They do not. With marginal calls maybe, but such outrageous (and significant) errors of judgement are rarely offset.

Harry Kane went down looking for a penalty and a free-kick was awarded against him for simulation. Grealish eventually went down (having played a pass), not looking for anything, and he was carded for simulation. Why was Kane not booked?

All we ask for is that the laws of the game be applied correctly and consistently. Times are changing quickly and the nascent VAR system, governed by the IFAB, should really be an improvement on what has gone before.

But any technology is only as good as its programmers and its operator. The FA (in this country, at least) need to improve the quality of officials coming through the system, from grassroots up.

As long as the likes of Kevin Friend are employed by PGMOL and allowed to officiate at elite-level matches, we’ll remain in this cycle – the same on-field officials are also responsible for VAR monitoring, so incompetence on the field will be matched by incompetence off the field.

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