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MARTIN SAMUEL: The problem with VAR? It doesn’t sort out clear and obvious errors

MARTIN SAMUEL: VAR’s flaw? It doesn’t sort out clear and obvious errors… PLUS, with an over-hyped manager and slugabed players, the Glazers are the LEAST of Manchester United’s problems

  • VAR’s main issue is that is doesn’t address errors that are clear and obvious 
  • Cristian Romero wasn’t punished for pulling the hair of Marc Cucurella 
  • For all their faults the Glazers are not Manchester United’s biggest problem 

The overriding problem with VAR is it doesn’t deliver what was promised. It doesn’t correct the clear and obvious. It rules on the finest margins; it makes matters of opinion black and white. Then, faced with injustice, it is indifferent. And that’s not as advertised.

At Nottingham Forest on Sunday, Michail Antonio accidentally ran into a defender, Orel Mangala, in the build-up to a West Ham goal. He wasn’t directly involved in the move, his was a decoy run, and referee Robert Jones saw no foul. He was contacted, however, by over-reaching VAR Michael Salisbury and asked to look again. It takes a strong man to resist in those circumstances.

Jones wasn’t strong, even though he was right. He disallowed the goal. VAR had resolved an issue that was actually no more than a point of view. Salisbury’s take should have been of no greater worth than Jones’. Nothing about that call was clear and obvious. 

VAR overruled Robert Jones' decision to allow West Ham's goal at Nottingham Forest

VAR overruled Robert Jones’ decision to allow West Ham’s goal at Nottingham Forest

Then on to Chelsea later in the day. Tottenham’s 96th-minute equaliser was scored at the end of a run of three corners. But as the second came in, Tottenham’s Cristian Romero quite clearly pulled back Marc Cucurella by his hair. 

Referee Anthony Taylor missed it but, one imagines, Mike Dean in the VAR seat did not.

He is not empowered, however, to rule on routine fouls, so sat there while the ball went out for another corner, from which Tottenham scored, when clearly and obviously it should have been a free-kick to Chelsea. And that makes VAR, and the supposed principles driving it, look stupid.

It is not the first time this has happened, either. On November 9, 2019, in a match at Turf Moor, Burnley were given a corner that had so obviously come off their player it was called by a radio commentator, without recourse to a replay, live and in real time. Burnley then scored from the corner. So here, again, was a clear and obvious error, leading to a goal, that VAR had to let slide.

VAR doesn't spot clear and obvious errors, like Cristian Romero pulling Marc Cucurella's hair

VAR doesn’t spot clear and obvious errors, like Cristian Romero pulling Marc Cucurella’s hair

And that’s why it isn’t working for so many fans, players and managers. It’s random. Every bit as random as letting the man in the middle of the pitch make decisions, based on what he’s seen. And it was supposed to be so much more than that.

The Antonio call we can’t do much about. There will always be grey areas in any football match and, ultimately, even what constitutes clear and obvious is a matter of opinion. We may think the VAR at Forest should have minded his own business, but he may feel he saw an obvious error.

There is so much that is marginal. Thomas Tuchel thought there was a foul on Kai Havertz prior to Tottenham’s first goal at Stamford Bridge, and at the time many of us agreed. 

Having seen repeated replays, however, Tottenham’s Rodrigo Bentancur probably does get enough of the ball. We just can’t wait so long for that judgment to be made.

And we can’t press pause 20 times so that every foul gets its day in court — that is the problem with Romero’s hair pull. The VAR is not there to micro-manage. He sweats the big stuff. Should a goal stand, should a player be sent-off?

The VAR is not there to micro-manage - we can't press pause 20 times on each decision

The VAR is not there to micro-manage – we can’t press pause 20 times on each decision

Romero’s a sneak, who is getting a deserved reputation that will count against him and his club someday soon, but that would have been a harsh red card. Equally, no goal was scored. Yet.

And this is where VAR could do with a tweak. Because a goalscoring opportunity does not begin when a corner is taken. It begins when a corner is awarded. So the corner award itself should surely be part of VAR’s consideration.

Would it drag the game out? No. Play has stopped anyway. Also, there is no need for the referee to be summoned to a screen for review. We’re talking clear and obvious, not some excitable VAR’s hot take that after 15 replays the last touch was the forward’s little toe. 

The obvious foul at Stamford Bridge; the obvious goal-kick at Burnley. Corners are huge goalscoring opportunities. If they weren’t, coaches would not work all week on set-pieces.

So this is about more than just getting it right. It’s about delivering on the initial promise of fairness. VAR was designed to address the worst injustices. If it’s not doing that, it’s barely doing anything.

Big name wows Brooklyn now 

Fresh from reinventing photography — from something that was in focus, to something that is out of focus — and sandwiches, Brooklyn Beckham has an exciting new twist to throw at us: double-barrelled names. 

Now called Peltz-Beckham after his recent marriage, he breathlessly told Variety: ‘We had this idea — we kind of combined our last names. I was just like, “Oh, we could start a new thing, and it’ll be so cool to have little Peltz-Beckhams running around”.’

You’d have thought with the families’ money he’d have met the odd posh person by now; or, alternately, given that his dad played for Real Madrid and Los Angeles Galaxy, someone from Spain.

Lukaku’s a big fish in a small pond 

Timo Werner scored on his first game back for RB Leipzig while, in Italy, Romelu Lukaku did the same for Inter Milan after just two minutes. 

Have Chelsea made a mistake getting rid of their strikers? Not really. It’s just that the Premier League is a much harder competition than the Bundesliga or Serie A. 

Sorry, it just is. 

Romelu Lukaku has started well at Inter but Serie A is clearly inferior to the Premier League

Romelu Lukaku has started well at Inter but Serie A is clearly inferior to the Premier League

Norwich’s strategy has long been to exist among the country’s top 26 clubs.

Preferably in the Premier League but, if not, in the top six below, either getting promoted or contending through the play-offs.

Sooner or later, that has to go wrong. Sell one player too many, buy poorly one summer, a run of injuries, a loss of confidence sparked by simple ill-luck —a yo-yo club is vulnerable to it all. 

Going into Tuesday night’s match with Huddersfield, Norwich are bottom of the Championship with one point in nine. It’s only three games, but it’s a high-wire act and even the best occasionally fall off.

Norwich's strategy to exist among the top 26 clubs in English football is a very risky one

Norwich’s strategy to exist among the top 26 clubs in English football is a very risky one

Glazers are least of Manchester United’s problems

And now, a brief wrap-up of everything that’s gone wrong at Manchester United this week, part 247.

There is a superstition with gamblers about never backing the horse that wins best turned out in the paddock. Pre-season football often follows the same logic. These days, though, it shouldn’t be good results that promote wariness — but pre-publicity. 

Before a ball had been kicked, Erik ten Hag was being touted as somewhere between the great coaches of Manchester, part Guardiola, part Busby and Ferguson.

For all their faults, it wasn't the Glazers who failed to deliver football's basics at Brentford

For all their faults, it wasn’t the Glazers who failed to deliver football’s basics at Brentford

He was a disciplinarian, a workaholic, a tactician, a man-manager. He had a list of rules and principles, strategies and a philosophy. He favoured youth, got the best from experience and, after so many false dawns, there was no doubt he was the one. 

This myth-building was still going on, even after the 4-0 defeat at Brentford. Ten Hag had got his players in on their day off and made them run the 13 kilometres they were short on Saturday. Did he? Seriously? And what would be the point of that? 

The time to match Brentford’s running was in the 90 minutes before the final whistle blew, not the following day. It sounded like another stunt, a revelation the PR department felt might play well on the back pages. 

It certainly did not have the hallmark of a master motivator. Antonio Conte did not pull such stunts at Tottenham, he just exiled the ones that did not share his work ethic. Maybe United simply have too many slugabeds. 

Gary Neville opposed the appointment of Antonio Conte but his views are still highly regarded

Gary Neville opposed the appointment of Antonio Conte but his views are still highly regarded

Digressing briefly, is it not strange that every pronouncement on United from Gary Neville is treated like the wisdom of Yoda when his was the main voice opposing the appointment of Conte last year? 

Anyone fancy United to finish above Tottenham now or think Brentford will beat Conte 4-0 when they meet at the Gtech Community Stadium on Boxing Day? And if Conte can persuade Daniel Levy to spend money, early, in the transfer window — might he not have got better business done at Old Trafford, too?

Anyway, back to the real world, and guess who didn’t have to run 13 kilometres as penance at the weekend? The Glazers. 

That’s right, because for all their faults, it wasn’t them who failed to deliver football’s basic requirement against Brentford. That was the players. They might be lacking confidence but run and there’s always hope.

New United manager Erik ten Hag is failing to extract even the bottom line from his players

New United manager Erik ten Hag is failing to extract even the bottom line from his players

There are reams of statistics showing the chance of losing decreases the more a team runs. Ten Hag is failing to extract even the bottom line from his men. 

This doesn’t absolve the owners from blame but, at United, the suits are always the protective shield. If Lisandro Martinez is being exposed in the air as a centre half because of his height, it is not the fault of the owners. 

They paid the money for him at the request of the manager. Blame them for otherwise poor recruitment, for poor planning — but Martinez was the manager’s call. 

Not all of United’s problems stem from the boardroom. Marcus Rashford looked a better player in his first 10 games for United than at any time since — that’s not down to the Glazers, either. Where are the coaches in all this; where are his team-mates? 

Now it is being suggested Ten Hag is willing to let Cristiano Ronaldo leave, having spent months resisting and with the season now in chaos. Was there no one to advise or negotiate? How has Ten Hag not seen an inevitable denouement in unhappy superstar, failing club? 

Let’s hope the coach has kept the favourable write-ups he received pre-season; they could be the best reviews he ever gets at United. 

It does not solve the civil war, but there was something quite beautiful in Judge Beth Labson Freeman’s verdict on the three LIV golfers suing to be restored to PGA Tour events. 

‘If LIV Golf is elite golf’s future,’ she reasoned, ‘what do players care about the dust-collecting trophies of a bygone era?’ 

Exactly. It can’t be the history because they’ve turned their backs on that. So they must still covet the PGA’s prize money. If that’s all they are there for, who cares? 

Rugby suits have no good answers 

Alan Gilpin, chief executive of World Rugby, has been criticised for his response to the legal action triggered by former and current players over brain injuries. 

‘He doesn’t live in the real world and it shows they haven’t an answer for this,’ said Barry O’Driscoll, a leading concussion expert and former Ireland international. 

And he’s right — because Gilpin no doubt knows, as we all do, that without the risk of concussion there really is no rugby. It’s like boxing or MMA in that respect: take the contact away, and you haven’t got a sport. 

Alan Gilpin, chief executive of World Rugby, has been criticised for his response to the legal action triggered by former and current players over brain injuries

Alan Gilpin, chief executive of World Rugby, has been criticised for his response to the legal action triggered by former and current players over brain injuries

Writing in this newspaper on Saturday, Trevor Birch, chief executive of the EFL, spoke proudly of the first day of the season boasting the highest aggregate attendance for the competition in 17 years — 450,000 people going to games across the country.

Very impressive. So why does such a successful series of leagues see no way forward for itself beyond handouts from above?

Insincere activists 

When England’s women held an open training session at Twickenham last week, a group of 15 trans rights activists arrived to protest rugby’s new gender restriction policy.

‘We will not be going away until our voices are heard,’ said Emily Hamilton, a Harlequins supporter, trans woman and a former player after 18 seasons.

But trans voices are heard all the time. Every sport considers trans issues. Every sport listens to trans perspectives and representations. Rugby certainly did before making a hugely difficult decision to exclude trans women on safety grounds. But being heard is not the point. What Hamilton means is the protesters won’t go away until they get what they want. And that’s very different.

Presenter Mark Chapman made great play of the fact that all of the results from every division would be read out on Sports Report at some time on Saturday, but the BBC miss the point. That’s not the same. Pop to the loo, or get momentarily distracted, and you might miss the league you are waiting to hear. 

There is no timing, no schedule. It’s not like having a complete set of fixtures listed at 5pm. If the programme makers behind the decision cannot grasp that simple fact, one wonders why they are even in sports radio. 

Tyson Fury retired from boxing. He’s done nothing since. And now he’s retired again. Retired from what, exactly? 

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