An offside decision can never be to black and white even with VAR
Aug. 18, 2019
An offside decision can never be to black and white even with VAR... a marginal offside is an instinctive guess and if your guessing, you can't give it
Something doesn't feel right. It didn't feel right when Jesse Lingard's goal was disallowed in the UEFA Nations League semi-final back in June, a glorious move from goalkeeper to striker and a wonderful finish but ruled out because his toe could be seen to be just offside after repeated replays.
However, it was Saturday's decision to rule out Gabriel Jesus' goal for Manchester City because Raheem Sterling's armpit was 2.4cm offside - a distance barely perceivable when the video stills were revealed - which jarred most of all.
Something feels wrong. The essence and joy of football is the free-flowing move from defence to attack to score. The authorities should always find ways to allow goals like Lingard's or Jesus's if it can do so without unbalancing the game.
Before the VAR, no assistant referee could have, in good conscience, given Raheem Sterling offside on Saturday or Lingard last June. You couldn't possibly see those infractions with the human eye. You're guessing. And if you're guessing you can't give it. Both would have stood as goals. On the TV replays, pundits would have drawn the white lines and people would have said: "Well, maybe he's a couple of centimetres offside, but that can't be seen so the decision is correct."
This is the point at which some people become bewildered and even irate. They want offside to a black and white decision. It either it is or it isn't. That way of thinking appeals to our innate sense of justice. But, even with the VAR, it can never be that. A marginal offside is an instinctive guess.
My colleague, Adam Shafiq, has demonstrated that the margin of error, taken into account Raheem Sterling's speed and the frame rate of the TV picture is 13cm, which is significant.
There was common misassumption prior to the season that the VAR would only be used when a clear and obvious mistake was made. This is the case for the vast majority of instances. Yet for offside, it was said, that wouldn't apply because the ruling ought to be definitive.
However, for a call as marginal as Sterling's, that just isn't the case. Even the VAR can't be sure because the frame rates, at 50 per second, aren't yet defined enough to be hundred per cent precise. In fact, given that the frame in question chosen by the VAR shows Sterling was 2.4cm offside and there is a 13cm margin of error, it is more likely he was onside rather than offside.
The deeper problem for football is that all of this is a regression in the laws of the game. Older readers will recall that football in the 1980s was not always the intoxicating game we view today. At times it was awful. The 1990 World Cup was deemed so poor it was decided law changes were necessary and they would ultimately precipitate the attacking modern football we see today, exemplified by the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.
In 1990 the law was changed to rule that players who were level with a defender were onside rather than offside, as they had previously been, the idea of Jimmy Hill, the former Coventry player, chairman and Match of the Day presenter. In 1992, the rule outlawing the back pass to the keeper was brought in, which directly leads to the high pressing we see today. Prior to that, defending a 1-0 lead with a well-drilled offside trap and multiple back passes to the keeper was pretty easy for a good team.
There were genuine debates at the time as to whether football would lose its status as No. 1 sport in era of hooliganism and tragedies (It's important to note these were unconnected phenomena: the former a social issue, latter result of greed and neglect). But the football on the pitch was also getting worse That the revised offside law (1990) and the back-pass ban (1992) came just as inaugural Premier League and Champions League seasons occurred in 1992 means there really is a split in eras in modern football, pre and post 1992 Another key factor has been clamping down on foul play in 1998 allowing the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to thrive. All in all, football is infinitely better now, because those laws tweaked the game in favour of attackers.
Yet the current technological dissection of offside means that now we're heading back to the pre-1990 offside rule. If you're level, which should be onside, you're pretty much sure to be, in some way, offside. Your armpit (as in Sterling's case), nose, toe: something is likely look offside. And you can draw a line on TV which supposedly proves it. To be sure of being onside by the VAR, the striker now really has to be behind the defender, giving the defender a massive advantage.
So what to do? We could abandon the whole VAR experiment, but that seems unlikely. The quickest and easier solution would be simply to apply the 'clear and obvious' criteria to the offside law. Then, you're not searching to find a way to disallow a great goal; you're only trying to assess whether the assistant could reasonably have spotted it. That's what happens in cricket, where if Hawkeye shows the ball clipping the bails, the decision is considered so marginal that you go with the umpire's call. That way, neither Jesus' goal nor Lingard's would be ruled out.
I would also favour experimenting with a tweak in the rules, so that if any playing part of the body is onside, then you're onside. So you can't dangle your arm onside and steal a yard but you can get one step ahead of defender. That would restore the intended advantage to the attackers.
Of course, there will always be contentious decisions and you have to draw the line somewhere. But right now, it's being drawn in the wrong place and making life too easy for defenders. And, frankly, making life easier for defenders is not what football is about, as Jimmy Hill recognised all those years ago