The replays, the endless replays, that viewers have the luxury of seeing at home or in the pub, allowed us to see clearly what happened when Martin Odegaard took a pass from Alexandre Lacazette in his stride in the 12th minute of Arsenal’s match with Manchester City and took the ball towards the goal-line.
The Norwegian’s touch was, unusually for him, a little heavy. It took him wider than he wanted to be and so, as Ederson, the City goalkeeper, rushed out to meet him, Odegaard decided not to shoot with his right foot and instead moved to cup his left foot around the ball to turn away from goal.
The replays showed that as Ederson lunged in to try to block the shot he thought was coming his extended left foot took Odegaard’s left foot away from under him before Ederson connected with the ball.
Martin Odegaard was brought down in the penalty area by Man City goalkeeper Ederson
Ederson's trailing leg caught the Arsenal playmaker but the foul was not awarded later by VAR
It was an obvious penalty but Stuart Attwell, the on-pitch referee, had not seen the foul and did not give it. The VAR, Jarred Gillett, watched the replays and saw no reason to ask Attwell to run over to the pitchside monitor to reconsider his decision. The game was allowed to continue.
For those of us who were — and still are — in favour of VAR, Attwell’s decision not to award a penalty felt like exactly the kind of innocent mistake that the system was intended to correct.
The kind of moment when VAR should be coming into its own, instead of remaining a focus of outrage for those who see its implementation as an abomination.
Instead, it turned into a case study of how VAR is being betrayed by inconsistent application. It turned into a case study of referees getting themselves hopelessly tangled up in rules and interpretations and jargon when the clear and obvious evidence of a penalty was there in front of their eyes.
Referee Stuart Attwell had a busy afternoon but he made an error not checking Ederson's foul
The basic point of VAR is that it was not tenable for viewers to have access to camera angles and replays that the referee does not have access to.
Now it is a source of immense frustration that even though the referees have that help, they are sometimes discouraged from using it.
To hear former referee Peter Walton’s tortured justification for the decision on BT Sport felt a little like watching one of those Government ministers offered up like a human sacrifice to defend a Downing Street lockdown party. There was no way out.
Instead, the explanation revolved around semantics. A later decision, when Attwell waved away appeals for a penalty for a foul by Granit Xhaka on Bernardo Silva, was reviewed and changed because the referee had missed a shirt-pull on the Portugal midfielder, and that was deemed to be ‘clear and obvious’. There was, apparently, nothing similarly obvious about Ederson’s foul on Odegaard.
Bernardo Silva goes down in the box following the contact from Granit Xhaka for a penalty
That is the problem with VAR in microcosm. Its purpose is still being lost in a jungle of jargon and fear. All we want it to do is help referees avoid obvious errors like the failure to award a penalty for the foul on Odegaard. It was supposed to be the referee’s friend but instead they are treating it like a stranger they still don’t trust.
If a decision is wrong, and replays show it is wrong, it should be corrected. It should be easy. Instead, too many people tie themselves in knots about the wordings of the rules.
What is clear and obvious to one person is not clear and obvious to another and so the arguments rage on and on and the point of VAR is lost in the fog.
Attwell went to the monitor for the Xhaka foul but the jargon around VAR is still hurting it
Manchester City are hard enough to beat without them getting the benefit of a bad decision. Pep Guardiola’s side had an off-day and Arsenal showed again why they look more and more like a team on the rise under Mikel Arteta.
They are a team brimming with youth and optimism and flair. They have even, finally, acquired some steel. ‘Street fighters,’ Martin Keown called them, which is praise indeed coming from a competitor like him.
It was an enthralling game between the champions-elect and an opponent who may come to challenge their supremacy in the years ahead.
It is a shame it was hijacked by a refereeing controversy. VAR was supposed to stop that. It is about time it was allowed to do its job.
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