Hello, and welcome back to Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. We begin with a confession: didn’t even make it to halftime of the Super Bowl. Disgraceful.
State of the VARt
The Premier League is getting desperate. Once, it drew viewers in with thrilling title races. Now, as Liverpool canter away into the distance, it is forced to stoop to offering low farce and cheap hilarity.
Which suits Tactically Naive fine, of course. We’ve always preferred low farce and cheap hilarity to good football. As such, Manchester City’s visit to Tottenham was everything we could have hoped for. Jose Mourinho clowning around. Pep Guardiola looking angry and stressed. A debut goal for a young lad who was so excited he forgot how to celebrate. City thumping Spurs by 19 shots to three; Spurs mugging City, 2-0.
And then there was VAR. It was a big day for the Premier League’s eye in the sky. First the video referee declined to upgrade Raheem Sterling’s mistimed tackle/ankle stamp from yellow to red. Mourinho was upset about this. Then a penalty was given some two minutes after the relevant incident, though Hugo Lloris saved it. Mourinho was pleased.
But! After making that save, the ball ran loose, and Sterling pounced. Lloris scrambled out, and intercepted Sterling (or the ball, or both, or neither depending who you ask). Again to VAR, but no penalty this time. Mourinho: pleased. Until he realised that Sterling could have picked up a second yellow for diving, which sent his mood swinging right back round to upset again. Honestly, being Mourinho seems exhausting.
One of the oddities of VAR is the way it sounds, in coverage and conversation. Tactically Naive is as guilty as anybody here, but calling VAR “VAR” does rather hint at something grander and more sinister than what we actually have. VAR is just another referee, watching television. With this in mind, Tactically Naive is beginning a campaign to rename VAR to something better. Here are some options.
”Another referee, watching television”
It’s not as catchy as “VAR”, perhaps, but it’s a whole lot more reflective of what’s actually going on.
One of the odd things about football — as opposed to other sports that employ video refereeing, such as rugby and cricket — is that it has barely tried to humanize the officials behind the screen. You don’t get to hear their voices, and you get only the vaguest pictures of them hard at work.
This is exacerbated in the Premier League by a widespread refusal to consult pitch-side monitors. On TV, pictures appear and lines are drawn. In the stadium, nothing. The on-field referee holds his hand to his ear. The optics are conspiratorial.
Just think how much more ordinary, and so much less enraging, VAR could be if this went out over the tannoy: “Hi, Mike. What do you reckon?” “Hi, Mike. Hang on, just having a look.” “No worries.” “There we go. Hmm. Roll that back again? Yeah, not a red for me, Mike.” “Thanks, Mike.” “Pleasure. Best of luck with the rest of the game.”
Sure, you could still disagree with the decision. But at least you’d know you were disagreeing with a couple of human beings and not some vast all-measuring supercomputer.
Or perhaps the best way around “VAR” is to lean into it Big Brother-ness. We’d need to tweak things here, just a little. The Panopticon should make one or two inexplicable, unexplained decisions early in every game. Nothing serious, of course. Reverse a throw-in award here; order a corner retake there. Just enough so that everybody on the field and in the stands knows that the Panopticon might be watching.
And then, after everything that happens, an agonising wait. Will a decision come? It might. Oh, it might. It might … nope, not this time. The big red eye has passed on.
Obviously we’d need a giant red eye, but that shouldn’t prove too much trouble.
While “The Panopticon” might not give us confidence in regards to replays ability to make “correct decisions,” it would helpfully anchor the sense of paranoia that all football fans have towards officialdom in general. This, paradoxically, might calm everything down a bit. When you suspect you’re the victim of a vast and sprawling conspiracy, you get a little jumpy. But when you know you are? Then you can relax and enjoy the game.
A side benefit would be that video referees, having established their supervision early, can sneak out of the game early to get on with something more useful. You don’t need the Panopticon to be watching all the time, after all. You just need the possibly-watched to know that they’re being possibly-watched. Get the referees out volunteering a doing some good.
Or perhaps we should go further still. Mourinho, Guardiola, Sterling — they gave it a go, but the most compelling presence on the pitch this Sunday was, of course, Mike Dean, who remains undefeated and will rule the Barclays forever.
There will be no better passage of play this season than Dean booking Toby Alderweireld and then stalking through a crowd of terrified players, yellow card in hard, looking for his second victim. Players bug-eyed in fear. Raheem Sterling whispering prayers. A stadium and a nation quivering in anticipation.
Where is he going? His card’s still out. It’s Sterling! He’s going to send Sterling off! Pep’s going to pop! No, no, he’s passed Sterling. What the hell— Oleg Zinchenko! Obviously!
So let’s call VAR “Mike Dean” and be done with it. The man can carry on refereeing; it’s the myth we need. Set him up as an explanatory black box above English football: incidents go into Mike Dean, decisions come out, and neither you nor Tactically Naive needs to actually know the mechanisms. We think we want decisions to be right, but we don’t; we want decisions to feel appropriate. And there is nothing so appropriate to the Premier League as Mike Dean.
Insert tab A into slot B
Lionel Messi did something ridiculous this weekend. Nothing new there, perhaps, but still: he’s the greatest footballer ever and we’ll miss him when he’s gone. And this weekend’s particular slice of ridiculousness was a through-ball to the feet of Ansu Fati, just 17. It comes with an overtone of torch-passing. One day, all this will be yours.
No pressure, lad. Anyway, here’s the pass. Look at this thing. Look at it.
A quickfire double from Ansu Fati!
The 17-year-old has Barca 2-0 up and in complete control
What a pass from Messi to set the first goal up too! pic.twitter.com/jrbf7dbUmX
— Premier Sports (@PremierSportsTV) February 2, 2020
First there’s the gap. It must be lonely, being Messi, knowing that you can see things that mere humans cannot. There’s 11 Levante players on the pitch here who know that there’s no gap in their defence; and then there’s Messi, insisting that there is. Look! It’s right there! You just have to do this!
[does something impossible]
And then there’s the urgency within the pass itself. Good passes find players in useful spaces. Great passes — and this is a great pass — find players in useful spaces and then tell them what to do next. The instructions for completion are included; all the receiving player has to do is follow the simple steps. You just need to provide your own screwdriver. Er, feet.
This is Tactically Naive’s Flatpack Furniture Theory of Footballing Brilliance. Here we see Fati put together the MESSI in just a few simple steps, needing no special tools. What could possibly be easier?