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VAR got the law wrong when disallowing Manchester City goal against Tottenham

Kevin Pullein takes a close look at the new handball rule

The big screen shows the VAR decision of 'No Goal' for Manchester City
1 of 1

Nearly everyone has missed the meaning of the new handball rule. It does not say what they think it says. VAR should not have disallowed what would have been an injury-time winner for Manchester City against Tottenham.

Nearly everyone says VAR was right, but the rule is wrong. They are mistaken. VAR, like almost everybody else, misinterpreted the rule.

This is what the rule says: “It is an offence if a player gains possession/control of the ball after it has touched their hand/arm and then scores in the opponents’ goal or creates a goalscoring opportunity.”

The player penalised at the Etihad on Saturday was Aymeric Laporte. He tried to get his head to a corner but missed, and afterwards as the ball passed him it hit his arm.

The rule poses two questions. Only if the answer to both of them is yes should a player be punished.

The first question is: did the player gain possession or control of the ball after it had touched their hand or arm? For Laporte the answer was no. After the ball had touched his arm he did not gain possession or control of the ball. At no point before or after did he have possession or control of the ball. This is undeniable.

As the answer to the first question was no, the goal should have stood. The answer to the second question then became irrelevant. But, for the record, I would argue that the answer to the second question was also no.

The second question is: did the player then score a goal or create a goalscoring opportunity? First to the loose ball was Gabriel Jesus. At that moment he did not have a goalscoring opportunity. He created one for himself by then moving the ball into space from which he could bend it into the net.

I do not blame VAR Graham Scott, who is a good Premier League referee, or his assistant Andy Halliday. I think they did what they had been told to do. My beef is that what they had been told to do is not what the rule says they should do.

The same thing happened the previous Sunday when VAR Jonathan Moss, also assisted by Halliday, disallowed what would have been a winning goal for Wolves against Leicester at the King Power because the ball had struck the arm of Willy Boly.

The rule says the goal should have been disallowed only if Boly had gained possession or control of the ball after it touched his arm. He did not. So the goal should have stood.

And what should have happened according to the rule is what ought to have happened according to almost everyone who plays or watches football. At neither game did any of the players or managers or any of the spectators think the goal should have been disallowed. Leicester and Tottenham fans chanted support for VAR, but with laughter in their voices. They knew that what had happened was ridiculous.

The rules of football say in one place that referees should act “within the spirit of the game”, and in another place that establishing the spirit of the game “often involves asking this question: what would football want/expect?” Football neither wanted nor expected the absurdities at the King Power and Etihad.

Premier League betting could become even stranger

How will VAR affect betting? It could reduce the number of goals, contrary to what most observers anticipated, and then the best teams will win less often. In short, games could become even less predictable.

Two of the first 20 Premier League games with VAR ended with the wrong result and would not have done without VAR.

How does VAR work in the Premier League? It could change as we go on, and hopefully will, but after two weeks this is a fair summary: every time the ball goes in the net a group of officials watch replays and try to find a way to disallow the goal on a technicality.

Sometimes the technicality is not even right, a law misunderstood. Sometimes the technicality is a law applied to the letter but contrary to the spirit.

Disallowing goals works against teams who put the ball in the net frequently and for teams who put the ball in the net rarely. It evens things up a bit.

You would expect that with VAR some goals would be disallowed that previously would have been allowed, and that some goals would be allowed that previously would have been disallowed. The overall impact could be more goals, the same number or fewer.

In the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga and Ligue 1 fewer goals were scored in the first season with VAR than in the last season without VAR. Typically there were between one and two goals fewer in each round of fixtures, which is also the experience, albeit after only two rounds, in the Premier League.

The introduction of VAR and reduction in goals could be coincidental. So let us insist only on this: there is nothing in the evidence to suggest VAR produces more goals.

There are, broadly speaking, two influences on scores. Skill and luck. Luck evens things up a bit. In any game it is as likely to favour the weakest team as the strongest. You could say that luck erodes differences in skill.

VAR could raise the influence on scores of luck and lower the influence of skill. Most observers imagined it would do the opposite.

Handball law: do what they say – but what are they saying?

One part of the new handball law is clear – though what it says is presumably not what the law-writers meant, because what it says is not what referees and VARs have been told to do.

Other parts of the new handball law are not clear at all. There is a list of acts that will “usually” be an offence, followed by another list of acts that will “not usually” be an offence.

There is nothing to say when the acts that will usually be an offence should not be punished, or when the acts that will not usually be an offence should be punished. How is anyone to know?


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Nearly everyone says VAR was right, but the rule is wrong. They are mistaken. VAR, like almost everybody else, misinterpreted the rule
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