VAR: Offside is an objective decision, not a 'clear and obvious error'
There has been a big misconception this week around Video Assistant Referees (VAR) and the offside rule.
The drama centred around Juan Mata's disallowed goal in Manchester United's FA Cup tie with Huddersfield, with the VAR ruling that the Spaniard's kneecap was just in front of the last defender. We won't get much closer calls.
Most of the postmatch discussion has concentrated on whether the VAR should have been used. But what are the key issues here?
Offside is an objective decision
This is a crucial point, and why those shouting that the incident was not "a clear and obvious error" are arguing over an irrelevance.
The "clear and obvious error" consideration within VAR will only be used for subjective decisions -- penalties, fouls, possible red cards. They are decisions which are open to interpretation, and they are also the calls that the VAR can ask the match referee to look at again on his pitchside monitor.
But offside is different. You are offside or you are not. It's a factual decision based on the position of, usually, two players on the pitch. The same goes for the ball going out of play, it is objective and will never be judged on being "a clear and obvious error."
The only thing that can be subjective about an offside decision is whether a goalkeeper's line of sight has been impeded.
VAR got the offside call on Mata right. It's as black and white as that. Whether it is in the spirit of the game is a different question.
A technical issue led to an incorrect graphic being provided by Hawk-Eye to @btsportfootball last night. To confirm, the #VAR saw the correct image with the correct lines to make the decision. This was a case of the wrong image being provided to the broadcaster and we apologise. pic.twitter.com/QqbAWVfbi1— Hawk-Eye Innovations (@Hawkeye_view) February 18, 2018
So it's a bit like line calls in tennis?
Yep, that's right. In tennis the ball is either in or out. In football you are either offside or you are not.
Shouldn't the advantage go to the attacking side?
Yes, and that is already built into the workings of VAR, as you can see from this detailed document compiled by the Dutch FA.
This is the important section, down on page 46: "ARs [assistant referees] must ALWAYS MAKE A DECISION -- there is no option to say "I don't know so I will look at the video." However, if a player is within the penalty area, about to score and there is real doubt about offside (position or offence), delaying the flag signal may prevent a major error which can not be corrected if play has been stopped."
So assistant referees have been told to let the play go -- but that they should still raise the flag if they think it is offside after the ball has gone into the net.
That gives the attacking team the chance to complete the phase of play, when usually the assistant referee would automatically raise his flag for offside upon the attacking player becoming active.
But should VAR work this way?
Right now offside is an absolute decision, there is no grey area.
Several major leagues in Europe, including the Bundesliga and Serie A, have had VAR throughout the season and have also seen very tight offside calls. In Serie A in September, this Nikola Kalinic goal for AC Milan vs. Udinese was ruled out because Kalinic's toes were ahead of the last defenders.
Kalinic's boot end is playing him offside? I still can't grasp this pic.twitter.com/l7DBCNLsd0— The AC Milan Offside (@SBNRossonero) September 17, 2017
If we're going to get into the realms of a decision being too close to call, then VAR will have to adopt a similar method to cricket whereby there is a margin of error for the "umpire's call," or "referee's call," where an offside is only given if the decision isn't a tight one.
Do we want to see goals like Mata's chalked off?
Surely no one does, even supporters of the team who benefited from the decision.
The VAR lines were squiggly!
Don't let teething problems with the link up between the VAR and broadcasters cloud the situation. VAR certainly isn't perfect at all right now, but situations like this shouldn't be used against VAR long-term during the testing phase.
Mata was onside anyway -- the defender's arm was in front!
Arms and hands are not considered for offside -- this includes both the defender and the attacker. Thus, Mata was offside by the letter of the law.
How do we judge when the ball has been played?
That is the first contact by the player making the pass forward. Not a couple of frames further on when the ball leaves the foot.
Is VAR going to get better on offside?
It should be much improved at the World Cup. FIFA put out a tender to find a provider for "virtual -- calibrated -- offside lines." The aim is "to be able to instantly (an acceptable delay of a few seconds may be discussed) provide an offside line to the VAR that truly reflects the player's position in relation to the goal line. This virtual line will be superimposed on broadcasting images from one main and possibly several other (predetermined) angles.
"The provider will also be required to depict one or two lines generated from tracking data (provided by a selected provider) that should, at all times, provide the VAR with guidance on whether an offside position exists or not. For the avoidance of doubt, the tracking data will be used as an indicator but the lines showing the last player must be manually adjusted by the referee to reflect the true position."
This is, in effect, what happened for the Mata goal. But more like being done on Microsoft Paint, leading to an apology from the technology company, Hawk-Eye.
FIFA is due to announced the winning bidder for World Cup finals by Feb. 28.
Dale Johnson has been an editor and journalist at ESPN for 18 years. You can follow him on Twitter @dalejohnsonESPN.