VAR process lacks transparency and leaves everybody guessing
LONDON -- Poor Fernando Llorente. It takes an imbroglio of extraordinary proportions to overshadow a perfect 12-minute hat trick from a striker who had previously scored twice all season. But the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) managed it.
A belated turning point in Llorente's time at Tottenham was largely forgotten amid a series of baffling VAR decisions in their 6-1 win over Rochdale in the FA Cup fifth-round replay at Wembley.
Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager, called it "embarrassing for everyone" and warned it could kill the game as we know it. Danny Rose condemned it as "a shambles." Rochdale boss Keith Hill believed it was "superb and exciting," but even he admitted there needs to be more clarity.
In the end, perhaps the most damning aspect of Wednesday's farce was that the accuracy of the VAR decisions became less relevant than the lack of transparency in the process. Several Spurs players suggested afterward that the issue was not the correctness of the calls themselves, but simply that they did not know why they had been made or what was happening.
Asked by ESPN FC if referee Paul Tierney had explained the VAR decisions, Kieran Trippier said: "He didn't really explain anything. He's speaking on his mic and you don't want to disturb him. You might get a booking if you rush up to him. You leave him to it, hope he makes the right decision and carry on with the game."
Spurs did eventually carry on, dismantling Rochdale with five second-half goals, but the ridiculous first half raised some worrying questions: Do managers, players, officials and those who report on top-level football actually know every letter of the law? And will it ever be practical to stop the flow of the game for any period of time to request a second subjective judgment call on a subjective judgement call?
The very presence of the VAR created an atmosphere of apprehension and it was hard not to greet every goal -- and there were seven to admire -- with initial hesitance after referee Tierney had belatedly ruled out Erik Lamela's close-rage finish after seven minutes. It is no wonder Pochettino said VAR could "kill the emotion" of football.
The confusion began in earnest when Lamela poked home. The Spurs fans who had made the effort in freezing temperatures celebrated with the Argentine, and it was at least 30 seconds before it became clear to the press box that the VAR had told Tierney he was reviewing the decision.
For the supporters, who did not have the benefit of TV monitors, it must have been baffling when Tierney ruled out the goal more than a minute later, after both teams had taken their places for the restart. The referee did explain the decision to some players but Lamela looked bewildered, and the media were left to guess at a foul by Llorente on Harrison McGahey and wait for information from the broadcasters to filter through.
The confusion and delays took the sting out of Spurs' attack, but the impressive Lucas Moura restored some impetus by bursting into Rochdale's box, where he collided with McGahey. Tierney waved away the penalty appeals but consulted the VAR, with replays suggesting Moura was blocked. Tierney's decision stuck, but it looked like the wrong call had been made not once, but twice.
Although Son Heung-Min gave Spurs a 23rd-minute lead, more controversy followed when Trippier was fouled. Tierney initially awarded a free kick but the VAR overruled him, awarding a penalty because the contact had continued into the penalty area. This time the delay in the decision was at least two minutes while the snow began to fall more heavily, and things got even more bizarre when Son's successful penalty was ruled out for a feint in the run-up.
It could not have been remotely clear to supporters if Tierney had spotted an infringement that would have resulted in a re-take, or a feint in the run-up, and it was equally unclear whether the referee had made the decision himself or consulted the VAR. Confusion quickly turned to anger inside the national stadium.
There was a further consultation when a rash Lamela tackle was checked and, after six minutes of stoppage time, half-time was greeted by boos. Pochettino spent some of the interval trying to make sense of the decisions on a TV monitor, but he remained none the wiser when he addressed the media afterward.
"There is a lot of work to do," he said. "Because today, every one of us was confused. This will not help the football. I am open to help and to analyse, and to make better. If we use this system, we need to be sure."
The enduring memory of this match will not Llorente punching the air in relief while the snow swirled around him, but of Tierney confusedly consulting his earpiece.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.