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VAR can screw up soccer games almost as well as humans now

Welcome to soccer, the sport where man and machine find themselves deadlocked in battle to prove who or what is the bigger agent of chaos.

Hello! Welcome to another episode of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s long-running situation comedy about Soccer City, and the lives and loves of the Socceristas who live there.

No, I don’t want no subs

So, how super was your Sunday? Maybe you got out and about: ran some errands, saw some friends, took a bit of time to relax. That sounds pretty super to TN.

Or maybe you were seduced by the siren song of English football, and decided to spend all afternoon sat in a dingy cellar bar watching the guaranteed goalfest of Manchester United against Liverpool, followed by the certain thriller of Chelsea against Manchester City. Because that’s what TN did. And that’s why TN sent the following telegram as the end of extra time at Wembley approached:


For once, our telegrams were answered. Not in the form of a goal, oh no. Nothing so boring. Nothing so mundane. Instead, we got Kepa Arrizabalaga refusing to accept his substitution by manager Maurizio Sarri, which was in many ways far better than a late winner. We got something fun to watch and we got penalties. Result.

It was a deliciously discombobulating moment. Most of the unexpected things that happen on a football pitch are, however delightful in themselves, contained within the boundaries of the possible. Eden Hazard suddenly cutting inside, beating three, and whipping the ball into the top corner is thrilling. Maybe even surprising. But not weird.

A goalkeeper telling his manager where he can stick his substitution, however. That’s the good stuff. Of course, since the event, both the player and manager have made efforts to present what happened as a misunderstanding. The cramp had vanished! Willy Caballero was no longer required! Maybe this is even true.

It doesn’t matter. Once the weirdness begins to flow, any reasonable explanation can only ever seem feeble and faintly inappropriate. Compromise simply will not do. As the world watched and giggled, each antagonist had exactly one moment to take ownership of the situation, to emerge as the hero of the situation. And they both bottled it.

Sarri went first, almost literally. As Arrizabalaga wagged his finger, as the fourth official looked around blankly, and as Gianfranco Zola pottered about trying to calm things down, something snapped in Chelsea’s manager. He unzipped his top and he marched out of his technical area and he got to the doors of the tunnel … and then he turned around and came back again.

Had he carried on through those doors, out into the north London air, he would have won an important victory. Sure, he’d have lost his job, and Chelsea would likely have lost the shootout, but he’d have won something much more important: his freedom.

With one eloquent, utterly relatable gesture — this lot are unmanageable, I’m done — he’d have neatly extricated himself from the whole toxic morass of Chelsea, of the Premier League, of modern football as a whole. But instead he turned back: into the indignity, into the mess.

Would it have been the right thing to do? In the professional sense, no. But it would have been heroically incorrect, and gorgeous in its humanity, and TN would have stood up and applauded.

Anyway, Sarri stayed. So did Arrizabalaga, legs apparently uncramped and neck thoroughly brassed. You knew the moment was coming, of course. He’s going to win this. And sure enough, along it came. Sergio Agüero’s penalty was weak and poorly directed, and Arrizabalaga dived the right way, and got his hand to it, and … in it went anyway.

Had Arrizabalaga kept this out, and had Chelsea gone on to win, he’d have emerged bathed in the glorious light of righteousness. Perhaps he’d have been magnanimous towards his broken, defeated manager; perhaps he’d have gone full I’m Your Manager Now, You Are Substituted, I Am Substituting You. Either way, he’d have been fine. Nothing covers up insubordination like silverware.

Instead, we have this muddled compromise, where both parties are diminished by their double failures. The failure to do the sensible thing, and then the failure to go big enough with the silly thing. One looks like a brat, the other a lame duck. And Chelsea look ridiculous, though that was probably happening anyway. Hey, at least they didn’t lose 6-0 again. That’s progress, right?

Rise of the robots

As football moves steadily into its VAR-tian future, it is perhaps time to take stock, and admit that the sceptics have been proved both right and spectacularly wrong. Some predicted momentum-sapping delays, and they were correct. Others wondered if slow-motion might colour decisions, and that seems to have been a fair point as well.

And some predicted a world without controversial decisions to talk about, and oh, how magnificently incorrect they were.

Because VAR had itself quite the weekend. In Spain, we discovered that replays are no impediment to Real Madrid getting their way against all reasonable interpretations of reality. In fairness to Casemiro, we don’t know if he was suddenly taken by one of those weird cold shudders that everybody gets from time to time. Or a really big sneeze. Or perhaps he saw a rare butterfly on the ground in front of him, and took the only course of action.

Doesn’t much look like he was fouled, though. Bit odd that he got the penalty.

Elsewhere, over in Italy, Fiorentina and Internazionale played out a 101-minute six-goal slugfest that featured more replays than it did actual football. Almost. But though it was slow, VAR was just about on the right side of every decision, until the very end. With Inter teetering on the edge of a valuable away win, the referee awarded a penalty to Fiorentina.

It looked very soft. It was very soft. VAR asked him to check again. So he did.

And he did.

And he did ... for almost five whole minutes. Then, to almost universal bafflement and scorn, he stuck with his original decision. Up stepped Jordan Veretout. In went the ball. Off went everybody’s heads.

It appears that far from taking football into a brave new land of sanitised correctness, VAR and its attendant processes have created new opportunities for people to make mistakes, irritate the wider world, and give Real Madrid points they don’t really deserve. This is, of course, the entire point of football, and TN would like to formally congratulate our new robot overlords for getting the hang of things so quickly.