The Swings and Roundabouts of VAR

Online Editorial: Arsenal scrape vital win at home to West Ham thanks to the new technology

The Swings and Roundabouts of VAR

Lacazette's goal is belatedly awarded

On Thursday evening last week, Arsenal invited some representative supporters (mainly drawn from the Fans Forum, but also my good self) to a meeting about VAR. The Premier League were engaging the fanbase by holding a series of such meetings with supporters at its clubs, with former referee Chris Foy explaining VAR and the Premier League’s supporter liaison manager Tommy Guthrie (or at least I think it was – truth to tell I am relying on this report from a similar meeting held at Wolves for his name) taking note of the feedback. We were shown the videos of a variety of incidents, and heard some of the comms between the referee and Stockley Park, as Foy explained the reason for the decisions awarded. The selection of clips were tailored in places for the attendees, so that we had a look at Harry Kane being denied a penalty for going down too easily when challenged by Sokratis in the North London derby earlier this season, and Aubameyang’s red card at Palace. At the end of the presentation, a vote was taken. Would those present prefer to return to the pre-VAR days at the start of next season with no decisions being checked, or continue with VAR after this campaign on the understanding it is a system in development and will improve? The vote was roughly two thirds in favour of scrapping it. Arsenal have obviously been denied what appeared to be winning goals against Spurs and Palace at home this season, thus losing four points as decisions were overturned.

I wonder if that vote would have been any different if it was taken in the moment after lineswoman Sian Massey’s offside flag for Alex Lacazette’s 78th minute goal was corrected? On this occasion, VAR worked in Arsenal’s favour. Ultimately, whatever fans say, it’s here to stay for better or worse, and the matchday experience is certainly different, with the peaks and troughs of the game being tempered by its use. All the Premier League can hope to do is improve it.

It was certainly a game Arsenal needed three points from if they are to make up the gap to finish the season in a Champions League qualifying spot, which feels a little more possible as points continue to be dropped by the gaggle of teams between fourth and twelfth place, any of whom could make it if they can put a sequence of wins together. Arsenal have won their last three league matches (Newcastle, Everton and West Ham) since the draw at Burnley, and that run has hauled them back into contention, but they are reliant on ensuring they achieve six points against Brighton and Norwich. If the club can take anything from Wednesday’s match at the Etihad, it will be a huge bonus, but realistically, it is the other fixtures between now and the 17th May the club will be looking at.

It is all about results now, and on performance, the match was fairly even, and visiting fans will have thought they deserved all three points. West Ham defended well and should have scored from a number of excellent opportunities, but fortune favoured Arteta’s side yesterday. It is a concern that, with the array of attacking talent at his disposal, the team struggle to create many clear cut opportunities when the opposition is organised and set. So we see a lot of possession, a lot of endless arcs from flank to flank going through the midfield. I’ve not see the stats, but surely Dani Ceballos had more touches than any player in yesterday’s game, although when Arsenal did get into some kind of a groove in the second half once the game became more stretched, he was running the show.

Ultimately though, right now, it doesn’t look too much different from Unai Emery. What has changed is that when the team do not have the ball, the organisation is better, the lines clearer. That didn’t prevent West Ham creating opportunities though. So, good as the win was, you have to wonder if the team can keep getting away with this approach, when what’s really needed is to use the opportunities to catch the opposition flat footed. These generally come when an attack on Bernd Leno’s goal ends up in the keeper’s hands, but he is too slow to release the ball. We end up with a short pass to one of the defenders, the opposition press and quite often, the ball ends up being hoofed out anyway. Better to get it upfield much earlier and ask questions. Leno only has to find a player quickly who can then play a speculative forward pass to exploit the spaces in the opposition half.

But such percentage football has no place in Arteta’s philosophy, so possession is king. Patience, probing, waiting for the moment. Yet, when the defenders have the ball deep after Leno has passed it out, it’s inviting too much pressure. We have to assume this is going to continue, but it really needs working on.

In reflecting on VAR, it should be recalled that it was used when Lacazette was in a wrestling hold after he came on in the second half and the ball was crossed to him in the penalty area. Why that wasn't given is a bit of a mystery. Lacazette had replaced Eddie Nketiah and there were some interesting selections in the starting eleven. Sokratis kept his place at right back with Hector Bellerin on the bench. Pablo Mari also stayed in the starting eleven, with Mustafi presumably not fully recovered from his injury in spite of reports otherwise. Of course, with an option to buy, Arteta needs to have a look at Mari, and although as a team, Arsenal allowed too many chances, Mari himself had a good game.

I imagine Nketiah is getting a number of starts because Arteta has decisions to make about his forward options. It looks inevitable that Aubameyang will depart in the summer unless the club agree to pay him the reported £300k a week he is asking. So with Martinelli and Lacazette both players who can start at centre forward, if Nketiah makes enough of a case, you could see Lacazette also being sold to free up funds for players Arteta wants to buy. It would be nice to think Arsenal might be of interest to Dortmund’s Erling Haaland with his £63 million release clause, but it’s unlikely they can match the wages other clubs will offer the striker. So we may see Nketiah and Martinelli next season instead of Lacazette and Aubameyang, especially if the Gunners fail to make the Champions League.

On one level, it’s a risky policy to play a forward waiting to see if he produces, but Lacazette’s contribution coming off the bench saved the day. Arteta has put together a run of eight matches without defeat in the League, and that isn’t purely down to fortune. They certainly needed it yesterday though. Wednesday evening will provide an interesting measure of the progress the new head coach has made.


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    Mar 11, 2020, 10:59 #116632

    STOP PRESS: A suggestion elsewhere, of great merit imo, that the PL season should now be abandoned. Next season's Champions League places would instead be allocated to teams in alphabetical order. What's not to like?

  2. markymark

    Mar 11, 2020, 7:12 #116631

    Arsenal players now in self isolation so game is off !

  3. Exiled in Pt

    Mar 09, 2020, 12:20 #116630

    Totally agree with you Ron on all the points you have made , Wednesday is a massive task but it is a must win to seriously be in with a chance of getting near 4th place . Could be a good time to play them hopefully.

  4. Moscowgooner

    Mar 09, 2020, 12:06 #116629

    ‘Ultimately, whatever fans say, it’s here to stay for better or worse’ - I don’t get this; if VAR is not enhancing the match-viewing experience, why stick with it? I am not sure that any amount of tweaking and fine-tuning can make the use of VAR superior to what went before. After all professional football in England thrived for over 130 years before its introduction and dissatisfaction with refereeing decisions was always accepted as a legitimate part of the supporting experience. In this context who cares if we benefited from VAR on Saturday; in the broader context we have all suffered as football supporters from its introduction.

  5. GoonerRon

    Mar 09, 2020, 10:20 #116628

    It’s all about results at this stage of the season and I’d have taken a win and clean sheet beforehand, although the last few games has seen us concede bigger chances than previous matches which isn’t ideal. With Chelsea and Man U both winning (plus me being doubtful that 5th will give CL football) I think Wednesday’s game in hand is must win for us. No idea how we actually do that though - over to you Mikel!


    Mar 08, 2020, 19:50 #116627

    I do think the current pessimism on most sites is over the top & very disrespectful to West Ham who were pretty good - after all, apart from the top 2 sides, this is the most "even" league I can remember in years. I have no problem with the cagey possession based Arteta philosophy which worked pretty well for Pep until Mikel left! And I am sure that our philanthropic Owner will be happy to stump up the substantial £££ to strengthen the squad in the summer?!!

  7. Paulward

    Mar 08, 2020, 16:40 #116626

    Not a great performance and it is worrying that we are gradually regressing into the shoddy defensive displays that became the norm under Wenger and Emery..... don’t be surprised if we take a bit of a hammering on Wednesday.

  8. John F

    Mar 08, 2020, 15:23 #116625

    There is a lot of talk about games being played behind closed doors due to the Coronavirus but what happens if a player gets it will the whole squad have to be quarantined for however long it takes.This would cause huge problems with the fixture list as one week it could be Arsenal then the next Everton and so on.

  9. John F

    Mar 08, 2020, 14:47 #116624

    Pleased with the win but that was a poor game.Slow side to side passing with little penetration When West Ham had the ball they broke with speed and caused us problems in contrast we took our time passing sideways allowing West Ham to settle back into a defensive line.I half expected to see Wenger in the dug out as this is what his last few seasons was like.pass,pass,pass lose the ball then the other team go on a fast counter attack.It was a good job Leno was on form.

  10. ArsenalMagna

    Mar 08, 2020, 11:42 #116623

    On the match yesterday: I only saw the highlights, but don't expect much more than us grinding out wins for the rest of the season. Only a summer break will get rid of the fatigue that has set in. Luckily, Ceballos and Pepe are looking fresher, having not played so many games. On VAR: it's the quality of the refereeing that is the problem. It's always been awful in England - how was VAR going to change that? Look at EL and CL games if you want to see quality refereeing - there are far less controversial VAR incidents to mention. Also, I prefer European refs not allowing such physicality; the reason the Laca and Callum Wilson decisions weren't given yesterday is because physicality is a much more grey area in English football than others. VAR needs to revise its offside rule and the handball laws, and get better refs working it, and it will be fine. On the team/transfers: Haland's release clause doesn't activate till 2022 from what I've read. I think we're close to a complete squad, in truth: we need a DM (Partey or Ndidi would be great there), a box-to-box midfielder (Ceballos would be perfect - have always rated him), a 10 (Lacazette would be great there). Auba will be sold in the summer... we could try buying a top quality striker and letting Martinelli, Saka and M-N share the left-wing responsibilities. We could probably raise enough to buy Richarlison if we made the CL.