VAR Turned A Great Match Into The Worst And Weirdest Game Of The Season
4:23 PM EST on November 7, 2023
For about 20 minutes there, Monday's Tottenham-Chelsea clash looked like it might be a special one. Tottenham bounded out of the gate harnessing all the momentum the team has built up during what has been probably the Premier League's most impressive start to the season. Though Chelsea couldn't contain Spurs' powerful attacks, the Blues were able to bomb forward in the other direction with their own fleet of speedsters. Mix all of that with the White Hart Lane crowd's rocking energy, and it made for a positively electric atmosphere right from the opening whistle.
Tottenham drew first blood. In the 7th minute, Dejan Kulusevski whipped in a shot that caromed off Levi Colwill's back and bounced past Chelsea's wrong-footed keeper. The already bouncing crowd went wild. In the 11th minute, Chelsea attacked after a bad Tottenham turnover and sent Nicolas Jackson clear though into the Spurs penalty area. The Gambian striker sidestepped one sliding tackle, cut past another defender, but saw his snapped shot saved. It was a golden opportunity, but it went begging.
Two minutes later, it was Tottenham's turn again. A wide-open Destiny Udogie received a pass near the halfway line, where he knocked the ball down the flank to an even wider-open Brennan Johnson. Johnson approached the ball, sized up the situation ahead of him, and hit a perfect pass into the penalty box to meet an onrushing Son Heung-min. With just a tap of his foot Son redirected Johnson's pass into the net. The crowd went wild again, but only for a moment, as everyone soon saw that the line judge was standing there with his flag raised. After a two-minute VAR review—maybe the first time anyone could take a breath from the action-packed opening stretch—the line judge's offside call was confirmed.
The match continued apace. In the 21st minute, Reece James booted a ball with the outside of his right foot up to Raheem Sterling, who was already bearing down on the Tottenham defense from his wide left position. Sterling carried the ball down the wing and entered the penalty box, where he cracked a cross-shot. The ball ricocheted off Tottenham defender Pedro Porro, then hit Sterling. The rebound fell kindly into Sterling's stride. Sterling collected the ball, ran through the confused mess of bodies ahead of him, and hit a shot that bounced off Tottenham keeper Guglielmo Vicario's chest and looped into the goal. The majority of White Hart Lane went silent, except for the sizable and loud contingent of Chelsea fans who'd made the short trip to see this London derby in person. The pace and intensity of the play, the energy of the crowd—this was English soccer at its best.
But then, everything went to hell—which in soccer is a three-letter word. VAR took a look at Sterling's goal to determine whether he'd handled the ball after it deflected off of Porro. In addition, VAR went back to look if a coming together that occurred in the buildup might be a red card offense. After another two minutes of review, Sterling's goal was ruled out, and no red card was given.
Losing four whole minutes of play, in a game that outside of that had been so exciting, was aggravating on its own. But it was only the beginning of a match that, by the end, would become entirely defined by long, strange, and match-ruining interventions and delays from the scourge that is VAR.
About five minutes after Sterling's disallowed goal, Chelsea again had the ball inside the Tottenham penalty area. Sterling took a couple touches inside the box before falling over and losing the ball due to a Tottenham defender's challenge. Enzo Fernández tried to pick up the rebound before he too fell over due to a Tottenham defender's challenge. With both teams scrambling to collect the loose ball, Cole Palmer eventually got it and laid off a pass to Moisés Caicedo, who thumped a first-time shot into the bottom of the goal. "One-one!" match commentator Jon Champion exclaimed. "And this time, no arguments!" Not so fast, my friend!
Out of nowhere, the referee blew his whistle while Chelsea's players celebrated. The camera cut to the line judge, who, as Champion correctly put it, had raised his flag "way after" Caicedo's shot had found the net. In came VAR to dine on the feast of shit the officials had laid before it. First, the video team had to look at Caicedo's shot. It turns out that Jackson was standing in between Caicedo's shot and the goal, and because Jackson's heel was offside, the goal was disallowed for interference. Next, VAR took aim at the earlier couple challenges that sent Sterling and Fernández to the ground. Sterling hadn't actually been touched, so no foul there. Fernández, however, had taken a pretty gnarly kick to the shin from Cristian Romero. Thus, after five minutes of delay, the referee finally came out with the ruling: penalty to Chelsea, red card to Romero.
If the verve of the match's first 20 minutes displayed much of what makes English soccer great, the tedium of that five-minute stoppage in play on the penalty showed much of what makes VAR awful. At a certain point, I don't even care what the "right" call is anymore. Was Jackson offside? Was he interfering? Was Sterling fouled? Was Romero's challenge worthy of a red? Technically, VAR probably got all of those decisions correct. But who gives a shit! One hundred times out of one hundred, I'd take a bad call, made in live time by the referees on the pitch and that keeps play moving, over five minutes of nothing that completely kills a match's momentum.
This is one of the major flaws inherent to VAR. Soccer's fluidity is a huge part of what makes the game what it is. Maintaining the integrity of that flow is far more important than the obstructive and fundamentally illusionary standard of "correctness" VAR saddles the game with. In a very real sense, rare, wrong, immediate calls of the old system are much better than even the right calls VAR provides. (And that's even before taking into account the now well-established fact that VAR doesn't even get it right as often as it should.)
All those stoppages up to Romero's red card would've been enough to make the match a memorable example of why VAR sucks. What followed for the rest of the match turned it into a truly grotesque and unforgettable testament to the ways the new system has poisoned the sport. In the 37th minute, Jackson converted a Sterling cross to give what apparently would've been a 2-1 lead. But after Jackson had hit the net, and the first pulses of Lily White dejection and Blue joy had rippled through the stadium, the line judge raised his flag for offside. This may not have been a VAR stoppage itself, but it was VAR that led to the line judge not raising his flag for the obvious offside earlier, and it is VAR that creates these types of situations, which have hollowed the visceral experience of seeing a goal.
In light of the many breaks in play during the first half, the referees signaled a whopping 12 minutes of stoppage time. In the 11th minute of that stoppage time, VAR intervened again, halting play to review an aerial challenge in which Reece James's elbow looked like it might've hit Destiny Udogie's face. After about a minute of analyzing the video, VAR deemed it not worth a red card. Blessedly, the referee did not add that minute to the already mountainous amount of stoppage time.
It is true that the classic match we seemed to have been in for at the outset was totally ruined by VAR's stoppages and Romero's red. However, the match did in fact become entertaining again in the second half, if in a deranged sort of way. In the 55th minute, Tottenham's Udogie got a second yellow card for a bad tackle on Sterling. That reduced Spurs to nine men with more than 30 minutes left to play. It immediately became fascinating to see if Tottenham could keep the score level with only nine players out there.
Tottenham added to the intrigue by coming out with an unbelievably, psychotically high defensive line after losing Udogie. The line's height meant both teams' formations often resembled two pancakes smushed together at the halfway line. Chelsea was constantly breaking behind the back line and running clear through on goal. But the thing was, Tottenham's psychotic plan was working! This video demonstrates well how Tottenham managed to frustrate Chelsea even while conceding so much space behind:
Chelsea eventually won the match with a lopsided 4-1 scoreline, but it was actually much closer than the margin might indicate. Jackson finally scored the go-ahead goal in the 75th minute (confirmed after another two-minute VAR review), but Tottenham stayed within striking distance for almost the entire second half.
Just minutes after Jackson gave Chelsea the lead, Eric Dier put the ball in the back of the net for Tottenham. Right as the crowd started to go nuts, the line judge raised his flag. After another two minutes of review, VAR finally confirmed that Dier had indeed been offside. Later, Son came within a whisker of equalizing three minutes into second-half stoppage time, only for Robert Sánchez to make an important save. A minute later, Jackson got his second goal to put the match away. Three minutes after that, Jackson scored again to seal for himself the least impressive hat trick I can remember. (It was largely Jackson's misfired shots and poorly timed runs that kept the game close for so long.)
The delay-laden second half had nine minutes of stoppage time. By the end of the bulging 111 minutes of play, I was downright delirious. I found myself cackling after each play that might even possibly elicit another VAR break. I was positive that every "goal" scored would eventually be chalked off. My only solid belief at that time was that whatever I'd thought I'd seen would, on replay, be proven not to have actually happened. NBC Sports's commentary team seemed to feel similarly. A large part of their analysis centered on how confused and exasperated all the stoppages and reviews had left them.
It would be too strong to say that VAR has broken the sport. But for at least one match, it certainly had broken my brain. After further review, I'd like to have my old game back.