Enraged by Andy Robertson? Furious at player behaviour? A major cause is VAR | Soccer
The technology makes referees look weak and persuadable and has affected the behaviour of players, coaches and the officials themselves
It is always vital not to bend too far with the weather, to dodge the squalls and thunderclaps; and above all to be wary of the worst and most deathly storm of all, the confected media storm.
Does the Premier League really have a problem with “player behaviour”? It has been tempting given the heat, the chat, the clipped-up punditry faces prophesying the decline of all that is fine and noble, like Evelyn Waugh bemoaning the death of the carpeted bathroom, to file the current rage about rage alongside all the other things that have seemed, very briefly, to signal the coming of the rapture.
Spitting was a thing for a while. Entire decades were spent worrying about sex scandals (ie people having sex); about the consumer habits of wealthy young men; about Raheem Sterling’s mum’s kitchen sink. The narrative is usually the same. Footballers are dangerous avatars of moral laxity. They need to be controlled or, frankly, the lid’s coming off this thing and we’re going to have to send in the 70s policemen with batons and helmets.
The current concerns have come to a head with the entirely unacceptable, but still oddly relatable, elbow towards the face of Andrew Robertson thrown by assistant referee Constantine Hatzidakis. Elsewhere Aleksandar Mitrovic has been given an exemplary ban for threatening behaviour towards Chris Kavanagh. Various teams – Newcastle, Arsenal, Manchester United, some others – have been accused of tactically haranguing officials.
Players are not being booked or sent off any more than in any other season. But the vibe is bad. The energy is dark. There is a sense of something building. And this really does seem like more than the usual tornado in a teacup.
First, because to be an amateur official now is to expose yourself to a rage-venting pantomime of mimetic abuse. Anyone who seriously believes people at the levels below don’t absorb what they see from the professionals is living in an alternate universe.
From kids’ level to the Selkent Sunday leagues people copy boots, celebrations, tactics (“No Maximilian! Maintain the vertical transitions!”) and of course behaviour. To be a volunteer match official is be exposed now to routine toxic abuse. The game withers and dies when nobody wants to do this any more.
And second this matters at elite level because it has begun to affect the tone and texture of the spectacle. The way players act is being bent into new shapes, hugely responsive, as ever, to the gravitational forces around it. And while an elbow to the face will always have many authors, there is also a sound case for concluding that a major cause of this is VAR.
Not the frustrations of badly applied VARwhich arise alongside the routine calls to abolish it with every minor error. The issue here is the unexpectedly altered dynamic among the people at the heart of the spectacle. The cause and effect seems quite obvious here. Suddenly referees look weak. The ref has become persuadable. The ref is now a source of constant publicly corrected mistakes. Players have a feeling, either tacitly or as an explicit part of team preparation, that nothing is final, that the outcome of a game can be affected by lobbying indirectly to a higher authority, even by certain behaviour in the intervening moments while a review takes place.
At the end of which the referee has been reduced to the status of annoying and fallible middleman, the guy who gets you to the guy. What do we expect players to do in this situation? Not to seek to affect that process? This has been codified into pre-match preparation. Thomas Frank spoke recently about the plan to “front up” to the fourth official during Brentford’s game against Newcastle, to adopt, for sound tactical reasons, a more aggressive attitude in response to the high-class in-game chivvying of Jason Tindall.
If managers are literally tailoring their gameplan towards referee-baiting, the presence through VAR of a higher court of appeal has only sharpened this process. Press, push, work the margins. Refereeing has become a process, a power-play, a collision of competing versions of the truth.
Beyond these tactical elements VAR has affected the relationship between players and officials in more intangible ways. We change things by observing them – and everything is observed now, from players and officials, to officials observing players, to officials observing the observations of other officials.
You can even see this process, what we might call Howard Webb’s Uncertainty Principle, in the way referees stride to their VAR screen mid-watch, the creation of an entirely new aspect of the shared public spectacle whereby it is now necessary to watch on a screen while a man in shorts watches a screen, to decode his responses, to read his frown, the nature of his swivel back towards the pitch, the semiotics of the VAR screen ritual.
While this happens players stand close by in various attitudes, the crowd shouts and barracks, managers, who have the same clips available on their pitch-side tablets, are able to show their own reactions in real time.
Watch close up and there is a clear sense some referees are responding emotionally to this theatre, knowing what will come once they swivel back from the screen and enact their range of dramatic new arm gestures. There is a degree of observable performance relish, anticipating the roar of the crowd, the applause of the players, tailoring gestures to ride that wave. Understandably so. How can we expect those involved not to be affected by this?
What this leaves is a significantly fractured relationship, punctuated by the regular phenomenon of Howard’s Regrets, whereby Howard Webb tours the nation like a self-flagellating pilgrim monk, a giant VAR screen strapped to his back, offering penitence for the terrible things that men do. Brighton’s penalty denial. Weird goings-on at Chelsea. The inability to draw lines properly. Both sides of this flow back to the basic problems with the video system: the notion it is possible to deliver entirely “correct” refereeing of a subjective event; plus of course the fact the people applying the video tech are the same people whose mistakes made the video tech necessary in the first place. Fail again. Fail with lots of cameras.
Combining this lack of competence with a world of cameras and hidden adjudicator panels has only added a very on-trend note of conspiracy theory to the mix, a suspicion of arse-covering, closing of ranks, collegiate self-protection. The concept of the honest mistake has become obsolete. Nobody trusts anyone here. There is an idealised endgame here, where GPS and AI can combine to police offside, where VAR intervention is limited to the most basic once-a-month fodder, the secret headbutt, the key assist provided by a pitch-invading Labrador.
But this thing is out there now. Behaviour has been altered, a relationship subtly redefined. It is no surprise that in the middle of this we might begin to crash into one another, that hyped and frazzled people will tug and prod and bellow and get a little lost in the noise and the heat.
So Robertson clutches at a shirt, Hatzidakis reacts in the moment. They are both also victims in this unplanned experiment, bruised and buffeted by those strange new pressures, unintended consequences of a technology that nobody seems to be in control of right now.
#Enraged #Andy #Robertson #Furious #player #behaviour #major #VAR #Soccer, 1681416713
Leave a Comment