Contact was always likely to be the hardest judgment call for remote officials in a contact sport in the VAR age.
How much contact is too much? And what feel can you possibly have for the beat of a physical contest from a windowless room near Heathrow, poring over replays in super slow-motion?
You can forgive Wolves boss Gary O’Neil for being confused. One imperceptible nudge from Fabio Silva’s shin on the back of George Baldock’s leg and it’s a penalty. One running leap by Andre Onana to crash into Sasa Kalajdzic and it isn’t.
Go back to the introduction of VAR in 2019 and the overarching desire, especially when it came to contract, was to leave as much as possible to those on the pitch, but this was soon pulled out of shape.
If that’s not clear and obvious what is, demanded TV pundits, in their impossible quest for consistency, and the best intentions quickly unravelled.
Sheffield United were given a penalty for Fabio Silva’s challenge on George Baldock
Wolves manager Gary O’Neil was left frustrated by the decisions made by the officials
More intervention. More looking at the monitors. Less intervention. More power back to those on the pitch.
We have now reached the point where officials seem a little lost, devoid of confidence, even.
They are making decisions, or not making them in some cases, in the hope VAR will come to the rescue if they are wrong.
Professional footballers are competitive animals. If there is an advantage to steal they steal it, whether it be a quick free-kick or a throw-in from the wrong place in a training game, or falling over for a penalty in the last minute of a cup final.
If they detect uncertainty, if they think referees are weak, lost in the maze of technology, they will be looking to make that work in their favour.
On Saturday, Sheffield United won their first game of the season and overall were probably worth the win, but they actually won because Baldock had the presence of mind to stick a boot down in front of Silva as he tried to kick the ball.
Silva detected the risk and pulled out of the kick, but a fraction too late, touched Baldock and over he went. Oliver Norwood scored the penalty and Wolves lost the point they thought they had.
O’Neil’s fury was understandable as a week earlier, a very similar falling down routine by Fabian Schar helped Newcastle turn defeat into a draw at Molineux.
It is as if at certain stages of the game, or in certain areas of the pitch, football has become entirely non-contact and players can draw fouls as they do in basketball. How are you supposed to defend properly without making contact?
Wolves’ Sasa Kalajdzic (right) spent much of the first half against Sheffield United falling over
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I’ve never had more sympathy with the officials. We seem to have reached a stage where every player on the pitch is out to deceive them.
Wolves were at it at Bramall Lane, too. Kalajdzic spent most of the first half falling over in search of what other sports might call better field position. Hwang Hee-chan was the same. Sheffield United did it to waste time at Tottenham this season.
Full backs defending in their own corner will regularly fall down to win a free-kick rather than play their way out. It is noticeable this season how referees in UEFA competitions refuse to award cheap free-kicks like these.
Feigning head injuries has become part of the repertoire for those trying to stop a dangerous counter-attack. Referees must err on the side of caution and the players know it.
When Spurs were down to 10 men and defending a 1-0 lead at Luton, Pedro Porro played a poor pass out of defence, straight to an opponent. His reaction was to pretend he had pulled a hamstring. When his team won the ball back he got straight up and carried on.
This is not another attack on VAR, but this is football in the VAR age — and frankly it is becoming quite unpalatable.
Full circle for Pompey boss
It is one year since John Mousinho made his final appearance as a player in the first round of the FA Cup when he did his bit to help Oxford win at Woking, and the Portsmouth head coach marked the anniversary by falling victim to a giant-killing.
It is all part of the learning curve for the youngest boss in League One. The 37-year-old was, by his own admission, a ‘left-field appointment’ when he landed the Pompey job in January, but he has made a brilliant start, top of the table and unbeaten since March.
Under their US owners, hopes are high and eyes are on a return to the Championship for the first time since 2012.
Mousinho was aware of the expectations long before joining children to bake cupcakes as part of the EFL Week of Action, when all 72 clubs highlight the work they do in communities up and down the country.
‘The short to medium term goal is to get back in the Championship,’ he said. ‘Then there’s a recent history of the club in the Premier League and our owners are willing to invest to get back to that level.
Portsmouth boss John Mousinho saw his side lose to Chesterfield in the FA Cup
‘They are incredibly ambitious but they want to do it the right way, where spending is sustainable. For all the years in the Premier League and winning the FA Cup, they never owned their own training ground. Now we do and we’re trying to build on it.’
The 2008 FA Cup winners can now concentrate on the league after they were beaten in front of more than 1,500 travelling fans by National League leaders Chesterfield yesterday.
All will be forgiven if Mousinho can win promotion though.
Portsmouth Under-18s suffer FA Youth Cup shock
Pompey’s Under-18s were also caught in an upset in the FA Youth Cup last week, knocked out by Eastleigh.
Elsewhere in the competition, Fylde sprung a surprise by beating Doncaster.
Joe Day is an FA Cup hero
Joe Day made his claim to be one of the heroes of the FA Cup first round by helping Yeovil beat Gateshead, despite three days in hospital on a drip last week after a spider bite near an ear became infected. Day, on loan from Newport, wore Petr Cech-style headgear to protect the wound.
Joe Day helped Yeovil overcome Gateshead despite being in hospital on a drip last week
Swindon owner issues statement after defeat
Swindon Town’s embarrassing 7-4 defeat at home to non-league Aldershot in the FA Cup prompted a long statement from owner Clem Morfuni.
Meanwhile their neighbours, Swindon Supermarine of the Southern League Premier South, let in four at Basingstoke, taking their total conceded to 43 in 14 games.
Strong Chelsea presence in England U17 squad
England’s 21-man squad for the Under 17 World Cup, which starts in Indonesia on Friday, has six players from Chelsea including goalkeeper Teddy Curd, who is on loan at Hashtag United in the Isthmian League.
Among the USA squad is Liverpool striker Keyrol Figueroa, son of former Wigan defender Maynor, who won a record 181 caps for Honduras and finished his playing career in MLS for Colorado, Dallas and Houston.
The 17-year-old started in the Dallas youth ranks before joining Liverpool in the Under-14 age group.
Liverpool prospect Keyrol Figueroa is in the USA squad for the Under-17 World Cup
Gunners lack direction!
While Mikel Arteta suffered a VAR meltdown in the north, Arsenal’s Under-18s were having trouble with the sat nav in the south.
The bus driver took a wrong turn off the M25 on the way to Brighton and ended up deep in Hampshire before anyone realised, by which time it was too late to make the lunchtime kick-off and the game was postponed.
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