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video assistant referee makes a rude entrance to the English Premier League


Referee Mike Dean checks a decision from VAR during the English Premier League match between West Ham and Manchester City at London Stadium.

The video assistant referee, or VAR, makes its debut in the English Premier League this season, and though the season’s first match Friday night didn’t require any video intervention, one match Saturday morning needed a healthy dose.

Officials reviewed three plays during Manchester City’s visit to West Ham United, disallowing one goal, allowing another and ordering a retake of a penalty. The result was a whole lot of standing around, but no change in the outcome.

City, the reigning English champion, still won, 5-0. One of the disallowed goals was striker Raheem Sterling’s. He still finished with a hat trick.

The first review, which came in the 55th minute, wiped out a tap-in from Gabriel Jesus because Sterling, who fed him the ball, was found to be offside when he ran in behind the West Ham back line.

But was he?

Offside is judged by an attacker’s chest: is Sterling’s behind the chest of the deepest defender when the ball is played?

In this case, it’s hard to tell. Is Sterling farther forward, or is he just leaning? Is that red line VAR uses to determine his location measuring from the edge of his torso, or from his shoulder? Does the West Ham United player’s lean help or hurt Sterling’s cause? How much time are we willing to spend debating these questions?

The goal would have made the score 3-0. Instead is subdued City’s attack for about 20 minutes before the champions again found their form, and VAR again wanted to have a closer look at Sterling.

He made a 25-yard run off the ball straight through the center of the West Ham defense and Riyad Mahrez flicked a pass over the defense and on to his foot. Sterling was all alone with West Ham keeper Łukasz Fabiański at the 6-yard box, and parachuted a volley over the keeper and into the net.

But was Sterling offside this time, too?

Quite possibly. On NBC’s first replay, he looks to be a full step past the last defender when Mahrez’s ball is played. Match referee Mike Dean stopped play to allow the VAR folks to ask some questions. They decided not to change Dean’s conclusion.

But City wasn’t done scoring and the VAR officials weren’t done reviewing the action. After Mahrez was fouled in the 18-yard box in the 83rd minute, Dean awarded a penalty.

VAR didn’t need to take a look at that play, but wanted to review the ensuing one, when Fabiański saved Sergio Aguero’s attempt from the penalty spot.

During a penalty, the keeper is required to keep one foot on the goal line until the ball is struck, and Fabiański appeared to launch himself into the air before Aguero made contact with the ball.

VAR came back with that decision, and found another violation. Players from either team (save for the kick-taker and keeper) are required to stand outside the 18-yard box until the ball is struck. West Ham’s Declan Rice ran into the box early, a foul called “encroachment,” which allowed City to retake the penalty.

This time, Aguero shot the other direction and scored.

Before VAR came to England, these types of infractions frequently went uncalled. It’s so hard to tell, especially in soccer where there is a single referee, if a keeper gets extra space to defend a penalty or if players encroach into the box a split second too early.

It was part of the sportsmanship of the game that players didn’t try to get away with too much, and referees, unless the violations were egregious, let plays go. Think about a lane violation on a free throw in the NBA: they happen frequently, but how often are they called? Rarely.

But VAR means the start of a new paradigm in British soccer, where the eye in the sky tends not to miss a thing. Except for those offside calls. Those are tricky.

At least Sterling didn’t seem to mind.

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