It was an impressively bad weekend for VAR, with game-altering decisions gone wrong in at least three matches — badly drawn offside lines denying Brighton & Hove Albion a perfectly good goal against Crystal Palace; offside lines not drawn allowing Brentford’s goal to stand against Arsenal; and of course the blatant handball not called against Tomáš Souček in our game against West Ham. All three games ended in 1-1 draws.
PGMOL have admitted to and apologized for the first two already, chalking it up to human error. That’s not great, but it is what it is. A system (still) relying on human operators will necessarily induce some human error, and it was never meant to be perfect in the first place (though it was sold as a perfect solution, which is part of the problem).
PGMOL have not admitted an error for the non-call on Souček, and that’s in-part because it’s a subjective call, with the current iteration of the forever-badly written handball law allowing for a, dare I say, loophole.
Let’s let Souček himself explain, jokes about goalkeepers and making saves aside.
“No, it wasn’t [a penalty] because I just fell on the floor and I know the rules that if I am on the floor and I touch the floor with my hand, even if the ball touches it, it is not handball, so I was quite clear that it’s not, but you never know what can show. [But] by the rules I was quite sure it would not be a penalty.”
-Tomáš Souček; source: West Ham United FC
After a few years of trying out a handball rule that ignored any presumed “intent”, which simply resulted in a lot of unfair penalties from hopeful long shots, the most recent iteration of the rules makes “deliberate” a key part of the definition, looking at players “taking a risk” by making their bodies “unnaturally bigger”.
Not every touch of a player’s hand/arm with the ball is an offence. It is an offence if a player:
• deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, for example moving the hand/arm towards the ball
• touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger. A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation. By having their hand/arm in such a position, the player takes a risk of their hand/arm being hit by the ball and being penalised
• scores in the opponents’ goal:
• directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper
• immediately after the ball has touched their hand/arm, even if accidental
One exception to this that was clarified ahead of the 2019-20 season was that it’s “considered natural for a player to put their arm between their body and the ground for support when falling, so long as the arm is not extended to make the body bigger”.
Now, we all know what Souček was doing, but he did it well enough to fool the one person he needed to fool.
I’m not sure what the right solution to this might be. Non-subjective handball laws are a bad idea. Subjective handball law introduces grey areas, by definition. You might say there was nothing grey about this incident, and you’re obviously right, but at the same time, there’s at least one person who thinks otherwise.
What we can do is make sure we get the non-subjective calls right. The other high-profile VAR errors this weekend must not happen. In order to have confidence in the system, we have to have it work flawlessly in the cases where it can achieve 100 per cent correct outcomes. (Whether offside decisions are too marginal is another story.)
Then we can worry about improving the consistency in subjective decisions.