Aston Villa were the latest casualties of a baffling VAR decision as Ollie Watkins’ stoppage-time equaliser was ruled out by for the narrowest of offside calls in defeat at the London Stadium.
For Dean Smith’s side, returning to the capital after beating both Arsenal and Fulham handsomely in recent weeks was an encouraging proposition. Only four months ago had Villa secured their top-flight status in the very stadium that took centre stage for some dramatic Monday Night Football.
We’re becoming accustomed to the odd thriller at the Villa – with 21 goals shared in only five games at Villa Park this term – but on the road this season, Villa have been even more impressive. So when Smith’s side came unstuck early on through an Angelo Ogbonna header from a corner, you’d be forgiven in thinking that Villa might’ve started a little brighter.
Despite the mercurial Jack Grealish pegging the Hammers back with a drill of his own, Villa would pay for another slow start in the second period as Saïd Benrahma made good use of his first touches after coming on from the substitute bench.
Jarrod Bowen’s dad might be a Villa fan at heart, but after his son scored his second career goal against Villa, things were just about to get all the more frustrating for fans of the original claret and blue persuasion.
The hosts might well have only been wearing their own cut of claret and blue because of a 140-year-old bet at a fair nearby Villa Park – but what unravelled next might not have surprised you so much.
When William Dove – a sprinter of national repute – beat four Villa players in a race, he was given a set of claret and blue shirts in the summer of 1899. The Thames Ironworks would later pass down Villa’s unique strip to West Ham United, but back in those days, football was a far simpler game.
Ollie Watkins had blown his lines from the spot as Villa went in search for a deserved equaliser in the second half, but quite frankly, for every bit of poor quality or passed up the opportunity, it was plain misfortune and odd refereeing decisions that denied Villa their tenth away point of the season.
Villa are the only team left in the Premier League yet to register a draw having played nine matches so far this term – but Smith’s side will feel like they passed up on all three even if they walked away from East London empty-handed.
As the 93rd minute passed on the clock and Ogbonna’s hands grappled Watkins’ neck, Villa’s well-placed striker managed to wriggle free to score his ninth goal in all competitions this season… but with muted celebrations from Villa fans in front rooms across the world, the inevitable VAR check was about to take place.
Out came the protractors and rulers – dotted lines are the chosen method of accuracy in today’s game. Welcome to football in 2020, where you, a £30 million striker must avoid being fouled, remain onside and indeed take your chance in the dying embers of a match that could propel your team into the top four.
In fact, that’s exactly what Watkins did. His sleeve was millimetres offside as Ogbonna’s arms pushed him quite literally over the dotted line – how on earth did it come to this?
Dean Smith bemoans the use VAR
The video assistant referee spent exactly 2:05 minutes deliberating whether Watkins’ outstretched arm made him offside and finally reached the decision, much to the striker’s and indeed most other football fans’ disgust.
“We’ve had a goal disallowed for a part of the body that can’t score a goal anyway,” Villa manager Smith said.
“The only reason his arm is out there is because he’s getting fouled. I don’t understand that. If his arm is out there because he’s getting fouled, that’s a penalty.”
“It was just wrong. That is the easiest way to describe it. Offside is offside, I have no problem with that rule. But they have given offside for a part of the body that can’t put the ball in the back of the net.
“The only reason the arm is where it is, is because he is being fouled by someone who had his arms round his neck.
Sky Sports pundits Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville were equally as bemused as they deliberated the use of VAR in a lively on-air discussion after Watkins thought he’d bagged a well-earned point for Villa.
Speaking after the game, Carragher admitted he was a ‘big advocate’ of VAR before it was introduced to the Premier League, but says that is now not the case due to its detrimental impact on fans across England.
He said on Monday Night Football: “The offside decision… obviously when you do the lines you do the lines. You actually look at how long these shirts are.. would that have made a difference? You have to make them shorter in some ways.
“He’s actually getting grappled by the defender – he’s trying to get off him. The fact he’s trying to get off him means that he’s offside. That’s the frustrating thing now with VAR when they’re doing offsides.
“It’s going off the shirt now because the handball rule has been changed. But you’re looking at it and it actually could be a penalty. There was a similar one with Bamford for Leeds against Crystal Palace a few weeks ago.
“I was a massive fan of VAR before it came in and what I mean by that is I think the people who brought VAR in weren’t trying to ruin the game, they were trying to help the game.
“I almost didn’t say anything about it at the start and was almost defending it because there was bound to be teething problems and criticisms, but give it a chance.
“I just think we’re at the stage with VAR that it does good things and bad things, but the majority of the people in this country haven’t bought VAR. I don’t think fans are enjoying the football as much [as a result].
“I tell you what the biggest thing for me with VAR is that I felt sad watching a game recently. The goalkeeper [David Marshall] makes a save in a penalty shoot-out.
“It was possibly the biggest moment in his career and massive for Scotland getting to a tournament, but he couldn’t celebrate at the time!
“He had to stop and wait and look at the officials thinking ‘please God make sure my foot hasn’t come off that line’. He couldn’t celebrate that moment and I think that’s a big thing with supporters now.
“I was a big advocate of VAR, but if I could go back or certainly use it in a different way I think I would, no doubt.”
‘The game should be about enjoyment for the fans’
Former Manchester United and England defender Neville still wants VAR to be used but believes some of the laws must be changed as a matter of priority to appease fans.
“I was for VAR and I’m still for it,” Neville said. “I’m against a couple of the rule changes. I don’t think the offside rule is clear enough. The new handball rule, which, to be fair we’ve all been against, has created more problems for the game.
“I think that with offside, do we want accurate decisions? Yes. Footballers and coaches, for 25, 30, 40 years have complained about referees and a lack of accuracy.
“These referees are not good enough, they can’t keep up with the game. So, we brought VAR in for the correct reasons because the game is so quick, and we want accuracy with so much at stake.
“What I would say is it does need refining and it does need to be improved. The biggest problem I have with it at the moment, and I am against the grain, is the fans hate it. I have a problem with it because ultimately the game should be about enjoyment for the fans.
“I am for it, but I’m aware the fans hate it, and that is my concern. I want accuracy. I played football at the top and I whinged for years about referees, so I want accuracy.”
Other than the late controversy, Villa were made to pay for poor defending and finishing as they returned from the London Stadium empty-handed despite dominating the game – Villa must channel their frustration ahead of heading to Wolves a week Saturday after this Friday’s fixture against Newcastle was postponed.
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