Why is VAR so controversial for Premier League offside calls?

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The 2019-20 Premier League season has been marked by the dominance of Liverpool, the resurgence of Leicester City as a top-four contender, and an unpredicted lack of consistency from reigning back to back champions Manchester City. While, at Chelsea and Manchester United, former players and fan-favorites are finding managerial life more difficult than anticipated.

It’s also the first season that Video Assist Referee (VAR) technology has been fully introduced by the Premier League. As indicated by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), who quite literally write the laws of the game, “minimum interference – maximum benefit” is the intention of VAR. However, frustrated fans have been calling that statement into question during the first half of the campaign.

Perhaps the single biggest cause for concern amongst soccer fans has been when VAR is used for marginal offside calls. During the typically packed fixture schedule over the festive period between Christmas and New Year in England, 1/20 Premier League betting favorites Liverpool extended their lead at the top of the table, securing a 1-0 victory against Wolverhampton Wanderers by the narrowest of margins.

Liverpool was leading 1-0 after VAR had already been used when Sadio Mané scored in the 42nd minute, checking for two possible handballs in the buildup to the goal. “Inconclusive” was the decision regarding the first when Virgil van Dijk clearly seemed to control the ball with his arm. However, VAR was correct in the second call when the ball had struck Adam Lallana’s shoulder and not his arm. Still, there was uncertainty regarding the overall decision.

Just moments later in first-half stoppage time, Wolves thought they had the equalizer when Pedro Neto scored. However, VAR was once again called into action when match referee Anthony Taylor suspected that his teammate Jonny had been offside. The resulting images produced consternation amongst everyone watching, as Jonny appeared to be level with the Liverpool defender, yet VAR ruled him offside by a matter of millimeters.

This offside call and the tiniest of margins used for the decision is far from isolated, with similar calls having been made in numerous other Premier League games throughout the season so far. Indeed, such calls have sparked debate amongst fans and pundits alike, with many of the belief that VAR technology is not suited to making such marginal offside decisions during games.

Some have highlighted that because soccer is such a fast sport, camera framerates cannot be accurately relied upon for marginal offside calls, calculating that the margin for error is between 20 and 30 centimeters between image frames. Only decisions beyond that range can be confirmed by VAR with any clarity, while anything below that measurement remains inconclusive, practically speaking.

When it comes to other key aspects of the game, such as fouls or penalties being awarded, off-the-ball incidents or red card decisions, the general consensus for VAR technology has been largely positive. However, the controversy surrounding offside decisions and doubts about accuracy for such calls will continue to be a hot topic during the rest of the current Premier League season.