To VAR, or Not to VAR
Yet again this season the officiating occupied centre stage at Selhurst Park, as Everton and Crystal Palace fought out a 0-0 stalemate in this FA Cup Third Round fixture. Not to say this game was exactly a classic spoiled by meddling officials - far from it - but it’s still galling to see the course of a match largely determined by what appear to be increasingly subjective, - not to mention intrusive - judgement calls from referees, particularly those not even physically present within the stadium. This is where we are in the World of Football, circa 2024 and I can’t say I’m particularly happy about it.
Like virtually everyone, I grew up watching football with all of its many imperfections, as an essentially chaotic sport, full of ebbs and flows and nuanced, difficult-to-assess situations. The referee and linesmen (now assistant) regulated the game, making their own subjective interpretations, sometimes getting decisions wrong, occasionally being way off and causing plenty of discontent and feelings of injustice amongst aggrieved fans along the way. But, for all the imperfection the officiating was an organic part of what is an imperfect activity, inherently flawed by its very nature. And in that, there was a certain acceptance from fans.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to strive for perfection, the authorities have set off in search of El Dorado and it’s apparent that they are going to end up as empty-handed as the ancient conquistadors. Except, instead of going mad, wandering off and dying in South American jungles, PGMOL are causing increasing numbers of fans to become disenchanted with the supposed advances derived from the increased use of technology in the game, specifically that of the video assistant referee (VAR). Almost nobody is against eliminating on the pitch errors, that’s a given. But at what cost? And are we perceptively getting closer to perfectly-officiated football matches? I’m not seeing it.
In a high-profile Thursday evening tie on free TV in the UK , which kicked off the entry of Premier League clubs into the FA Cup competition - and consequently with some eyes on it - the officials managed to blow it quite spectacularly. Christ Kavanagh, ostensibly the man in charge of proceedings in South London, called Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s innocuous tackle on Nathaniel Clyne as fair; a reasonable interpretation shared by most in the stadium and watching from afar - as would the simple call of a foul. Nobody would dispute either judgement. VAR official Craig Pawson saw something different however and after an interminable delay directed the match referee, who’d been yards away from the incident - unlike Pawson - to the video booth.
Now, we all know what comes next and it’s a sign of where we are at with VAR in this country that there was virtually zero chance that Kavanagh would back his own verdict. Rather than simply providing assistance to the on the field referee, it’s actually the remote official who is making the big decisions in the game. The guy running around on the pitch? He’s a proxy, there to make the mundane calls. At this point, the authority of the referee is neutered to such a degree we may as well do away with the pretence and just run the whole thing from Stockley Park. Or, preferably, if PGMOL can’t implement the technology correctly, bin the whole sad, flaccid, discredited enterprise.
Keeping It Simple
The game itself was no great shakes, as regards goalmouth action, or moments of breath-taking skill, although I’ve certainly seen worse. As a spectacle it wasn’t a borefest and managed to maintain my attention throughout - as an interested party - though I’m not sure what numbers broadcaster ITV did domestically with neutrals. For a Third Round FA Cup tie played midweek it was alright and honestly, expecting much more from a pair of sides who’d played a combined 17 games over the previous month was probably optimistic.
In the wacky world of football scheduling, Palace and the Blues only had three games apiece pencilled in for January (one more now, due to the replay), so if you can figure the sense in that, I salute you. It’s no surprise, then that this wasn’t a classic, but both sides gave it what they could. The visitors were in their familiar 4-5-1 shape, following an abortive effort at playing out of a back five during last weekend’s demoralizing 3-0 walloping by Wolverhampton Wanderers. Sean Dyche implied that the formation wasn’t a problem at Molineux, but it was noticeable how much more comfortable Everton were on Thursday.
The Eagles rarely troubled the defense and Amadou Onana and James Garner took control of the midfield early on, generally bossed proceedings until the team were reduced to ten men. Eberechi Eze, who’d been the standout player during the league fixture played between the two clubs back in November, was easily negated. Everton’s back four was rock solid, everyone was in synch, and unlike against Wolves the team was able to press effectively from out of a familiar structure.
The side wasn’t able to pass consistently, from direct play or out of transitions, but that was down to the technical limitations of the players and probably a little fatigue, rather than from any deficiency in the shape. I’m hoping Dyche has taken lessons on board from watching the team perform as a competent, cohesive unit in this formation and resists the temptation to meddle with should a key operator, such as an Abdoulaye Doucoure be unavailable. This group of players works best from a simple structure; they do not overall have the versatility to deviate too much from it.
Making an Impact
Dyche opted to shake things up a little more than is his usual wont and it was pleasing to see both Arnaut Danjuma and Joao Virginia given opportunities to start, along with Seamus Coleman coming in for Nathan Patterson at right back. Coleman is arguably still Everton’s best option at the position when fit, as neither the currently-injured Ashley Young, nor Patterson have demonstrated consistency, so the decision to go with the club captain was hardly from out of left field. I thought the veteran, who’d played only 139 minutes of senior football since getting stretchered off seven months ago at Leicester City, took some time to get up to speed, but once he’d found his rhythm he was excellent.
Virginia’s selection was a real shock, considering how little football he’s played for Everton since arriving at the club as a teenager in the summer of 2019; just a couple of cup starts and a substitute appearance in the league almost three years ago. Tack on a couple of unimpressive loan spells over the past two seasons and the likelihood of the now 24-year-old seeing any game time appeared remote. I was impressed by the Portuguese. He was calm and composed, coordinating well with the back four and not looking at all like the emergency goalkeeper I’d expected to see. None of the three saves he made were excessively challenging, but he demonstrated agility, a strong hand, kept a clean sheet and his distribution was sound. A positive outing.
Danjuma - whom I’ve been hoping to see utilised more - lined up on the left, with Dwight McNeil switched over to the right and Jack Harrison deployed centrally behind Calvert-Lewin. This was the way I’d hoped to see Dyche adjust to the loss of Doucoure, if Andre Gomes would be unable to play consistently, but it was a bit of a mixed bag. Harrison was able to get into the game more as it progressed, but was largely anonymous in the opening period. Likewise, McNeil struggled to make an impact on the right and looked much more effective once he’d been switched back to the left partway through the second half.
The on-loan Villarreal winger, however made quite an impression. He repeatedly beat his man down the left, showing a lot more pace than either McNeil or Harrison possess and is a really fluid mover with the ball, agile and able to go both ways. The 26-year-old got himself into a couple of good positions, forcing one save from Palace goalkeeper Dean Henderson, although he should have done better with another opportunity, when electing not to go for a first-time shot. He drifted out of the game in the second period, particularly when moved to the right flank.
Everton’s wide options are currently unbalanced, as all three senior wingers are better operating on the left, though Harrison is the more versatile. Neither Danjuma nor McNeil convince on the right, so we end up in the situation where the Dutchman is underused, given the importance of the former Burnley man to Dyche’s system. With McNeil currently looking like potentially being out for a little while, it’s likely Danjuma will see some starts, so it’s encouraging to note that he has plenty to offer, going off this performance and a lively cameo against Tottenham Hotspur a couple of weeks back.