Guardiola’s quest for control at Manchester City undermined by VAR

Football’s ability to provide a wrinkle frustrates manager’s dreams of order

Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus appeals to the match referee Michael Oliver after his goal is ruled out by VAR. Photograph: PA

Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus appeals to the match referee Michael Oliver after his goal is ruled out by VAR. Photograph: PA

 

Football remains a magnificently capricious sport. You can crush its competitiveness with a self-perpetuating structure that leads to a radically unequal distribution of resources. You can pack the heft of oligarchs and emirates behind clubs. You can record and analyse. You can use technology as far as possible to eliminate human error. You can invest and think and strive to bring it under rein and still, every now and again, it can turn up games like Saturday’s at the Etihad, when one side has 30 shots to the other’s three (or, in modern parlance, depending whose model you prefer an xG of about 3.00 to about 0.2) and it ends in a draw. And not only that, it will add a self-knowing twist at the end. Football will not be tamed.

Manchester City were excellent. They will still probably win the Premier League. Their superiority against probably the third-best side of last season should fill their challengers with foreboding, but this was a reminder that there will always be a wrinkle. Pep Guardiola wants control. He studies and studies and studies, looking for any edge, desperate to expose any possible flaw in his opponent. He drills his team relentlessly, working on shape and positioning. He wants always to retain possession and then to use it in the ways he has worked out to unpick the opposition. That’s why he has said that, if an immediate counter isn’t on, he wants his team to play 15 passes to get themselves set again. He is not Jurgen Klopp: he does not thrive on chaos, bending it to his will.

Greatest contribution

Possession gives him order, and that is his greatest contribution to the tactical development of the game. Others, Johan Cruyff most notably, have sought to dominate the ball, but none have done so as effectively as Guardiola. He has, aided by improvements in playing surfaces and equipment and changes to the laws of the game, turned 11-a-side into something that at times looks a lot like five-a-side. He has made the rondo a way of life. Nobody has come so close to establishing control as he has – in part, it’s only fair to acknowledge, very few managers have had circumstances as favourable as he has enjoyed. To take 198 points over two seasons is something unheard of. And yet still football, occasionally, every once in a while, is able to wriggle from his grasp and dance anarchically upon his dreams of order.

To an extent that’s because his own players have a frustrating tendency to being human. Ederson both in last season’s Champions League quarter-final and on Saturday, was beaten by a long-range shot low to his right. Markers lose their men. Others suffer lapses of concentration and fail to live up to Guardiola’s positional demands – hence his rant at Sergio Aguero just before Lucas Moura’s goal. To an extent it’s because opponents resist, or have moments of inspiration. And to an extent, it’s because that’s just how football is. VAR, it turns out, far from being some neutral all-seeing eye, a benevolent Big Brother visiting justice upon the world, has plunged the game into epistemological crisis.

What is handball? If players can move up to 15cm between frames, how can offsides be given to an accuracy of millimetre? What is “clear and obvious” and could something be obvious but not clear? What level of error are we prepared to accept so claims of accuracy don’t make us uncomfortable? And is it really right that there’s strict liability for a ball brushing a player’s arm but not for one player barging another in the back?

Mischievous streak

But the disallowing of Gabriel Jesus’s apparent winner was more than just another VAR call; it was a decision locked in such regress of ironies it felt like football was almost wilfully exercising its mischievous streak. Aymeric Laporte did handle the ball and as the law now stands, any contact with the arm in the buildup to a goal is an offence. By the law, the decision was correct, just as it was correct that Leander Dendoncker’s goal against Leicester last week was ruled out.

But minds inevitably go back to that quarter-final last year and the vital goal Fernando Llorente scored for Spurs via a deflection off his arm. Under the law as it now stands, that would have been ruled out. Raheem Sterling, of course, then had an injury-time goal ruled out for offside; had VAR been operational the previous season, the goal City had chalked off for offside shortly before half-time in the second leg of the quarter-final tie against Liverpool would have stood.

City’s misfortune has been to keep finding themselves a year behind the interpretation. It’s coincidence of course, and certainly not the conspiracy many City fans leaving the Etihad seemed to want to claim but still, it’s hard not to appreciate the irony VAR, ostensibly a force for order and consistency in football, should, even though it’s likely to be temporary, be playing such a central role in undermining Guardiola’s quest for order. Football, even now, will have its sport.

– Guardian

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.