Whatever Tottenham Hotspur’s form, a point at their impressive home should be cause for celebration, especially for a side new to the Premier League. Frustratingly, Sheffield United’s was almost overlooked in another VAR debate.
Three-and-a-half years in the making, their football is well-oiled, efficient, effective and a joy to watch. Manager Chris Wilder described Saturday’s as one of the “most outstanding away performances” it has produced. Video assistant referees have been used nearly twice as long worldwide, yet none of those adjectives apply to it in the Premier League.
Wilder is an advocate of the system which sees contentious and crucial decisions reviewed on television monitors in real time to confirm or overrule those made by the eyes on the ground. It is testing even his patience.
“We should be talking about the players not VAR,” he argued at full-time on Saturday.
Black-and-white offside decisions are supposedly VAR’s forte, but the way David McGoldrick’s goal was chalked off on Saturday showed even in this respect the laws of the game are gloriously and, at times, frustratingly shaded in grey. It is why refereeing, like sport in general, will always be a skill robots never have.
The same is true of the Blades’ football. Wilder has developed a unique system which only functions so well because of his talented players. Otherwise, everybody would be copying it.
This was up there with the most outstanding away performances we have had since I came back to the club.Chris Wilder
It might have been rewarded with even more than a fifth unbeaten game to move into Saturday’s top five had what looked like McGoldrick’s first Premier League goal, the Blades’ equaliser and Enda Stevens’s instant redemption stood. We cannot know for sure how the remaining half-hour would have played out.
We do know that by the criteria he was working to, Jon Moss made the right decision from the Stockley Park studio. Wilder greeted “No goal” flashing on the giant video screens with a shrug. Whether the rules are correct, whether three minutes, 47 seconds was too long to decide, and whether more should be done to keep players and fans informed as they stood in the freezing rain is debatable. VAR is causing more, not fewer, arguments.
Two minutes after Son Heung-min – sent off by VAR six days earlier, reprieved to play in this match on appeal days later – pounced on Stevens’s misdirected pass to give Spurs a 1-0 lead theirs and Sheffield United’s football did not merit, Stevens whipped a low cross McGoldrick tapped in.
The players lined up either side of the halfway line while Moss went through the formalities.
With Stevens and McGoldrick onside, we looked good to go. But Moss found a moment in the build-up on the opposite side of the field where the very end of John Lundstram’s boot was just behind not the last defender, but the first part of him able to legally touch the ball. Not for the first time in this Premier League season, it was a super-tight decision by technology, whose margin for error is not as accurate as that but once the lines were drawn on the press box monitors after a couple of minutes, it was there for us if not the fans or players to see.
It took about as long again to reach the party-pooping decision.
“Initially I thought it was a goal, of course it was,” said George Baldock, who played a vital pass.
“Then when they’ve checked once I thought, ‘Still a goal’. When he’s checked twice and kept checking, checking, checking I thought, ‘It must be offside’.”
It was hard not to feel for McGoldrick, “a magician” and “a special man” according to Wilder but a centre-forward still to score this season.
“I like to think people recognise the part he plays in a team performance,” said his manager.
The bitter disappointment did not sidetrack the Blades.
They had been knocking the ball around nicely and particularly before Harry Winks’s half-time introduction to tighten central midfield, making good use of runners from deep. Lundstram hit the crossbar and narrowly put wide a cross from Stevens.
Spurs and Son in particular looked more dangerous at the start of the second half and were rewarded in the 58th minute.
The away fans’ fury when the Blades were denied an equaliser did not harm the players and if Baldock’s goal was lucky in itself – a cross which went in without a touch – it gave the match a fairer outcome. He, too, was made to wait while Moss pored over the video.
Wilder saw the bigger picture.
“It is not always the wins that are the most satisfying. This was up there with the most outstanding away performances we have had since I came back to the club.”
It is concerning that VAR is stretching the faith of believers such as Wilder. Hopefully, like a relegation-threatened squad, the officials can regroup, rethink and refine during the international break and return better able to operate within its framework.
The block of matches between October and November’s internationals must have infused Wilder’s team with massive self-belief. His methods are working, his players are showing – many for the first time – they have Premier League quality.
Manchester United are next, at Bramall Lane, and only the Red Devils should approach it with trepidation. Unless VAR sticks its nose in, that is.