VAR Once Again Steals the Show — and Points — from Man City

One week after the dominant narrative from City’s “contest” with West Ham was VAR robbing the sport of joy and unpredictability, the action on the pitch was again overshadowed by the Premier League’s use of instant replay to judge — and, ultimately, overturn — rulings.

Saturday’s contest may be looked back on as one of the best of the season when everything is settled. The Sky Blues put together a barrage of over 30 chances, dominated possession, and gave themselves 13 looks at a corner kick, while Tottenham was more opportunistic with the chances they received, knocking in two of their three shots on the afternoon. It was exactly what you would hope a top-of-the-table clash would be, and exactly what Spurs vs Man City should feel like.

Pep v Poch, KDB v NDB(ele), and Ras v Ras’s right foot.

It was breathtaking, tight til the end, and magnificently competitive. And then there was the goal... Gabriel Jesus came on and instantly made City’s attack look more potent, somehow even more lethal and energetic. In stoppage time, he slapped home a ricocheted ball in what was the fitting end to the match that signaled the beginning of an epic title race.

Instead of allowing us a moment to appreciate the whirlwind and chance that ended a tightly contested heavy-weight bout, VAR overturned the wishes of the football gods, calling off the goal and sending everyone — probably even Tottenham supporters—home with a sense of dissatisfaction. This ending felt hollow, like eating a low sodium pretzel or fat-free yogurt. The final result likely left Pep and Poch both feeling like they were fighting more for the soul of soccer itself than for the Premier League trophy.

(By the way, was there anything better than watching the two of them complain to each other about VAR? I could watch that footage all day. Two absolutely elite managers, battling for English and European supremacy, looking like two inside sales reps in the office complaining about a new time clock system their management implemented. Incredible.)

In the end, VAR got the call right, and that’s truly what matters. FIFA and the Premier League will need to more clearly define handballs, among other calls. But for the second week in a row, they’ve managed correct (if not controversial) decisions. Instant replay — in its many forms — is always met with resistance when it’s introduced. It robs the game of flow, flaws, heart, and, ultimately, drama. However, it also adds truth and accuracy. It did the same for the NFL and College Football, and it’s done the same for the NBA.

There will always be arguments over whether we have gone too far with the institution of technology in sports. The reality is we’re sacrificing some intangible ideas in the name of truth. And when millions — or potentially billions — of dollars are on the line with decisions like Jesus’ disallowed goal on Saturday, we can’t afford to leave them up to chance in the name of “fun”, or a more easy-flowing game.

Whether or not VAR is more fun or swings goals in your team’s favor is not the point. Two more points in the table for City 6 months from now could mean millions of dollars changing hands simply on a missed “handball” decision — it certainly swung as much in the Champion’s League semi-final in the spring. Since VAR got it right in a moment of drama, emotion, and confusion, we won’t get it wrong when a team is lifting the trophy at the end of the season. It’s a hard adjustment to make, but when the stakes are as high as they are now, VAR is a change that’s needed to bring some certainty to a high-variance sport.

As for City, they have some not-unanswerable questions stemming from this match. Who is going to lead them when goals are not flowing from their seemingly unlimited chance creation? Can their back line hold up over the course of a long European and Domestic season? Again, these questions have answers — one answer likely being the would-be hero of this match, Gabriel Jesus, who looks to be as sharp and active as any forward in the world right now.

For Spurs, they looked overmatched at times, but always ready to strike when the opportunity was present. They are ready for a fight, and like any good fighter, they seem to do better when they have the taste of their own blood in their mouth.

The final takeaway from this game comes back to the narrative that VAR took from us: the three-team Premier League title race is going to be one to remember.