LONDON — The 59,870 people present at the London Stadium on Saturday for Manchester City’s latest demolition of West Ham United will no doubt one day wistfully tell their grandchildren that they were present for a moment of history: Yes, they were lucky enough to be there on the day the first Premier League goal was disallowed by the video assistant referee.
VAR has arrived, ruling out a Gabriel Jesus goal in City’s 5-0 victory, and while it may well increase the number of correct decisions in the Premier League, it has also clearly changed how the fans who show up to the stadium experience the game. And not for the better, either.
“What the f— is going on?” sang the Manchester City supporters at one stage — and that was for a decision that actually allowed them to score a goal. In the closing stages City were awarded a penalty, and Sergio Aguero‘s effort was saved by Lukasz Fabianski but there was then a minute or so when referee Mike Dean stood with finger pressed to his ear, while a possible encroachment in the area was checked.
A message announcing a goal was being checked flashed up on the big screen, which was confusing given a goal hadn’t actually been scored. That was quickly changed to clarify the penalty was being checked, which for a second was confusing as it might have referred to the awarding of the spot kick. Eventually, encroachment was discovered, Declan Rice having stepped into the area before clearing it. Aguero scored the retake. But the question so forcibly posed by the City fans remained relevant.
Last season the Premier League calculated 82% of decisions were correct. With the introduction of VAR, they hope to get that up to 95%. Whether significantly altering the flow and pace of games — plus the spectacle and experience of actually going to football — is worth that 13% … well, that’s up to you.
Still, it’s going to take more than VAR to stop Manchester City this season. Having watched Liverpool stick four past Norwich on Friday, City echoed last season by going one better on Saturday. It probably could have been more than the eventual margin of victory, as Pep Guardiola’s relentless machine showed up and, in the second half at least, battered a perfectly decent West Ham side.
City enjoy playing here. They have now played at the London Stadium five times since West Ham made this their home in 2016, and they’ve scored 23 goals. In the 19 league games of their first season here, West Ham managed 19.
In terms of the football at least, this was a game in which we essentially learned very little — or very little new, anyway. Manchester City looked exactly as they always have under Guardiola: rapid, ruthless and imposing.
Even their first goal of the season was a cookie-cutter City effort, as Kyle Walker sped down the right as if on jet-powered roller skates, reached the byline and Jesus got there just before Issa Diop to turn the cut-back home.
City looked pretty good to the relatively untrained eye, but of course Guardiola wasn’t happy. “In terms of the result, yeah,” he said afterwards, when asked if that was the perfect start to the season. And the performance? “Nope.”
He elaborated: “In the first half we were sloppy with our passes, our basics were not good. We were not precise in our game. But that is normal. Our first game, away, 12.30 kick-off, it’s hot.” Then, almost as if he just remembered his team had scored five goals, he said: “I cannot deny I am so delighted to win 5-0, away in our first game.”
So good were they in the second half, even Guardiola admitted they were good. Raheem Sterling scored the first of his hat trick, and then thought he had set up another, squaring for Jesus to make it 3-0 — but wait! The VAR checked, and discovered some infinitesimal part of Sterling’s upper body — a shoulder, his chest, a nipple, nobody really seemed sure – was offside, and after a fairly lengthy delay, the goal was ruled out.
On the big screen, the freeze-frame of the offending moment lingered for a minute or so. So close was the decision that, from a distance, the lines indicating the position of attackers and defenders looked like they were on top of each other. Which didn’t help make things clearer to those present.
The City fans were confused, then outraged. The West Ham fans were confused, then jubilant. For them, it was the best moment of the game, and they roused themselves for a couple of minutes as West Ham attacked, briefly looking as if they would get back into the game, forcing Ederson into a couple of fine saves.
That optimism was killed off after a short while, and by Sterling, naturally. But in another indication of how VAR has changed the fan experience, most of the City fans appeared to barely celebrate the goal, anticipating that the check was about to come and their joy could be cut down. Ultimately no offence was found that time. After the game Guardiola made reference to the one-on-one Sterling missed against Liverpool in the Community Shield, suggesting that chance would have popped into his mind as he bore down on goal in this game.
But rather than the failure affecting his confidence, Guardiola said it would have inspired him to “be more aggressive, more clinical.” That clarity of thought is just another indication of how Sterling has improved over the past couple of years. After Aguero’s twice-taken penalty, Sterling completed his hat trick; you wouldn’t bet against him topping last season’s total of 31 goals this time.
This was a game which showed us how much things have changed, but at the same time how little things have changed. VAR has altered football forever, creating confusion in the goal of absolute accuracy. Maybe that will be different in time. Then there is City, as relentless as ever, looking exactly like the cold-eyed winners they were last season. You get the feeling that won’t be different in the slightest.