In Part one of our article regarding how football history could have been altered if VAR had been introduced sooner, we looked at the decisions that cost United. The second part looks at the ones that did benefit the Red Devils, and how VAR would have changed it.
VAR has been one of the most talked about subjects of the year. Its impact in the 2018 FIFA World Cup has been immense, and it cannot be any coincidence that many of the so called bigger nations have exited the tournament much earlier than expected. VAR has seen decisions awarded that these sides generally get away with.
So, what of Manchester United? In the first part of this article, we assessed how decisions that were awarded against them in the past could have seen their history altered had VAR been around. It works both ways, however, and there are a few that the Red Devils got away with, that a panel would surely have overturned.
2004-05 Premier League, United vs Arsenal
A VAR panel in this match could have changed Arsenal’s whole season, such was the impact that United’s victory had. Going into the match at Old Trafford, Arsène Wenger’s champions were unbeaten in 49 Premier League games and were top of the table. Had VAR been around, that run would probably have stretched well past 50.
There was a big rivalry between the two clubs, having fought it out for the title for the previous 7 seasons. It had really escalated the previous year when Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a penalty in the last minute, having earlier been responsible for Patrick Vieira being sent off. As a result, three Arsenal players received bans and the club received a £175,000 fine for the conduct of their players. Fast forward a year, and there was still no love lost between the two sides.
After a feisty, but goalless, first half the tie really escalated in the 73rd minute when United were awarded a penalty. Wayne Rooney, celebrating his 19th birthday, appealed after a challenge from Sol Campbell, and the spot kick was given. Van Nistelrooy exorcised his own demons from the previous year to put United ahead. Campbell was incensed and with good reason; replays showed that he barely even touched Rooney, and certainly not enough to make him fall over. There is no way that a VAR Panel would have upheld the penalty decision.
With Arsenal still concentrating on the injustice of the penalty, United took advantage and eventually added a second goal in injury time. To add insult injury, it was Rooney who tapped in from six yards out. At full time, the tensions reached fever pitch and a brawl ensued in the tunnel. Sir Alex Ferguson had a slice of pizza thrown at him in what is now known as the ‘Battle of the Buffet’.
Arsenal had every right to feel aggrieved, and despite being Rooney’s England team mate, Campbell refused to shake hands with him at the end. Prior to this match they were unbeaten in the Premier League for over a year and topped the table. They went on to lose one draw three of their next six games, and one of those draws was with Chelsea who overtook them at the top of the table and ended the season as champions.
Arsenal have not put up a serious challenge for the title since 2004-05. The impact that this game had definitely impacted their chances of retaining the title that year. The long-term impact, however, is a different story. In the summer of 2004, several of the players who had played a part in their last two title wins had departed, such as Nwankwo Kanu, Ray Parlour, Slyvain Wiltord and Martin Keown. Over the next couple of seasons, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp would also be gone. The players who replaced these battle-hardened warriors were talented, full of style but with no substance.
If a VAR panel had been in place back in 2004, Arsenal might not have lost their momentum and it may have changed that one season, but the freefall that the club has found itself in, particularly during the last three years, would still have happened. One extra title would not have changed that and in reality, given how José Mourinho’s Chelsea side stormed to the title, the only real difference a VAR check would probably have made was to preserve their unbeaten record by a few extra games.
With Chelsea eventually winning the title, the only trophy United won in the 2009-10 season was to retain the League Cup. In fairness, the Red Devils had an element of good fortune attached to that victory, as they should have played almost the entire match with 10 men. With less than five minutes gone, Nemanja Vidić brought down Gabriel Agbonlahor, giving Aston Villa a penalty. Replays showed that Vidić was the last man, meaning that ordinarily he would have been given his marching orders.
James Milner made no mistake with the penalty to put Villa ahead, but it didn’t last long as Michael Owen equalised within ten minutes. Despite getting away with the sending off, United still needed top scorer Wayne Rooney to rescue the game. He was on fire that season, and headed home the winner from Antonio Valencia’s cross late in the second half.
While there can be no absolute guarantee that sending off Vidić would have given Villa the trophy, it would have handed them a major advantage. The Serbian was one of the best defenders in the world at that time, and his dismissal would have forced Ferguson into a tactical reshuffle. They would have had to play almost an entire game with a man less. It’s very likely that one of the forwards would have been sacrificed; maybe Michael Owen wouldn’t have been on the pitch to score the equaliser, or suffered the hamstring injury that saw him withdrawn before half time.
There is one thing for sure, however. Vidić would almost certainly have been sent off had VAR been around at the time – without it, he wasn’t even booked for that challenge on Agbonlahor.
2012-13 Premier League – Chelsea vs United
In Ferguson’s last season as Old Trafford boss, United captured an important victory at Stamford Bridge, a place where they have struggled to win ever since Roman Abramovich took over. The truth about this victory, however, is that despite United’s storming start, they were very fortunate to have come away with three points; a result that certainly helped them on their way to their 20th league title.
United took a two goal lead in the first half through Robin van Persie and an own goal, before a Juan Mata free kick pulled one back just before the break. Brazilian midfielder Ramires scored early in the second half to level things up, and it looked like it was going to be one of those days for United; instead it ended up being one for Chelsea, who ended the game with nine men.
Chelsea could have few complaints about Branislav Ivanović being sent off for his foul on Ashley Young; he was the last man, after all. The sending off of Fernando Torres was very harsh, however, and looked to be an incorrect decision. The Spanish striker was booked in the first half, and when he got in a tangle with Jonny Evans, referee Mark Clattenburg ruled that he had dived and produced a second yellow, obviously followed by the red card. On further inspection, it looked like Evans had indeed fouled Torres.
If Chelsea were incensed about that, they had reason to be frothing at the mouth about the goal which handed victory to United. When the ball was played in, Javier Hernández was not only offside, he was actually inside the Chelsea net. The ball fell to the Mexican striker, who tapped it into the open net.
Had VAR been in place when this game was played, it seems very unlikely that Hernández’s goal or Torres’ sending off would have happened. The result of this game was that it gave United a major boost in the title race. The Reds had already beaten Liverpool at Anfield, and a week after the win at Stamford Bridge they beat Arsenal at Old Trafford. When they won the Manchester Derby at the Etihad in December, it meant that they had beaten all of their main title rivals before Christmas; three of them away from home. The title was practically wrapped up before the start of 2013. This controversial victory over Chelsea, which probably wouldn’t have happened if a VAR panel had been reviewing the major incidents, was a big part of that.
1994-95 Premier League – Blackburn Rovers vs United
This one goes back to a time when, before the oil riches of Chelsea and Manchester City, United’s main title challenger was provided by steel tycoon Jack Walker’s Blackburn Rovers. If VAR had been in place back in the 1994, the Premier League title race might not have gone to the final day of the season. Given that Blackburn had finished runners-up to the Red Devils the previous season everyone expected that the two would fight it out for the title again, despite the early momentum of Newcastle United leading the table.
The match started badly for United when a Peter Schmeichelpunch went straight to Paul Warhurst, who hit the ball first time over the Danish keeper from about 35 yards to put Rovers ahead. Where United got lucky in this game, however was a decision by referee Gerald Ashby, which he got wrong on two counts. With the game heading towards the end of the first half, Lee Sharpe on to a through ball, but he was chased by Henning Berg who expertly played the ball away for what should have been a corner. Sharpe went down, but immediately got up without appealing for a foul. Ashby not only awarded a penalty to United, but showed Berg the red card. There is no chance that a VAR panel would have upheld the referee’s decision, as whichever angle you viewed the reply from, it was clear that Berg played the ball. It wasn’t even a foul. Remarkably, Gerald Ashby defended his decision after the match, even after he had seen it again.
Eric Cantona converted the penalty to draw. United level, and although Colin Hendry restored Blackburn’s one goal lead, playing with ten men for the entire second half took its toll, as Mark Hughes and a double from Andrei Kanchelskis sealed a 4-2 win for United. The reality is that the sending off changed the whole state of play in this game, as Blackburn had been quite comfortable up until that point, and United’s equaliser was from a penalty that never was. .
In the end the decision by Gerald Ashby didn’t end up affecting the outcome of the title race. Blackburn still won the league by one point, but had he not made that decision then Rovers might have headed into the last day of the season as champions. United drew 1-1 with West Ham at Upton Park on the final day, but if they had managed to find that extra goal, it would have been a third title in a row for Ferguson’s men. That one refereeing decision could have altered Blackburn’s entire history.
2004/05 Premier League – United vs Tottenham
In January 2005, one of the most talked about non-goals of the Premier League era occurred. United were having an odd season, nowhere near challenging for the title but not in any danger of dropping out of the top four. A 0-0 draw at home to Tottenham seemed to sum up United’s season; boring. There was one moment in the game, however, which has been posted all over the internet ever since this match, and this still happens to this day.
During the game, Portuguese midfielder Pedro Mendes took a shot from around 50 yards out, which looped over Roy Carroll and bounced into the net. Before Mark Clattenburg or his assistants noticed the ball had crossed the line Carroll, who should really not have beaten from such a distance, actually managed to knock the ball out of the net. As a result, the goal was not given and cost Spurs a victory at Old Trafford.
An event such as this would not have happened today due to the introduction of goal-line technology. The ball was so far over the line that it is incredible that the goal wasn’t given. The win for Spurs would have seen them leapfrog Manchester City into 8th place, but this wouldn’t have changed United’s position in the table. They still would have finished 3rd whether they won or lost. The only real impact that VAR, or even goal-line technology would have had is that Facebook and Twitter would have had one less meme shared all over them. No great loss to the world.
There are many incidents that occurred during the last 25 years that VAR would have put a different spin on. The two parts of this article are just the tip of the iceberg, but every club around the world could probably compile a list of matches where VAR would have changed their history.
While there are probably plenty of other incidents during matches involving Manchester United that have not made it into our list, these are the ones that stand out most of all. If there’s one thing that the World Cup has taught us, however, it’s that VAR looks set to become a vital component of the game moving forward. If nothing else that should at least ensure that less travesties, such as some of the ones listed in these two articles, happen as frequently in the coming years.