In April of the 2018/19 season, Manchester City played the epic second leg match of the Champions League quarter-finals against Tottenham. Raheem Sterling scored to make it 5-4 on aggregate in the 93rd minute.
Stoppage time – Aguero is passing the ball from the right side, Sterling is receiving it in the box, faking the shot to shake off Alderweireld and Davies, firing the ball next to Sánchez and placing it behind Lloris. Pochettino is cursed.
Guardiola’s City are finally into the semi-finals of the Champions League! Years of dedication, mighty approach and brilliant football, Pep Guardiola is a step closer to the promised land. He is in delirium. Now he is certain he is the chosen one, and he can go all the way and lift the trophy. Teammates are chasing Sterling towards the stands where fans are celebrating with them in open arms. They are letting go of painful memories of the previous seasons’ debacles and having a collective metamorphosis from the wounded caterpillar into a beautiful European butterfly. Sterling is walking back to the pitch, lifting hands to the sky and saying: “Take me, I’m Yours!”
“Wait a moment,” somebody from the VAR room is sending the message to the earphone of Cüneyt Çakιr. “Aguero was offside when first received the ball,” the main referee is receiving the message one minute after the goal was scored.
“No goal, offside.”
Guardiola is kneeling on the pitch now. He has pain in his eyes. After a minute that has changed his life, there is a question appearing – Is Pep alright?
Did Pep Guardiola suffer a permanent psychological trauma on that night at the Etihad when VAR disallowed the goal which has been leading Manchester City into the semi-finals of the Champions League? Has that shocking event influenced his ability to manage the team well in the last season’s Champions League when he was defeated by Lyon in the same stage of the competition?
We tried to find out the answer to that question from Neil Addington, a chartered sport psychologist working in Academy Football.
“Whilst the players are waiting for VAR to make a decision, they will be experiencing anxiety and uncertainty as to whether the goal will stand. The process of overcoming these feelings is understandably more challenging the later on in the game the VAR decision occurs as the decision has a higher chance of impacting the final result,” Mr Addington claims.
“However, I think what that incident showed is just how resilient Guardiola and the players were in the aftermath of that game. After the bitter disappointment of being knocked out, Manchester City were able to regroup and focus on winning their remaining five Premier League games, including a rematch with Tottenham in the first of those games, and hold off Liverpool to win the Premier League as well as beat Watford in the FA Cup final to complete a domestic treble. If the team had still been struggling with what happened in the Champions League, then it is unlikely they would have finished so strongly.”
Secret of mindfulness
Pep Guardiola is not the only one who experienced the VAR ordeal.
Chelsea players went through a similar situation in the Champions League last season.
After losing 4-1 against Ajax by the 55th minute, 20 minutes later Azpilicueta scored to make it 5-4. However, the goal was disallowed after VAR pointed out Azpilicueta’s handball.
We talked with Malcolm Harkness, who spent the last three years working at Chelsea as a data scientist, about the events that evening. This match he experienced as a fan, though.
“I was at the Stamford Bridge when Azpi scored that goal. Those were the best two minutes of the season for us in terms of experience, euphoria and crazy atmosphere. The whole stadium was rocking. I have genuinely not seen so amazing game at Stamford Bridge.
However, while the fans were still celebrating, the decision was made – ‘no goal.’
“I was absolutely gutted. I think everybody else was as well. But at that moment, because it was such a crazy game, I think everyone was confident that we were going to go and score again. At that point of the game, it was crazy how much we were attacking. We thought there is no way we were not going to win that game.”
This event arguably was less stressful than Guardiola’s one, but psychologist Addington claims it is not all that simple to continue playing in the same rhythm after such an emotional experience.
“There are two main challenges for players when a VAR decision goes against them, and these are effective emotion regulation and refocusing attention”, Mr Addington pointed out.
“In terms of emotion regulation, as a player and team, you go from the incredibly high and euphoric state of scoring to that feeling of having the rug completely swept from under your feet, particularly depending on how important that goal is in the context of the match and at what time in the game.”
Azpilicueta and his teammates partook in quite wild celebrations before the goal was disallowed, meaning the frustration was even greater.
“The longer it takes for the decision to be made, the increased likelihood the uncertainty and anxiety would build up. Once the decision is made and the goal is disallowed, players will likely experience a range of emotions, including frustration, anger, shock, surprise, and disappointment,” Mr Addington believes and insists this is where the ability to refocus is important.
“Players will have all these unhelpful thoughts and feelings about the decision, yet the game is restarting. They can’t simply erase those thoughts and feelings and forget what has happened, so instead, they want to acknowledge what they are experiencing, perhaps take the perspective that the decision is beyond their control, and focus attention on the game.”
The quicker a player can go through this process the less time during the game it will likely take them to return to ‘normal’ performance levels, and that is why one the roles of Mr Addington and other sports psychologists is helping players developing mindfulness skills and creating resetting strategies.
“It’s part of the learning curve”
In both cases, the VAR decision was the correct one. Aguero was offside, and Azpilicueta did handball his effort.
Psychological trauma is a side effect which is rarely part of the VAR discussions, but as scientist Harkness says, the gradual improvement is needed, and it is all part of the VAR learning curve.
The most important thing, as he believes, is game-changing referee mistakes have been minimised, which is the main reason VAR had been brought into the game.
“We have seen so many dodgy decisions over the last few years which can break a team’s season. Having that in mind, I still think VAR is a good thing to work towards.”
Mr Harkness has an idea of how VAR should work like to make the whole process more digestible for players.
“Hopefully, we can soon have a system that is really quick. The referee does not need to use it a lot. We need referees who are getting so much better in making decisions by themselves and be confident not to refer to VAR. In long terms its necessary to avoid moments like that Chelsea – Barcelona match at Stamford Bridge in 2009.”
Also, he reminds us that there are always two perspectives to look at the VAR scenes from Etihad and Stamford Bridge.
“In terms of football being entertaining, it does not hurt because 50% of the time you will be on the receiving end of VAR and other 50% of the time you will be on the other side of VAR. Imagine just being in Tottenham shoes and thinking that you go out of the Champions League and suddenly out of nowhere you are back in the game.”
Pochettino is in delirium, now he is certain he is the chosen one…