This game was fizzling out to a fairly dull and mutually agreeable conclusion until VAR stepped in to confect an outcome of its own. When Solly March halted Kyle Walker-Peters’ burst towards the box 13 minutes from time, David Coote awarded Southampton a free-kick and barely an eyebrow was raised. Another foot, and March would indisputably have conceded a penalty; in the event, Coote marked the set-piece’s position with his spray and Brighton’s biggest concern appeared to be the prospect of a James Ward-Prowse delivery from the right.
Then Stockley Park set to work and, with every second that passed, the alarm bells grew louder among the home ranks. They sounded pretty clearly for anyone who is tired of football being reduced to micro-analysis of super slow-motion replays, too, and the outcome justified that concern.
After a three-minute delay Coote pointed to the spot, with no recourse to the pitchside monitor deemed necessary due to the in-or-out nature of the incident. Danny Ings, a substitute on his comeback from injury, did exactly as anyone would expect from the spot and Southampton moved into fifth place on a night when they had rarely clicked.
Exactly how such an extensive review could judge a clear and obvious error took place is a mystery. There is no doubt March committed a foul but the first contact, a barge in the back after Walker-Peters had chested down a diagonal pass, looked narrowly outside the box even with the benefit of hindsight.
Presumably the penalty was therefore awarded for a secondary collision inside the area as the players fell but it would take some effrontery to state with confidence that March had offered a further foul challenge, rather than simply being one half of a tangle of legs. The VAR officials were armed with enough brass neck to make that call and Brighton could justifiably feel they were robbed.
“The general feeling was that it would be given outside the box but if VAR have deemed it was given inside then I suppose we have to accept that,” said the Brighton manager, Graham Potter, in characteristically mild-mannered fashion. Potter was, openly at least, more concerned about a 10th successive home game without a victory; Brighton did not do enough to merit one but they were certainly not the worse of the two sides.
Their 2,000 returning fans, admirably vocal on a freezing night, were reminded of the utterly unappealing turn football has taken: one that alienates them from an experience that should only be enhanced by proximity. Their chorus of “fuck VAR” was at least a throwback to times before Covid-19, but that is hardly a glowing reflection of the way the technology is deployed. It was such a marginal call at full speed that VAR should have had no right to overrule the official.
Some football was allowed to take place without interference prior to that, although it will not live too long in the memory. A lively Brighton were superior in the first half and deserved their lead, which came through an altogether less controversial penalty after Ward-Prowse had handled when challenging Danny Welbeck. The spot-kick was converted by Pascal Gross, but Ward-Prowse made amends shortly before the interval from Southampton’s first genuinely menacing spell. His outswinging corner was met emphatically by Jannik Vestergaard, echoing a goal the pair created against Aston Villa last month, and for long periods that appeared the sum of the excitement.
Ings had not played since that match at Villa Park, where he hurt his knee, and his arrival at half-time sparked Southampton without quite suggesting they could find an edge. One smart flick from the striker resulted in a shot wide from Theo Walcott and some deft juggling in the box created a half chance for Nathan Redmond. In the circumstances, though, his winning goal came from nowhere.
“The longer it took, the more I was convinced it was inside the box, because otherwise they wouldn’t have looked for so long,” Ralph Hasenhüttl said. “It was the right decision because it was clearly inside the box and that’s what they have VAR for.”
Goodness knows which replays he had been watching. Hasenhüttl was on safer ground when he praised his side’s defending and the “fighting spirit” that compensated for a lack of quality on the ball. Those might have been the headline points had he and his counterpart been discussing the unremarkable draw that this should have been.