VARcical?: Teething problems with VAR in the Premier League.
The need for video assistance for referees has long since been apparent in football. Ever since I saw Carlos Tevez open the scoring for Argentina against Mexico at the 2010 World Cup from an offside position and the pandemonium which ensued among Mexican fans in the ground when a replay of the goal shown on the stadium’s big screens, it was obvious to me that it was not right that clear decisions such as this could be missed by a match official when everyone watching at home - and even in the ground in this case – knows the officials have made a mistake.
Following various high profile incidents such as this, Video Assistant Referees have been put in place across all of Europe’s top 5 leagues in an attempt to prevent clear refereeing errors from effecting a match’s result. Seven years since the system was first trialled in Holland’s Eredivise and the implementation of VAR threatens to fundamentally change the game for the first time since the back pass rule was introduced 1990. However, whilst the back-pass rule forced goalkeepers to play with their feet and encouraged free-flowing passing football, the current implementation of VAR seems to be to the detriment of the game, breaking up the flow of matches and sucking the emotion from goal celebrations.
Last weekend saw VAR create further controversy, with Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City seeing seemingly clear penalties appeals turned away despite VAR reviews. This again called into question VAR’s role within the game and within which situations it should be involved.
Clear and obvious?
The threshold for determining whether a VAR review should overrule a refereeing decision is outlined by The International Football Association Board (IFAB) as when a clear and obvious error has been made by the on field officials relating to a goal, a red card offence or a penalty. This relates to as objective decisions, such as was the ball out of play in the lead up to a goal and subjective decisions, such as whether a challenge warrants a red card. If an objective error has been made then if the VAR officials see that the referee has made an error, they will automatically overrule the decision. However, if they believe a subjective error has been made they must then decide whether this was a clear and obvious mistake before recommending the referee reverse his decision.
Focusing firstly on these subjective decisions, the Premier League has tried to implement a lenient system which will rarely overrule a referee’s decision, as seen with the series of seemingly clear penalties not awarded last weekend. In this sense you can see the thought process, they want VAR to interfere with the game as infrequently as possible but in doing so seem to have misunderstood when VAR interfering becomes a problem.
Take Harry Kane’s penalty appeal during the Tottenham and Newcastle game on Sunday as an example. Kane was clearly and intentionally impeded by a stumbling Jamal Lascelles only for Mike Dean to wave play on. This decision was backed by VAR following a lengthy review as the Premier League want VAR to support the referee’s decision whenever possible so that VAR does not interfere with the game when it can be avoided. But supporters aren’t interested whether a decision is made by an on field or VAR official, a far more important principle to fans is that the flow of the game is not interrupted. In trying to do the right thing, the Premier League have actually made VAR worse as by setting the bar for clear and obvious errors higher than it is on the continent but still endlessly reviewing incidents they are interrupting the game and not coming to the correct decisions, rendering the review of the incident completely pointless.
If the Premier League are going have a higher threshold for a clear and obvious refereeing mistake – a notion which I firmly support - then surely it takes not more than 3 views of an incident to spot a clear and obvious error? Why must every decision be reviewed endlessly in slow motion, which ignores factors such as the speed a player was travelling at when he was tripped and seems to make every handball appear deliberate. To minimise the interference of VAR on the flow of the game and the emotion of scoring a goal, a time limit of around 30 seconds could be set for each review, starting the moment the incident occurs rather than when the ball goes out of play in order to reduce stoppages in play. The league must also stop worrying about overturning the on field referee’s decisions and focus on ensuring VAR reviews come to the correct ones, Mike Dean probably needs taken down a peg or two anyway.
Undoubtedly the most controversial VAR decisions having centred around the interpretation of the handball rule. I first experienced this change in referee’s directive during the 2018 World Cup when VAR awarded Iran a penalty against Portugal for a point blank hand ball against Cedric Soares. I had never been a perplexed by a refereeing decision, particularly as it had been reviewed by the VAR team but I assured myself that everyone was new to VAR and the rule would be sorted soon enough.
Over 12 months later and not only do handball decisions remain the most controversial VAR incidents but this summer IFAB have introduced rule changes to accommodate VAR that seem even more fundamentally wrong than those which bemused me last summer. These changes centred around whether a player’s arm has extended beyond a ‘natural silhouette’ in defensive situations – yet a former footballer at any level will tell you there is nothing more unnatural than sliding to block a shot or jumping for a header with your arms flat by your side - and added a new rule which states that any goal scored or created using a player’s arm or hand would be disallowed, regardless of its position. The latter of these rule changes saw Gabriel Jesus’s last minute ‘winner’ against Spurs last week controversially ruled out and perhaps even more bizarrely would have seen Fernando Llorente’s goal against City which sent Spurs through to the Champions League semi-final last season ruled out. This was, if nothing else, a case of impeccable timing from Mauricio Pochettino’s side but realistically, both goals should have stood. In both defensive and offensive situations players should be punished for using their arms to gain an unfair advantage and not simply for having arms!
In the wake of these controversies IFAB have called for fans to simply accept the changes they have made to the game but these new rules must be questioned in order to determine whether they can suitably improve the game. At the moment it appears as IFAB’s obsession with making handball decisions black and white has led to fundamentally incorrect penalties being given and perfectly good goals being disallowed just so VAR officials can guarantee they are correct by the letter of the law. This fact symbolises the flaw with the current VAR system – it isn’t supporting the game; it is fundamentally changing it. When the former handball rules were applied they were far from football’s most contentious issue, potentially because you see so few clear cut handballs within the game. Could these former guidelines not be reinstated and decisions only overruled in instances of clear and obvious errors, as with all other objective decisions? This would provide consistency within the Premier League’s VAR process, with the higher threshold for clear and obvious mistakes reducing the number of cheap penalty’s awarded for harsh handball decisions.
Whilst it feels almost too easy to criticise subjective decisions made by both the on-field referee and VAR official as they are - by very definition - open to interpretation, when it comes to objective decisions it becomes harder to question these as there is a right answer.
The introduction of goal line technology to the Premier League in 2013 demonstrated how objective decision making can be improved by technology. If the whole of the ball crosses the whole of the goal line the referee is notified by a buzz on his watch within a matter of seconds and a goal is awarded, no questions asked. The success with which this was implemented explains why IFAB have become so desperate to make as many refereeing decisions as black and white as possible, reducing the likelihood of contentious decisions being made.
However, there is one objective decision which some fans seem to view subjectively, the offside rule. Whilst the rule technically states if a player is even a hair’s breadth offside then the play should be stopped, the law was really introduced to stop players standing in the oppositions box just for his team mates to punt the ball 70 yards in his direction. The rule is not in place to decipher whether Raheem Sterling’s shoulder was one millimetre off or onside.
The reviewing of these decisions breaks up the game and in cases such as the review of Ruben Neves goal against Manchester United takes some of the elation from scoring a goal. And whilst watching VAR make a decision can be entertaining, it is not the reason fans go to matches – they go to see goals. I have never heard a supporter excited to hear a referee award a penalty or give a goal so I doubt any feel that way about VAR.
The current preciseness of the offside rule no longer gives the benefit of the doubt to attackers and whilst an alteration within the rules within which only your feet can be offside would hand this advantage back to the attackers, the time taken on decisions would still disrupt the flow of the game and the fact that rules would need to be altered to suit VAR would once again demonstrate that VARs implementation is fundamentally changing the game. The same time restrictions I previously mentioned could be applied to the offside rule with a line showing the offside line and the VAR officials determining whether the player is clearly offside and if he is not clearly offside then the goal stands.
It is still unclear what IFAB see VAR’s role as within the game and as a fan it is difficult to understand why this uncertainty remains. Whilst the technology is just being introduced to the Premier League, it was used during last year’s FA Cup, the 2018 World Cup and has been in place in Italy and Germany for over 2 seasons now. It is perfectly reasonable that all aspects of VAR are yet to be perfected but with such radical rule changes made during the Summer and rudimentary questions appearing on a seemingly weekly basis, yet another a serious review of the system and its impact on the game will almost certainly be required before next season.
The theory behind implementing VAR is perfectly sound but the current system is simply not fit for purpose. Fans within the stadium have little to no idea what is going on and the game is being broken up on a regular basis to check decisions which, in a Premier League context, it seems there is little chance of being overturned. The current implementation of the rules within the VAR systems also seems to benefits attacking play in the wrong situations, with creative passing football being discouraged by the exactness of the offside rule whilst the handball rule can award cheap goals from nothing, as Liverpool’s opener in the Champions League final.
Any suggestions I have made throughout this piece are far from perfect and would almost certainly see fewer correct decisions than the current implementation. However, they would allow the game to flow with as few as interruptions as possible and prevent any blatantly obvious refereeing mistakes- the sort of decisions fans wanted cleared up when VAR was first introduced. A more relaxed system such as this seems more appropriate for a 38 game Premier League season, where marginal refereeing decisions will likely even themselves out and the culture of end-to-end, fast-paced football can endure.
Hopefully, in time, the necessary changes will be made to incorporate VAR into football without disrupting the game, alienating match-going fans or dampening emotions. For the time being though, just sit back and enjoy the 99.3% “correct decisions”.