Dominating debate, sending fans into meltdown and causing consternation generally, it hasn’t exactly been a seamless introduction into the Premier League for VAR.
Allowing goals to stand which should be chalked off, ruling out goals which should be allowed to stand. Denying blatant penalties, and pulling others out of thin air. Why aren’t refs checking pitch-side monitors? Why is it taking so long and why are the decisions so wrong? And can we even celebrate a goal anymore?
VAR has achieved the impossible and united fans of every club, if only in opposition against it. Not just fans but players, pundits and managers alike have all been lining up to stick the boot in.
Now, it’s our turn. By which we mean, let’s have a sensible debate about how VAR is changing football, and see how the situation might develop from here.
Why was VAR introduced?
According to the International Football Association Board, of which the FA is a member, the use of the Video Assistant Referee – VAR – is designed to correct “clear and obvious errors” and pick up on “serious missed incidents”.
In a nutshell, VAR in the Premier League is supposed to eliminate injustice, avoid howlers and level the playing field.
When was VAR introduced?
Although new to the Premier League, VAR is already in its third season in the Bundesliga and Serie A, and its second in La Liga.
It was used in the 2018 World Cup to generally positive reviews, although there was no doubting what Morocco’s Nordin Amrabat thought of it.
VAR was introduced into the Champions League in the 2018/19 knockout stage, dramatically – although correctly – denying Manchester City in heart-breaking fashion versus eventual finalists Tottenham.
When can VAR be used?
According to FIFA, there are four distinct areas where a VAR check must take place:
• Goals – checking there was no infringement in the build up
• Penalties – checking if the on-pitch ref was correct to award / not award a penalty
• Straight red cards – checking if the on-pitch ref was correct to send or not send a player off. Yellow card decisions are not reviewed.
• Mistaken identity – ensure the on-pitch ref disciplines the right player
Sounds great, in theory. So…
What are the issues with VAR?
1. VAR disrupts the game and reviews take too long.
Exhibit A in the case against VAR is surely David McGoldrick’s disallowed goal for Sheffield United away to Tottenham in Round 12.
Spurs took the lead on 58 minutes. McGoldrick equalised two minutes later. The goal was disallowed after John Lundstram was adjudged, after a near four-minute review, to have been offside in the build-up – which he wasn’t.
Back in August, Wolves’ boss Nuno Espirito Santo felt the 1m 38s taken to – again harshly – disallow Leander Dendoncker’s ‘goal’ against Leicester was too long. And that was on the very first day of the Premier League season. As it turns out, that was a sign of things to come.
The argument goes that if an incident needs longer than 1 minute to check, then there cannot have been any “clear and obvious error”.
2. VAR is getting decisions wrong
As well as Dendoncker & McGoldrick, there have been several other questionable calls by VAR.
In October, Manchester United were awarded two iffy penalties against Norwich, although Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial rather sportingly missed both.
Next up, Roberto Firmino’s armpit hit the headlines against Aston Villa.
Then all hell broke loose after the Bernardo Silva / Trent Alexander-Arnold penalty area double handball in the early stages of Liverpool v Manchester City.
In fairness to the officials, that was a difficult call under any circumstances, even with the help of VAR. One can only imagine Anfield’s fury had they disallowed Fabinho’s strike, and gone back up the other end to award City a penalty instead.
A cynic might suggest that fans don’t really care about getting the right decision, and the only decision they want is the one which favours their team. A cynic might suggest that, but that kind of misses the point.
3. The people operating VAR don’t know what they’re doing
See points 1 and 2.
VAR has been operating in other leagues without anything like the level of controversy we’ve already seen in the Premier League.
Is it to do with the standard of officiating, both on-pitch and in the now famous Stockley Park studios?
Officials at the World Cup and in Germany, Italy and Spain have shown far more willingness to review the pitch-side monitors at their disposal.
Premier League referees by contrast have been reluctant to do the same, leading to accusations from Premier League clubs that they’re shirking their responsibility for making decisions.
Where’s Pierluigi Collina when you need him?
4. VAR is ruining the live match experience
The main issue here is that fans and players are no longer sure if they can let rip and celebrate properly when a goal is scored, in case it gets overturned on a VAR decision.
The most brutal example of this is Man City’s Champions League trauma against Spurs last season. Since that gut punch, VAR hasn’t been much kinder to Pep Guardiola in the Premier League either.
The Football Supporters’ Association voiced concerns before the season began, and thus far those concerns have proven to be well founded.
So has VAR taken some of the soul out of the game? Maybe.
But whenever we struggle with life’s great mysteries, it’s always helpful to ponder, “what would James Milner think?”. Well, Milner doesn’t like VAR either – case closed.
5. A lack of communication on VAR decisions to fans
No-one’s suggesting we mic up the refs like David Elleray in that brilliant 1989 Millwall v Arsenal experiment, which is a shame.
But, making fans better informed about VAR decisions was a key point of action from a recent meeting between the Premier League and the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (referees).
What happens next?
As a result of said meeting, there will be only one change to the way VAR is currently deployed. From December, while a VAR check is in progress, more information on what the VAR check is about will be relayed to fans via the big screen, or (at Anfield and Old Trafford) via a stadium announcement.
PMGOL boss Mike Riley, the man charged with implementing VAR, stated in its defence that correct decisions in “key match incidents” have gone up from 82ncident, to the point where it’s now inconceivable to imagine these sports without technology in place.
Times change, people change, fashions change and football changes. Like it or loathe it, VAR is here to stay.
Given that VAR will continue to confirm or deny every goal and every penalty in every Premier League game, it’ll continue to enrage, bemuse and mystify in equal measure…at least until the refs work out how to use it.