VAR: England vs The World
By Scott Page
99.3%. That was the percentage of “match-changing” plays that VAR called correctly in the 2018 World Cup according to FIFA. Yet less than three years later, there are widespread calls from fans to scrap VAR from the Premier League; there are even some pundits who are supporting this notion as well. This begs the question, where has VAR gone wrong in the Premier League?
When VAR was first used in the 2018 World Cup, there was some scepticism for fans who thought it might ruin certain aspects of football, but for the majority it was seen as a great success and a way to help alleviate the pressure from referees and stop the level of scrutiny that was being shown to them over poor decisions. Theoretically, VAR should stop games like the 2009 Champions League semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona, in which Chelsea were wrongly denied a string of penalties from happening. But over the past couple of seasons there have been a number of mistakes that have eradicated all trust that anyone had for both VAR and the referees using it, with Graeme Souness saying after a game between Manchester City and Southampton that “It’s a nonsense” and “They [the officials] just make it up as they go along”, in relation to an incident during the game involving City’s Phil Foden and the Saints’ Alex McCarthy.
"File:Baldomero Toledo checks VAR - Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City.jpg" by SounderBruce is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
There have been three main gripes fans have had with VAR and the officiating this season, including the use of drawn lines to judge offside calls, with many goals and/or penalties being disallowed due to incredibly tight calls. It has now become commonplace for fans to go onto social media to joke about a player being disallowed a goal because ‘his armpit hair was too long’, highlighting the almost comical nature of this part of VAR. The next problem that has come from this season are the rules and the interpretations used by both the match officials and those at Stockley Park manning the VAR. On the 2nd of February there were two separate incidents in games between Wolves v Arsenal and Manchester United v Southampton, both of which involved the “Double Jeopardy” rule. This rule entails that if a penalty is given, the player committing the foul won’t be sent off if they have made a genuine attempt to win the ball. Red cards were shown to both Arsenal’s David Luiz and Southampton’s Jan Bednarek for fouls in the box that were deemed to have not been genuine attempts to win the ball, despite both players seemingly attempting to pull out of challenges. This caused fans to vent their frustrations at both decisions and this frustration was compounded when Bednarek’s red card was rescinded upon review whereas Luiz’s was not despite both challenges being very similar. However, the chief problem that fans, players and pundits alike have with everything to do with VAR this season is the accountability of those officiating. Right now, no Premier League official is able to give a post-match interview, and this means that they are not able to offer any justifications as to why they came to certain decisions in a match and takes away any accountability that they may have for that game. With no criticism being allowed for the officials for fear of either a fine or a ban or both, this protection that referees have means that they can continue to make basic errors when it comes to both officiating on the pitch and using the VAR to help look at certain decisions. So where can VAR, and to some extent officiating be improved?
If we look across other footballing leagues, we can see instances where the use of VAR differs to its use in the UK and a lot of these differences are highlighted by fans on social media as improvements. These include a referee being mic’d up in a Hyundai A League game between Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers which allowed viewers to hear the communications between the ref and the players and between the ref and the VAR; or even in Italy where the world’s first VAR training centre was built with the idea of improving the referees’ use of VAR, such as what decisions need to be checked and what don’t. However, both of these solutions seem a bit unobtainable in the Premier League, but maybe it might be time to take some advice from our friends across the pond. The MLS was the first footballing league to integrate VAR into every league game and although there are a few problems and a few criticisms from time to time, for the most part it has been a success. There are three key things that the MLS has when it comes to VAR that the Premier League could use and benefit from. The first is that the referees always go and look at the pitch side monitor to look at a decision, thus allowing them to have the final say on the decision; it’s not just left up to those in the VAR hub. This means that VAR can be there just to be a helping hand to the on-field officials and doesn’t take over and dictate games like it has a tendency to do in the Premier League. In addition, in the MLS there are no lines used when checking offside calls, it is simply done on eye and gives the advantage to the attacker. Not only would this get rid of one of the more infuriating parts of VAR, but it would also decrease the amount of time for these decisions, as a lot of the time taken for those decisions in the Prem is through the drawing of the lines. Finally, the last, and perhaps the most important difference that the MLS has is that the league has a dedicated Twitter page just for VAR decisions, designed for explaining VAR reviews in real-time and explaining why a certain decision was made. This change if brought to the Premier League could be massive as it would allow fans to have some level of understanding as to what the on-field ref and the VAR are seeing and what they saw to come to a decision. This has the ability to create a rapport between the fans, players and pundits and the officials, which is something we sorely lack in this league.
VAR will never be perfect; it will always have its flaws in the game due to the human element part of it. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try and improve how it works and there’s nothing wrong with looking at other leagues to help with that, especially when they’re doing it better.