VAR in the Premier League: Does it work? Critical Review

VAR is a topic that has polarised the world of football for the better part of four years now, and has been the centre of debate and controversy since its arrival to the biggest leagues in football in 2019.

So, first of all, what is VAR? VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee, and it is a tool implemented to assist referees make the correct decision in key moments during matches. The referee can either use the system to overturn their original on-field decision, or reassure themselves that they have come to a satisfactory decision in a particular incident.

VAR was actually first introduced in 2012 in Dutch football, when Mike Van der Roest thought up the idea of a review system that might improve the game. It was trialled during that 2012/13 Eredivisie season, but it did not look quite the same as it did now.

And in 2019, RTL found that VAR was a key factor in Ajax’s first title success in four years.

At first, every single incident – even outside of VAR’s current parameters – was reviewed. The trials displayed that VAR needed to govern a much narrower scope, which is how VAR was shaped into what it is today.

There are, however, specific parameters within which VAR can operate. These are:

  • Offsides in the build-up to goals
  • Fouls or other offences in the build-up to goals
  • Direct Red card offences
  • Mistaken identity
  • Penalty incidents

I am going to go into these in detail and explain some of the issues attached to VAR, as well my view of the various aspects of the Video Assistant Referee

Offsides in the build-up to goals:

In this instance, the referees are looking for an offside in play. This could be an offside against the player who receives the ball right before they score, or it could be an earlier offside in the same phase of play. If an offside is spotted, then the goal will be disallowed, and play will be brought back for a free kick where the offside took place.

There are a couple of extremely contentious issues with offside calls in VAR, and the first is what actually counts as offside. A player is legally offside if any part of their head, body or feet is beyond the second-last opponent (usually the last outfield player before the goalkeeper). This has led to some dubious calls in recent years, with players being adjudged to be offside when none of these pre-requisites appeared to be the case. Roberto Firmino of Liverpool had a goal stripped from him when his armpit was called offside in 2019, while team mate Sadio Mane and Sheffield United’s Enda Stevens saw goals ruled out when the offside lines seemed to show that no part of their body, head or feet were offside.

Another issue stems from the length of the phase of play, and whether or not an offside much earlier in a phase of play should have any bearing on the final decision. As yet, there is only an extremely vague ruling on what counts as sufficiently recent to the goal for there to be an overturn on the original goal.

The Premier League, England’s top football division in football, cites an “immediate phase” before a goal is scored, but there is absolutely no explanation of what exactly that is, and therein lies the issue. If an offside happens a minute before a goal is scored but is still in the same phase of play, there is no specific law stating that this is  close enough to the goal to rule it offside. Therefore, some will be given as offside, where others will not. This leads to inconsistencies, and this cannot be accepted in the world’s most popular sport.

At the moment, the phase of play ruling is in a limbo between counting the whole phase of play and limiting the phase to a certain period of time before the ball crosses the goal line, but there is a reluctance on the premier League’s part to decide exactly what they want the ruling to be. After over a year of VAR’s presence, it is surprising that there is still such a level of hesitation.

Of course, deciding the relevance of a particular part of a phase of play comes down to common sense and the referee’s discretion. But can we rely on this? Well, certain damming comments would suggest not. TalkSport Pundit Simon Jordan said last year that English referees are “not good enough” and they are “not strong”, while Arsene Wenger was less than complimentary about English referees’ competence after they were left out of the 2018 World Cup. He stated that “people want crisp, sharp action and the referee has to make sure that happens. We don’t live in the dark ages.” Trust in referees, particularly in England, has never been lower, so I believe the question we have to be asking is not about VAR’s effectiveness, but referees’ ability to use it properly.

Fouls in the build-up to goals:

The sub-topic of fouls brings into the debate the necessity for a “clear and obvious” offence. Once again, “clear and obvious” is entirely based upon the referee’s assessment, and there is no, so to speak, clear and obvious guidance for them to follow. The external referees looking at decisions through VAR will often have to advise the referee that they have seen a clear mistake on the ref’s part, or tell them to look at the VAR monitor at the side of the pitch to decide for themselves whether they have made an error. Once again though, there is absolutely no indication of when a mistake is clear and obvious, and when a foul is still not enough to overturn a decision.

As a result, this is another aspect of VAR that is simply too vague, and a foul should be more black and white than it is at the moment. The current regulations indicate that a foul, as in the dictionary definition of a piece of foul play, cannot always be seen as such during a VAR review. This makes no sense at all, which is one of the criticisms – VAR can only work if it used properly and with conviction.

The same issue also arises as in offside whereby a referee can decide how far back through a phase of play they go if they are to find a foul, and this will again be different with different refs, leading to more inconsistencies. An example of a foul being too far back was Marucs Rashford’s goal for Manchester United against Liverpool in 2019 after Divock Origi was fouled, but too far back in the phase of play for the goal to be disallowed. The wild inconsistency here was ironically in the same fixture early last year, when Roberto Firmino’s goal was disallowed after a foul on David De Gea. The gap between the offence and the goal was roughly the same in both incidents.

These two incidents further highlight referees’ inability to properly understand the laws of the game, and failure on VAR’s part to fully underline when a phase in the build-up to a goal actually stars. It prompted former Manchester United player Roy Keane to bemoan the state of football under VAR, claiming that the game has “gone mad.”

Direct red card offences:

These occur when a referee feels as though, upon review, a player has acted recklessly or dangerously so as to endanger an opponent, displayed violent conduct, or has denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity by committing a foul.

It has to be said, referees seldom make many errors in this respect, and red cards are generally given out at the right moments, but one major error last year stemmed from yet more lack of understanding of the laws from English referees. The red card law states that a red card offence can be made if the ball is out if play, and a review has to be set in motion by the second restart of play after the incident takes place.

This error took place in the Merseyside Derby last year, when Everton’s Jordan Pickford flew with both feet raised into Liverpool Virgil Van Dijk, forcing the defender off injured, but referee Michael Oliver and his VAR assistants failed to award a red card, believing that incidents out of play were not within the VAR remit. Van Dijk is still out injured having needed surgery to repair his knee. Oliver has since admitted that he made a mistake in not sending Pickford off for one of the most reckless and dangerous challenges in recent history in the Premier League.

Mistaken identity:

This rather comical aspect of VAR was introduced as a result of Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs taking a red card for an offence he did not even commit. During the Gunners’ 6-0 defeat to Chelsea in 2014, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stopped Eden hazard’s shot with his hand on the line, only for referee Andre Marriner to confuse him with team mate Gibbs and send off the left-back instead. Unsurprisingly, VAR has not had to intervene in a mistaken identity case since its introduction to the Premier league in 2019. The incident in 2014 was, however, another damming indictment of Premier League officiating.

Penalty incidents:

VAR officials can review any incidents which take place inside the penalty area that may suggest a penalty should be awarded. This can either be for a foul or a handball inside the box.

Once again, the offence must be clear and obvious, but the phase of play ruling is slightly different. A penalty can be awarded after a goal is scored at the other end, provided it was still in the same phase, or it can be awarded at half-time or full-time.

A famous occurrence of a late penalty decision after a goal took place in 2019 in the Czech league, when Bohemians thought they has scored against Slavia Prague, only for VAR to rule that there had been a foul at the other end. Therefore, the goal was chalked off and a penalty was awarded instead.

Manchester United were also awarded a penalty at full time against Brighton back in September, following a handball that took place right before the full time whistle was blown. Bruno Fernandes converted the penalty to win United the game 3-2.

Now while it may seem farcical, you have to imagine how it would have looked if the penalty were not awarded. United would have walked away from the game feeling robbed of victory, and that a refereeing decision had lost them the game. In this instance, VAR helped the referee come to the right conclusion, and that game proved VAR to be a tool of distinct accuracy, when applied correctly.

This also sparks the idea that it is sometimes quite irrelevant what decision VAR leads the referee to, there will always be those left frustrated with it. Brighton fans will certainly have been raging at the fact that the penalty was awarded after the final whistle was blown, while, overall, VAR simply did its job adequately, and late though it may have been, it resulted in the correct decision.

So we have covered the parameters, what is the overall consensus of VAR? Well, as of last year, only 13% of football fans and viewers are against the use of VAR, with the other 87% believing that the introduction of the review system has been a positive change for the sport. This does depend where you look, as I will touch upon a but later on, VAR seems to be having a different affect on opinions in some areas than others, but VAR is generally seen as a system that is making a change for the better in the beautiful game.

After a vote in the Premier League, clubs ultimately decided not to implement VAR for the 2018/19 season, but changed their minds for the 2019/20 season. I believe that another season of comparing the frankly abhorrent performance of English referees to the fruits of a system in place to help them is what swayed most of the clubs, although there were still those that were not in favour.

Another consideration of VAR is the length of time it can take to actually review an incident. In the world, the average time taken to review an incident is 55 seconds, and in the Premier League, a decision is overturned every 3.5 games, so it has to be said that the Premier League does not do a bad job at all of keeping time spent reviewing decisions to a minimum. There have of course been stumbling blocks, such as when Ollie Watkins had a late equaliser ruled out for Aston Villa against West Ham in November, with the VAR review taking over two minutes. For the highest and most elite level of professional football, this is a ludicrously long time, but given that it was an isolated incident, time consumption has not been such a issue.

The GQ magazine also argues that, though there may be frustration, VAR actually does its job perfectly. The system gives a clear image of what happened in a particular incident, and clarifies dubious calls from referees. Their subsequent question is why exactly is there so much anger about VAR?

They talk about the unrelenting drama caused in the Champions League in 2019, when Raheem Sterling had a last-minute winner ruled out against Tottenham, leading to one of the most controversial eliminations in Champions League history. The correct decision was made, and VAR did its job in creating both theatre and fairness in that instance.

But even they, in their blinding optimism, have had to concede that VAR has not been a roaring success. They do mention the fact that VAR was supposed to be a “miracle cure” for the disastrous state of refereeing in the English game, but this has simply not been the case. It seems that whilst VAR is proving to be effective in the most prestigious competition in club football, it is failing domestically in England.

What they are indicating then, is that even the cure of VAR cannot deter us from the fact that, it really does not matter how good the system is, it cannot paper over the chasms left in the game by the officials. The consensus, particularly from GQ, seems to be that it is a pointless exercise having VAR in the Premier League if its officials are unable to perform their duties and use it as it is intended.

It cannot be denied though, that many of these opinions are coming from biased standpoints. Premier League fans have all seen mixed and contrasting fortunes for their sides since their introduction. According to research conducted by ESPN, 109 decisions were overturned by VAR last season, with 27 goals being awarded and a staggering 56 goals being chalked off. They also concluded that Brighton gained eight points thanks to VAR, while relegated Norwich were left ruing the seven points that they lost due to VAR calls. Although, in fairness, they were last by 13 points, so these seven points made no indent on what was already a calamitous season for the Canaries.

The point stands, though, that fans of certain clubs will be adamant that VAR is favouring other clubs. This is an argument that was always going to happen, but it is simply not true. We have mentioned some decisions that went against Liverpool last season, but an article by the Express claims that, if VAR had been active during the 2018/19 season, runners-up Liverpool would actually have beaten Manchester City to the title. This means to say that VAR can affect anyone either adversely or positively; it simply depends on the circumstances rather than a pre-conceived plan to cost another team. The Express article, therefore, seems to point to yet more incompetence on the part of Premier league referees.

Finally: the reward. Last year, Rochdale and Oxford each had to pay over nine thousand pounds for VAR to be used in their away FA cup matches. This gives an idea of just how expensive the system is. By these numbers, the Premier League spends around seven million pounds on VAR every year.

In the premier league last season, there was a rise in 12% in the amount of accurate decisions made during games with VAR compared with the season before when VAR was not in use.

This, really, is the most telling stat. All in all, it means to say that VAR is a system that works well, and it provides a real opportunity for referees to make the right decisions during games. However, the standard of refereeing in England is such that the officials not seem at a disposition to utilise the technology in an effective way.

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