Where We’re At With VAR In The Premier League

As another Premier League gameweek came to an end, VAR was once again the topic dominating the post-weekend discourse. This time most of the controversy came from one game, the Merseyside Derby, which was the first matchup of this round of fixtures. Two incidents in particular have caused a bit of a storm, so let’s breakdown what happened.

I’ll start with the disallowed goal because, for me at least, that is the more straightforward issue. In the dying minutes of the game, Jordan Henderson had, what would have been a winner, ruled out for a close offside on Mane in the build up. By this point I’ve made peace with the marginal offside calls, but for many these incidents are still hard to accept.

Something that exacerbates this problem is the angle of the replay that we are shown on TV is rarely directly along the line of the last defender. As a result, the pictures can be quite misleading with some fans determined a player was onside, even when the lines used by the VAR prove otherwise. This was the case for Henderson’s ‘goal’.

Of course seeing goals cancelled based on such fine margins isn’t ideal, but I don’t think we have found a true answer to improving this situation yet. Besides, what the current set up does give us is consistency. All the clubs are playing by the same rules, to the same standards instead of relying on the assistant referees to guess if a player was offside or not.

One more thing to mention with the disallowed Henderson goal is how it was affected by the new handball rule. As touching the ball with the top of the arm, above the armpit, is no longer classed as handball, it is now the point where offside is measured from, provided the arm is the point furthest forward.

If you look at where the line was drawn on Mane on Saturday, it was from the top part of his arm, not from his armpit which would have been the case last season. I think maybe that is another contributing factor to fans watching the replay and still being determined Mane was onside. Ultimately, whether or not people like it, the decision was the correct one under the current rules and current technology.

While the disallowed goal call, however unpopular it may have been, was the right one, the other major decision made by the VAR was a different story. Obviously it is the Jordan Pickford challenge on Virgil van Dijk, which we now know will keep the Liverpool defender out for, at least, the majority of what remains of 2020/21.

There seems to have been some conflicting information about what happened here. Firstly, after some initial confusion on social media, it turns out that Pickford could have been sent off for the challenge. The fact that the offside had already been given does not matter for this offence. The second issue is whether or not the VAR actually checked the incident for a red card, or if he just looked at the offside and left it at that.

Regardless of which version of events is true, it is clear that a serious error was made by allowing Pickford to stay on the field. There’s a couple of reasons why I find this particularly problematic. Pickford’s extremely reckless attempt for the ball is exactly the type of incident that needs to be punished properly. By that I mean a ‘tackle’ that endangers other players.

I don’t anyone thinking seriously is under the impression that Pickford set out to cause harm there, but such careless, dangerous fouls need to be punished properly to try and eradicate them from the game. In this instance it is made even worse by the fact that there can be no retroactive punishment either. Unfortunately a player cannot be punished later for something was seen by the officials during the match.

As for the other reason this kind of situation is troubling, it further undermines fans’ overall confidence in VAR. Although it has been in operation in the Premier League for over a year now, and even longer in some other competitions around Europe, many fans are still struggling to get on board with the new technology.

Such glaring mistakes like this one only create further distrust in the effectiveness of the VAR system. That’s not to say no errors should be expected ever, but to fail to check the incident, or to watch it and decide it is not a red card, is not good enough. Also, if we put this particular controversy to one side, there are still other problems the Premier League is still having with VAR.

One example is a lack of clarity when it comes to big decisions. Following Saturday’s game vs Everton, Liverpool actually asked for an explanation for the decisions, but how does that help fans who were also at a loss? There needs to be more transparency as to why certain decisions are made, because as of right now supporters are not being properly informed.

What is needed, is some form of official communication channels where the relevant VAR protocols and rules of the game can be explained to fans so they know why certain decisions have been taken. That will at least help with increasing fans’ trust in the VAR process and reduces the kind of speculation we saw during and after the Merseyside Derby.

Another major one is the use of the monitors. We have seen a very slight improvement this season but the pitch side monitors are still not being used enough. This means the VAR is making the big decisions instead of allowing the on field referee to review the incident again himself, and it makes for a very unsatisfying and unconvincing way for game defining moments to be ruled on.

To use an example from this weekend, Arsenal’s penalty appeal near the end of the first half of their game at Manchester City for Walker’s potentially dangerously high foot towards Gabriel’s head. Without going into the incident in too much detail, it would have made a lot of sense for the VAR to recommend a second viewing at the monitor, at least then the decision making stays with the on field ref.

Sadly, the Premier League are persisting with their reluctance to use this option and it keeps too much of the responsibility in the hands of the VAR team who should be assisting, not running the game. Their worry is that using the monitors would disrupt the flow of the game too much, but I fail to see how its impact would be significantly different to the stoppages we have already.

Anyway, as long as VAR remains a system that severely lacks transparency, with too many decisions being taken at Stockley Park VAR Hub instead of on the field, it will be difficult to get more fans on board. Time was always going to be required for all parties to adjust to the VAR era, but if things continue as they are then the Premier League will only make that process drag out even longer.

Originally published at http://jackmccutcheon.com on October 21, 2020.