Yes, The Premier League Has Made A Mess Of VAR, But We Shouldn’t Turn Back Now

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It has been only two months since I last wrote about VAR, and I wasn’t expecting to have to do so again for a while, but the mess from the past couple of weeks requires a breakdown. Fan frustration with the new technology has grown substantially as every decision the Premier League makes only appears to create more problems.

Let’s start with the persistent refusal of the refereeing body responsible for Premier League games, PGMOL, to use the pitch-side monitors to review decisions. Despite the fact that this has proven to be a more effective way of doing things in other competitions that use VAR, the Premier League seems determined to do things their own way and it is pleasing no one.

The logic, I presume, is that not using the screens saves time and creates less of a disruption to the games. The problem is though, is that the major subjective decisions in each game are being made by the VAR instead of letting the on field referee use the screen to keep control of the game. Oh and on top of that there are still the long delays anyway.

So the people who were against VAR anyway are not happy, and neither are the people who are in favour are of using the technology, because they know that there is a better way of implementing this. This is aside from the fact that not using the screens is giving us worse decisions and more inconsistent ones.

Now let’s move onto another issue the Premier League is having with VAR, and that is the standard for overturning decisions. Again this is something made more complicated by not using the pitch-side monitors because instead of having the on-field referee decide whether or not to overturn his own call, the VAR is left in charge of that, and so far, honestly, the results have been awful.

For the first nine gameweeks, we had a stupidly high standard for overturning decisions. The technology was being wasted as we were still getting clearly incorrect decisions being allowed to stand every week. Then, in gameweek 10, without any communication or warning, they lowered that bar for changing decisions drastically.

Now we have all kinds of calls being overturned and even when we see the replays there is no way of knowing what the video assistant will decide, because the “clear and obvious” standard has been replaced by something that appears more random than anything else. For example, Watford’s penalty against Chelsea, awarded via VAR, hardly falls into the “clear and obvious” bracket.

I mean, it wasn’t too dissimilar to the amount of contact between Mina and Son in an incident that ultimately was not given as a foul inside the box in the Everton vs Spurs game on Sunday. The truth is, to drastically change what fans can expect from VAR between two gameweeks without any public communication creates confusion and uncertainty in a time when what we need is more transparency.

Another big point of controversy this weekend was offsides and in this area I think there isn’t a great deal the Premier League are doing wrong. The incident that caused so much outrage was the Firmino offside in the Aston Villa vs Liverpool game, which first of all, was given offside by the officials on the field. That means that, despite the moaning about VAR, if the technology was not in use then that would still not have been a goal.

The reactions to this situation are so out of control though, that Liverpool fans think the lines used to determine if Firmino was onside were deliberately moved to ensure the decision of no goal stood. Meanwhile others are sure that in the photo of the incident going around that Firmino is clearly onside, which obviously isn’t the case because well, the technology shows that not to be the case.

The angle in the photo of the incident that is going around can be deceptive but even still, to suggest that Roberto Firmino is “clearly onside” is wrong. Also, even if you don’t trust the technology, whether or not he was offside is far from clear and cannot be determined from the camera angles we have seen.

Regarding these marginal offsides calls on the whole, I think it’s something that fans will just have to get used to overtime. Of course the technology will improve and the margin for error will be reduced, plus this is likely the best way to keep offside calls correct and consistent. Something that perhaps would help now though, would be some clarity from the Premier League.

An explanation of how the technology used for offside calls works could go a long way to helping fans understand the calls they are seeing given during games. Right now it is unclear to the majority of people watching what the lines shown during these replays actually mean, which is only feeding the conspiracy talk and the feeling that the verdicts VAR is coming to is not the correct one.

So with all these issues, where do we go from here? I see a lot of people who are opposed to VAR suggesting that it should be “binned” like this is some experiment likely to go away. Honestly I don’t see that happening, and even if it did, the introduction of technology to further support referees is inevitable, if not now then it will come eventually.

We’re talking about the most popular sport in the world and at the highest level, before VAR, we had glaring refereeing errors occurring on a weekly basis. Going back to that shouldn’t be seen as acceptable, not when so many other sports have had success in introducing technology to support their officials.

That brings about the question of how does the Premier League improve their current relationship with VAR, because right now it is not going well. First thing is to operate it in the same manner as the other major competitions using it, and that is let the referees use the pitch-side monitors. On top of that they need to figure out what the standard will be for overturning on-field decisions.

To begin with we had the bar too high, now it is probably too low. I think using the monitors will help with that to a degree, but it may take some time to get this ironed out. Something that I think needs to be looked at after that, and this not only for the Premier League, is more transparency in the VAR process.

Whether that be letting viewers hear the conversations between the officials, having the referee explain the outcome and reasons for it after the call is made NFL style, or any other method of giving viewers, both in the stadiums and at home, a better insight into VAR’s decisions, something has to be done to reduce the amount of confusion during these reviews.

In the meantime, I think fans may have to learn to be patient while VAR is still its early stages. The best way to improve the system is to keep using it in order to find out what is working, what isn’t and how those problems can be fixed. The reality is that this is a fairly monumental evolution for football and how it is officiated, so it would be naive to expect it to be working flawlessly in just the few years since it was introduced.

In the end using this technology will never solve every problem and there will always be officiating decisions that split opinion. Sometimes I see this myth circulating that VAR was sold as a change that would eliminate all controversy associated with referees, but its purpose is to assist the officials and significantly improve the accuracy of the decisions. Used properly, even at this stage, it is more than capable of fulfilling that function.

As for the Premier League, they have over complicated what was already destined to be a tough adjustment period for English football fans. Not great from what is supposedly the best league in the world. However, it is unlikely that there is anyway back now, so we can only hope they are quick to tackle the problems we’ve had so far. Until they do that, the dissatisfaction with VAR will continue to grow by the week.

Originally published at http://jackmccutcheon.com on November 4, 2019.

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