Debate: Time for VAR in the Premier League?
The use of video refereeing has been a major talking point as football braces itself for its latest, and perhaps most controversial, modernisation in recent times.
Just about every other sport uses them in some form of assistance - many of them have done for years - but football is last to the party and has generated a mixed reaction from supporters, managers and players alike as Video Assistant Referee (VAR) begins to gather momentum as football fans with Premier League tickets brace themselves for a ground-breaking development.
After years of calls for video technology to be implemented into football in order to help referees it appears the Premier League will be next following a series of trial runs this season in both the Carabao Cup and FA Cup.
VAR is regularly used in the German Bundesliga and Serie A in Italy and has been used on the world stage in international tournaments like the Confederations Cup. It was first used in England in November 2017 when the Three Lions faced Germany in a friendly at Wembley Stadium and the talks for the Premier League to soon follow suit continues to build.
The technology made its debut in English football, albeit on a trial basis, as Brighton beat Crystal Palace in the FA Cup in the New Year, and was used again in the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg between Chelsea and Arsenal, but referees in the Premier League do not have access to it...yet.
VAR was the main talking point following the the six 3pm kick-offs in the Premier League last weekend, two contained controversial incidents affecting relegation-threatened sides. Swansea felt they should have been awarded a first-half penalty in their 1-1 draw at Newcastle, while Southampton believe they were denied a win at Watford as Abdoulaye Doucoure used his hand to net a 90th-minute equaliser in their 2-2 draw.
Far from eliminating debate around refereeing decisions, however, the new system resulted in more discussion and controversy over officiating leaving many questioning the future of Premier League refereeing.
Where a VAR review is used, it will normally be triggered during stoppages in play and limited to four types of match-changing incidents: Goals, Penalties, Straight red cards and mistaken identity.
However, it will not be used for first or second yellow cards and referees cannot say “Im not sure, I’ll look at a replay.” They are still expected to referee the game as normal and will only be told by the VAR if they have made a clear and obvious error.
The process for reviewing a decision can work in two ways; either the referee can request a review after making a decision or the VAR team can recommend one. In the latter situation, if the VAR judges that there is the potential for a clear error to have been made he or she can notify the referee.
The referee then has three options: they can immediately overturn the call based on the VAR's advice, review the incident themselves on a monitor on the touchline or stick with their initial decision on the pitch.
It's a far from perfect system and it does have its flaws, but no one is really suggesting it would be at this stage. The key question, however, is whether the process is developed sufficiently for implementation in the World Cup next summer and the Premier League next season, as is planned.
The current plan is that VAR will be used at this summer's 2018 World Cup in Russia which goes to show how far the evolution has progressed and the confidence that the authorities have in the system presented.
Mike Riley, the head of the body in charge of Premier League officials, has revealed that VAR has already been trialled during league games - but in a non-live environment, meaning there has been no actual contact with the referee.
Riley told the Daily Mail: "We have trialled using video assistant referees for a number of Premier League games so far this season. This has been in a non-live environment, which means there has been no contact with the match officials at the games. We will continue with these trials throughout the season."
A common complaint has been the time taken to review decisions and the way that causes confusion and brings a halt to the play. Then there is the simple fact that while VAR should help referees to make correct decisions, it does not guarantee them, calls are still made according to the officials' judgment.
There are numerous flaws in the system that we have seen used at the top level at the moment. For instance, what happens if the linesman gives offside,but the player is onside. The player goes through and scores a goal ,but the goalkeeper and defenders stop because the flag was up & the whistle went. Does that get turned over to a award a goal? If not, then surely VAR favours the defender.
Then there is the notion that new technology, as useful as it may be to a few, will ruin our beautiful game for the majority taking the top of the game further away from the grassroots. Players are taught from a young age to ‘play to the whistle.’ so why change it now? Dubious decisions are part and parcel of the excitement in football. Referees are only human and the concept of human error can only be expected now and again - baring in mind that 96% of referee decisions are correct. Bad decisions happen, it's part of the game we know and love. The debate will continue to rumble on with a growing perception that it will cause constant disruptions to the game and disrupt the flow of the match, which is ironic considering that the Premier League is renowned for its fast paced style of play.
The VAR is only there for clear incidents and will not be used to review every incident that involves shades of grey, but Riley stressed at a media demonstration it will be the opposite. The system will instead only be called upon when a referee has missed something that is demonstrably black or white. The rule of thumb is essentially “if it’s not clear and obvious, leave it”, and “minimum interference, maximum benefit”.
In theory, it means that highly debatable incidents won’t go to review, like penalty decisions that require repeated replays to discern whether it was a foul or a dive, especially since referees have no recourse to call for VAR assistance. They are advised to just referee the game as normal. Therefore, major talking points can still affect the course of the game despite VAR introduction. Leaving many to question, What is the point?
Given the debate and some resistance to VAR, Riley and the authorities are keen to stress that this is just a starting point, is open to improvement, and that it will not take the debate out of football. Since some decisions will always come down to subjective interpretation and have no objective correct call, there will always be an element of debate. One thing for sure is that the face of top level football could be about to change forever. Whether it is for better or worse remains to be seen.