How can VAR minimise the madness?
Background image: Kelvin Stuttard.
You’re at the game and your team has just scored a last-minute winner. You jump up to celebrate and thousands of fans jump up with you and share the same elation. Then you all turn around to realise it’s been ruled out nearly two minutes later - not even by the referee but by someone who isn't even in attendance, and there’s no clear reason why...
In its maiden season of Premier League football, VAR, or the Video Assistant Referee, has encountered its fair share of issues… per weekend. It's quite obvious to everyone watching that the system is having teething problems and is, as of yet, nowhere near perfect. Aside from learning from other sports’ attempts to integrate such technology, the Premier League has taken it on itself to learn from other football competitions and model its own system accordingly.
In theory, it's not a bad idea. But it’s how it’s executed. For example, despite their presence at all stadiums, the league decided to avoid using the on-field monitors for the referee to review their decision whenever possible - due to the extent of the delays seen in other competitions.
These monitors are a key part of VAR in many other competitions but sit expensively idle in Premier League stadiums. One problem with this is that as well as human subjectivity with, for example, penalty decisions, the issue of consistency is brought into question. This is because the VAR official is making calls, leaving the match referee clueless in the meantime, and one official’s interpretation of events may be different to another’s. Therefore, inconsistency in decision-making occurs.
Also, the authority of the referee is undermined. After they have made their decision and it goes to a check, the man (or woman) in the middle is simply at the mercy of the ‘Gods’ in Stockley Park and has no authority over the match at all in that particular moment. Without naming any names, some of those ‘Gods’ don’t actually have any experience officiating at Premier League level.
The monitors should be used, which is why they are there, even if it takes the referee the time to run over to the sideline. In addition, the replays shown on the screens should always be shown both on the big screens in the stadium, and on the live broadcast of the game, to keep everyone watching informed on what is actually going on.
Which brings us onto one of the biggest problems with Premier League’s, and football’s more generally, use of VAR. Fans are simply not informed enough about what's actually going on. A graphic stating ‘decision under review’ simply isn't enough, and fans, whether at the game or watching at home, should be seeing what the officials are making such key decisions on.
For example, in cricket, the actual conversation between officials is broadcast live during the game’s coverage so that fans watching are fully up to date with the decision-making process and not completely blind to referees’ reasoning. Surely football can take something from this?
Although it does add to the accuracy of decision-making, VAR has sometimes intervened in the Premier League this season in cases where there has been no call from the referee or appeal from either team. There is an argument to say that technology is getting involved too much and removing the human aspect of the game.
Potential solutions to this issue would be to learn from other sports in the form of challenges. Different sports have different systems with regards to challenges, and teams or players receive a set number of challenges in which they can appeal to the referee to review the video footage and potentially change the original decision if successful.
Some sports penalise teams or players for unsuccessful challenges, so that the referee is only challenged on a decision if the team or player is sure that the decision was wrong. This means that technology does not overbear the game, as it arguably is in the Premier League at present, but is used alongside the game in a more structured way.
Arguments against such a system would include that wrong decision may have to be left if the team or player has no remaining challenges, but a counter-point is that it is on the team or player for using up their set number of challenges.
Perhaps the most controversial of the Premier League’s interpretations on VAR this season is the rule that it will only intervene in case of a ‘clear and obvious’ error. This is due to the fact that the term ‘clear and obvious’ is subjective in itself, and wherever there is subjectivity, there is inevitably debate. The challenge system would give VAR a much more objective rule on when to intervene.
VAR is in its Premier League infancy and needs to be given time to adapt to the game. Numerous adjustments are needed for it to be accepted as fully reliable. It would simply be a case of properly using the resources available, as well as perhaps discussing with teams the idea of a challenge system. As VAR progresses, the sport must develop specialists to review the footage, rather than leaving in place the men whose questionable decisions prompted the calls for the technology in the first place.