VAR has split fans, players and managers alike in it’s first season in the Premier League, but has it been a success?
“It’s a joke! We play in the Premier League – the officials have cost us two points.” This passionate post-match rant was delivered by Southampton’s Charlie Austin after a goal was controversially ruled out, costing them a vital victory. Just five days later, on 15 November 2018, the Premier League announced that they would be introducing the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system for the following season. An end to all the controversial decisions, we thought, as the, “best league in the world” – as Austin claimed – was finally catching up with the rest of Europe.
VAR was no stranger to English football. It was already being used in the Carabao Cup and for the privileged few in European football. The Premier League planned to learn from the teething problems that VAR has had in these competitions, announcing a change to the handball rule. The League promised only to reverse the “clear and obvious” mistakes made by referees.
There are differing opinions on how successful this has been so far.
The opening day of the season saw VAR have its first contentious and deciding say, when Wolves had a winning goal ruled out against Leicester. A ball struck the arm of Willy Boly before it was blasted in from close range by Leander Dendoncker. VAR decided that the goal should be ruled out because it had struck Boly’s arm, despite the fact it was clearly not deliberate. This incident sparked controversy. Wolves defender Conor Coady exclaimed: “We will have to play with our hands chopped off in the future.” This was just the beginning of the VAR controversy that we have sadly come to expect week in week out in the Premier League.
Matt Dickinson, chief sportswriter of The Times, believes that football needs to try and “sell the decisions to fans”, by “being able to hear the referees over the PA system in stadiums.” This would certainly help fans understand the decision-making process and allow them to see the reasons why decisions are made. However, Dickinson believes the bigger problem is the way football fans naturally react to decisions, stating: “Football fans naturally can’t accept decisions that go against their team.”
Offside decisions have been an unexpected source of controversy throughout the season. This was seen as an area that VAR would be a brilliant aid for referees. Surely offsides are similar to goal-line technology where there is no perception; it is straight fact – a player is either onside or not.
Liverpool found themselves in an unfamiliar position, trailing at Villa Park, when Roberto Firmino tapped home a Sadio Mane cross, only for it to ruled offside. When VAR was consulted the linesman’s decision was upheld. However, further replays showed Firmino was onside. These mistakes are not the ones that experts predicted, but they are still being made. This surely indicates that VAR isn’t working.
Sheffield United were denied the opportunity to add another major Premier League scalp against Tottenham, when VAR denied them a goal. John Lundstram was ruled to be offside in the build-up to McGoldrick tapping home a cross. It took three minutes and 47 seconds to reach a decision and, at the end of it, Lundstram was offside by no more than the length of his big toe. The amount of time that it has taken to make the decisions and the incredibly fine margins that decisions are made from have sparked calls for change in this area. Dickinson, recommends “a return to a time where the striker was given the benefit of the doubt.” This would certainly help the game flow better, but where is “the benefit of the doubt” decided, as that is surely a matter of perception?
Every minute matters in football. As the distinguished Guardian writer Richard Williams pointed out, three minutes, 47 seconds is a long time. In 1999, it was enough time for Manchester United to launch that famous comeback in the Champions League final. Surely a cap is needed on the time it can take to reach a decision. Dickinson argues that if the Premier League only want VAR to get involved in decisions that are “clear and obvious” then there shouldn’t be a need for long stoppages. He says: “If a decision takes longer than 20 seconds, you have to argue if it was clear and obvious.” Maybe a cap on the amount of time it takes to make a decision is something that the Premier League should look at.
Even the biggest game of the season wasn’t exempt from VAR controversy. In the fifth minute of the recent Liverpool-Manchester City match, the ball struck Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold on the arm in his own penalty area. The referee did not give a penalty, no VAR check was made, and Liverpool launched a counter-attack that was finished off with a rocket from Fabinho to give them the lead. A VAR check was then made and although it appeared to be clear handball, VAR disagreed. However, the VAR verdict was different and Fabinho’s thunderbolt stood to the delight of the Anfield crowd.
Whether or not the introduction of VAR has been a good thing for the game remains to be seen. However, Dickinson says: “We need to make this work for football, if we throw this in the bin now, we will look back in 30 years with such regret.” Having spoken to Dickinson and surveyed many of my fellow students, there is one fact that is incredibly clear. The perception of what VAR is doing is far worse than what it is in reality. Of the 800 checks that have been made so far this season only 3.6% have actually overturned the decision made by the official on the ground.
I have a feeling VAR will continue to cause controversy for years.
I wonder if Charlie Austin has changed his mind yet.
By Alex Brinton
Photo credit: Premier League