European Football

It’s Time to Talk About VAR

The difficult conversations about officiating at the top of football…

To say that there has been some officiating controversy in the Premier League this weekend would be an understatement, wouldn’t it? You could really say that about the last two weeks, if not more. Maybe over the last year? Two years?

Wrongly chalked-off goals, offside calls based on armpits and shoe size, reviews of supposed “clear and obvious errors” that seem neither clear nor obvious, and a litany of other issues plague not just the Premier League, but leagues around the continent. And these decisions have become more and more prevalent, dominating talking points and being the center of the rage for football fans the world over. And the direct target of the ire of pundits and supporters alike revolve around three letters: VAR. Video Assistant Referee.

VAR has been incredibly controversial since its introduction in the football world. An understandable idea in concept but not one that seems to have been implemented as well, VAR seems to cause more controversies on a weekly basis than it resolves. Despite all of the previous issues, this certainly feels like we are near the breaking point. This past weekend in the Premier League seems to have given VAR its biggest black eye since implementation, and more and more pressure seems to be piling onto footballing authorities. The Premier League’s PGMOL has acknowledged mistakes made by VAR in the last week, namely wrongly disallowed goals for West Ham (vs. Chelsea) and Newcastle (vs. Liverpool), but those apologies have fallen on deaf ears. The debates have accelerated to a fever pitch, and like most debates there are two sides: anti-VAR (abolish it and go back to before, accepting that errors will be made) and pro-VAR (the system itself is fine but the referees running it are flawed). And it is difficult because, at the essence of both arguments, there are both truths and flaws.

The standard of officiating in the Premier League simply has not been good enough for several years now, and this is an issue that predates the introduction of VAR. As an Everton fan I can distinctly think of two incidents within the last four years where awful officiating screwed over Everton in a game where VAR was not utilized. Aubameyang scored a goal despite being a good three yards offside against Everton at the Emirates in 2018, and Manchester United were awarded a penalty for a perfectly fine Idrissa Gueye tackle against Everton at Old Trafford the very same year. Everton were very infamously on the benefitting end the same year when a missed hand ball by Phil Jagielka led to Newcastle being robbed of a stonewall penalty in a game the Magpies lost 1-0. Match referee Bobby Madley went viral on social media due to a clip of him apologizing to the Newcastle players during the match for missing the incident. I am sure most fans can empathize here and can pick out their own examples of feeling robbed by the officials. And I am sure most fans of smaller clubs can feel similarly in that it always felt like when playing the top teams, especially away from home, we would be more likely to be victim of a major refereeing error.

Feeling this way should not be normal. I understand that the feeling of being robbed against bigger teams is probably just confirmation bias, and I completely understand that referees are human and mistakes will certainly happen, but this was not just an occasional thing. This is why I push back on the idea that going back to the pre-VAR standard is fine because that was mostly amicable when it was, in fact, not amicable. The issue of poor and inconsistent officiating existed well before VAR. The idea that some felt regarding referees helping the big teams existed before VAR. VAR did not create this problem but was in fact created as a result of it. Sure, VAR has made it more ridiculous, but removing the computers is not suddenly going to fix the issue of missed decisions and the feeling of injustice that football fans regularly feel.

And I strongly push back on the idea that “missed decisions balance out over the course of the season” because they very clearly do not. There are missed decisions that define games, define seasons, define whole eras for clubs and for nations. Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in 1986, Thierry Henry’s handball that kept Ireland out of the World Cup in 2010, and Frank Lampard’s ghost goal against Germany in 2010 might be the most famous examples, but they are not the only ones. A wrongly disallowed Lionel Messi goal for Barcelona against Atlético Madrid on the final day of the 2013/14 season actively cost Barcelona a league title and led to Barça manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino losing his job. Anthony Knockaert’s blatant dive to win a penalty against Watford in the 2013 Championship Playoff Semifinal nearly cost Watford a spot in a playoff final, and it only took the most famous ending to a match in Championship history to change that. Sheffield United were relegated from the Premier League in 2021 largely due to a ghost goal against Aston Villa not counting. The now-infamous Chelsea-Barcelona Champions League semifinal game from 2009, well, needs no further explanation. Things merely do not balance out.

With margins tighter than ever, do we really want more of this? A missed Rodri handball that should have been a penalty for Everton against Man City, an incident missed by both the referee and his linesman, could have been the difference between City being champions last season and Liverpool being champions in a title race separated by one point. Arsenal missed out on the Champions League by two points last season. Burnley’s relegation to the Championship was decided by three points on the final day. Those are incredibly tight margins, and it is not solely on officiating to dictate how seasons end, but having margins that close decided by clear errors is wrong, and that was clearly happening prior to VAR’s implementation.

But I also cannot buy into the argument that the people, not the VAR technology, are the sole problem because that does not seem to be true either. Obviously this is not a computer making the decisions, there are people sitting behind those computers. VAR is simply a tool that is being manned by the same problematic officials that were on the pitch before. But VAR is certainly an issue because it changes the way we view incidents on a football pitch. It is a different lens through which we examine incidents that might be reviewed differently in a previous time. It is through VAR that we can view a player being mere centimeters ahead of the last defender as being a definitive violation, whereas before such a minor difference would be missed and understandably shrugged off as not being a clear advantage gained by the attacking player. Incidents that may have been viewed as physical but not quite fouls can be viewed as more malicious and dangerous than they actually were with the benefit of slow-motion replays and multiple angles.

Incidents are taken out of their in-game context. Logic and understanding of the game is removed. The incidents and matches are essentially re-officiated. This is not what was intended when people talked about VAR correcting “clear and obvious errors”. This is not what VAR was meant to be. By doing this, more is being ruined than corrected.

Let us take the most recent weekend of incidents as an example. Newcastle striker Alexander Isak had a goal disallowed against Liverpool because his shoulder was approximately two or three centimeters ahead of the edge of the defender’s foot. To be fair, he is offside based on the rules, but there is absolutely zero competitive advantage gained by Isak being so marginally ahead of the defender. It is a difference that the human eye would have incredible difficulty spotting, but apparently it is a serious enough incident for referees to waste time drawing lines based on what might not be the correct still image of the incident in order to make a ruling. Maxwel Cornet’s equalizer for West Ham against Chelsea was disallowed for a rather trivial incident between Jarrod Bowen and Édouard Mendy that, in live action, did not look like a serious foul. When examined under the microscope of multiple slow-motion replays, however, that interpretation changes and the incident is pulled out of context, and, as a result, West Ham were wrongly denied a goal that would have given them a hard-earned point.

This is absolutely ludicrous. This is not what VAR was implemented to do. This is simply making things worse, and we have not even gotten to the most blatantly wrong incident of the weekend.

VAR was implemented partially in order to de-mystify the idea of officiating in major games. It was supposed to bring some clarity and consistency into the decision-making process and pull back the curtain on what referees are looking at and why things are the way they are. It was meant to re-balance the spectrum of officiating that many felt was skewed to a certain set of teams. It has done the exact opposite. Refereeing decisions remain shrouded in mystery, especially for match-going fans, and many are still left enraged and perplexed as to why a perfectly legitimate goal in their eyes may have been chalked off. It has not made officiating more balanced, consistent, or fair, as fouls in one game that could overrule a goal may not be considered in other games. And it has done nothing to dissuade the beliefs of fans who feel the Premier League is rigged in favor of the “Sky Six” or in favor of TV ratings.

The two aforementioned incidents directly benefitted two “Sky Six” sides, and the most egregious error of the weekend, Philippe Coutinho’s bafflingly disallowed goal for Aston Villa against Manchester City, was a decision that was universally agreed to be incorrect but held up in favor of a “Sky Six” team. Just as bad as this are the incidents that VAR, for whatever reason, chooses not to review despite its existence revolving around the idea of reviewing the things that referees miss. This past weekend alone there were two incidents inexplicably not reviewed: a crunching challenge by Virgil van Dijk on Amadou Onana that maybe should have been a red card and Harry Maguire rugby-tackling Eddie Nketiah in an incident that should have been an Arsenal penalty. While the bad decisions in the VAR Era are not exclusively in the benefit of the league’s “big teams”, there are several very recent and very egregious examples of those teams benefitting from this mysterious officiating.

I want to put it out there that I personally am not accusing the Premier League of being purposely rigged in favor of certain teams, but when you look at these inexplicable decisions and when you factor in that referees are not held to account for the decisions and we as fans are not offered any insight into the decision-making process with VAR, you can begin to understand why many dissuaded supporters feel so adamantly that the league is rigged.

Regardless of this, it is clear that VAR is not accomplishing what it was set out to do. Major game-changing and season-changing incidents are still being missed, and equally game-changing incidents are being created from nothing by referees looking at video screens instead of at the actual match. The PGMOL can apologize for these mistakes until they are blue in the face, but those apologies will keep falling on deaf ears as long as it is apparent to fans that nothing is being done to improve the VAR review process or the standard of officiating in general. The fans are right to do so, as it is blatantly clear that this process is not improving and that the same mistakes continue to be made year after year.

This is obviously a very complex issue. I do not think the binary choice of “keep VAR” vs. “scrap VAR” is the problem-solving decision here. I do not think VAR will be scrapped, as I do not think we are close to the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” moment in that regard, but I do think that more accountability from officials is needed regardless of VAR’s existence. Match officials should be forced to have press availability after matches in order to be asked about their review and officiating process during games. If a poor decision was made, they need to be held directly accountable for it.

If VAR remains, then there needs to be systems in place to remove the curtain covering the decision-making process. Conversations between the head official and the VAR referee need to be shared on TV broadcasts in real time, similar to how the Television Match Official works in rugby, so the decision and the process can actually be explained to the viewer. There needs to be some form of explanation offered to the match-going fan, likely an explanation given by the referee, in order to allow the fan at the match to know what is happening. And we need to truly be restricting the use of VAR to “clear and obvious errors”, a bar that should be much higher than it currently is. This should not be used to nit-pick millimeters on offside decisions or create more confusion on incidents that are already open to interpretation. This truly needs to be a tool used to catch the blatantly incorrect decisions and nothing more.

VAR should be a back up option, a safety net there for the on-pitch official in case something big is missed. It should not be used to re-officiate games or deal with minor affairs and small quibbles over tight offsides or minor contact. The referee on the pitch needs to be the one making the decisions, and VAR should only intervene if it is clear that the on-pitch referee has made an obvious mistake. And refs do not need to be perfect, but there needs to be some honest understanding and openness between officials, clubs, and fans. It is only then that we can move forward in this sport without beginning to ostracize fans more than the sport’s governing bodies are already doing.

Reform needs to happen. Those in charge need to recognize the issues and make tangible real actions to address them. Otherwise, what is the point of all of this?

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