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Yet Another VARticle

Is football’s video assistant referee VARy good or a joy killing VARce?

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Another weekend of Premier League football has come and gone, and nothing much of note has changed. Liverpool are still frighteningly good, nobody has a clue who’s going to go down and the back pages and social media are filled with one three letter abbreviation, VAR. Video Assistant Referee and its home in Stockley Park have gone through the strongest baptism of fire I've seen in football in a long time. I could have written this article any week from matchday 5 onwards. This weekend, I decided to stop putting it off and finally write this article as once again VAR made the news for, unsurprisingly, all the wrong reasons. In Chelsea’s game against Tottenham, Giovanni Lo Celso saw nothing for a challenge every man, his dog and eventually Stockley Park saw as a red card. Bournemouth had two decisions go against them in their game against Burnley and in the Leicester vs Manchester City game, two incredibly similar incidents had two completely different outcomes. I even waited until today to publish just in case anything happened in the Liverpool vs West Ham game so that I could put that here as well. It’s fair to say that the one prediction I got spot on in our Premier League Prediction article was that “there will be debates about VAR” (https://nouse.co.uk/2019/08/08/premier-league-201920-predictions). Over the year the language has changed from ‘give it time’, to ‘things are going seriously wrong’, to ‘why are we even bothering’.

I’m going to distinguish between two different things over the course of the article. VAR and Stockley Park, though they’re often used in the media for the same thing, I want to use them differently and highlight said difference. VAR (Video Assistant Referee) is the cameras, monitors and software used to review on pitch decisions taken by the referee, as well as the in stadium announcements and graphics to highlight to fans at the game when something is being reviewed, why and the eventual outcome. On the other hand, Stockley Park is the location where using VAR, referees selected by the Premier League review the footage VAR gives them and then communicates with the on-field referee what the decision should be, whether there is something to overturn or whether he has made the correct decision, allowing the game to continue exactly as it would have done without their interference. The reason I find it so important to distinguish these two is because one is at fault and the other is not, a distinction big enough to determine what the future of VAR and Stockley Park should be, at least in my opinion.

So first, a review of the technology, of VAR itself. I would put forward the argument that there is nothing actually wrong with the technology itself. Look at the Lo Celso incident, you, I and every person in the UK and beyond could see that the incident was as clear a red card as they come, the issue there is not the technology or the camera angle used, they were both working perfectly fine and
showed it at a more than acceptable speed. Again, with the incidents at Burnley and Leicester, there was nothing wrong with the cameras, their quality, what was being shown, how it was being shown or communication. In all of these incidents, removing the emotion and eventual consequences (emphasis on con), VAR did its job correctly and perfectly.

It should therefore be no surprise that the rest of this article will be looking at Stockley Park and by extension, the Premier League. As mentioned, there is almost unanimous decision that when looking at the pictures provided by VAR, the Lo Celso incident was a red card. The two dissenting voices being Karl Henry (for whatever reason) and the assistant in Stockley Park, the latter being the most
important. It’s worth noting (for the complaining that’s upcoming) that Michael Oliver, the on-field referee didn’t really do anything wrong. He was told the decision was being reviewed and was later told to proceed with the game. It’s not Oliver’s fault, it’s not the technology’s fault, all blame lies with the officials at Stockley Park for looking at it and, either through fear or sheer incompetence, not overturning the decision. Again, in the Leicester game, the same official looked at two almost identical incidents and gave completely different judgements, why? If he was the on-field referee with no VAR and had done the same, we would be blaming him, why is it any different when he’s behind a monitor using technology, why does the technology get dragged into it? With the Burnley decision, I get a hint of what has been suggested by some in the media world, that Stockley Park are making it up as they go along. Again, completely unacceptable for an on-field ref and fully their fault, the monitor and tech don’t change that.

I’ve only looked at the examples from this weekend here, but these are representative of the overwhelming majority of VAR gone wrong cases. The technology does it job, the official using it doesn’t. I do want to touch on offside because this gets criticism despite both the technology and officials doing their job, the issue there being that fans wait minutes in the stadium for ‘offside by an armpit’ as many in media and on social media say. I get that and have said that the best solution here is to use Hawk Eye and the method often seen in extreme cases with a time limit of 45 seconds because I think the issue here is the time, if you get mad that VAR makes a correct but very slim call on offside, you’re stupid. Offside by an armpit, toe, or whatever else you want to use is still offside.

So, what can we do? Scrapping VAR solves absolutely nothing. Because the issue is the officials in Stockley Park who like it or not, do not go away with VAR. As a fan of a Championship club, I can tell you that VAR can’t really do much right when the officials are beyond stupid. My changes for VAR would be:

  1. Let officials go to the monitor, it works overseas, doesn’t take too long and means this nonsense happens less
  2. Bring back retired officials for Stockley Park. Most referees retire because they physically can’t keep up with the game anymore, this is not a problem when you’re sat down in front of a monitor
  3. Train the officials better and clarify the rules. If they really are making things up as they go along, that shows a lack of experience and understanding of the rules of the game (which is problematic
    in the Premier League), then it is going  to take more time (and yes, more money) to solve the officiating problem.

I believe that once these problems have been fixed, the idea that it is a joy killer will go with them, VAR (and video replay in other sports) works well when everything around them is in place to work too, when this is not the case, the technology can do all it want, but the human using it will still get it wrong. VAR isn’t going away, not in the long run. The NFL removed video replay years ago and the calls for its return only grew stronger before it came back. Remove it now, and it will be back. What we lose by losing VAR is years of development and improvement. The issue is not technology, it’s the officials and the system around the technology. We brought in VAR to correct blatantly wrong decisions, maybe it’s time for those attacking the technology to review their own blatantly wrong call and fix what is actually blatantly wrong with the whole VAR experience.

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