VAR. The three letters that have sparked the biggest debate in football, in particular the Premier League, and caused many fans to coin the question “Is it football anymore?” into the plethora of chants at their disposal. It has been widely covered by the press and pundits alike with many decisions being called as too close or even inconclusive. Fans have voiced their concerns over the time taken to make decisions and the lack of clarity about the system’s use while attending matches live.
Many will look to the other top European leagues (Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A and La Liga) for examples of how to use it but even they have had seen similar problems. A common theme for each league has been teething issues. The Bundesliga introduced VAR in 2017 and had issues with the time taken to make decisions and the lack of clarity within stadiums (sound familiar?) but have allowed the implementation of screens to help offload the time taken.
Although they were overused at first, it seems as though the league has seen the positive impact of it now with hardly any controversy surrounding its decisions. Serie A and La Liga had exactly the same issues when VAR was introduced to them in 2018, slow decisions, fan frustration and general displeasure led to changes being made within each system. In La Liga they stuck true to the ‘clear and obvious’ rule (more on that later) where if a decision is too close or is taking too long, they simply forget it and move on. This allows for quicker and more legitimate calls to be made. Serie A had mixed issues when they changed their system from a local VAR referee to a team of people in a centralized location – like Stockley Park here. Whilst their system is generally a lot quicker they still have some issues with misinterpretation of decisions between the two teams of officials. Of course any level of human error is met with a lot of annoyance from fans. Ligue 1 is probably where it has been implemented the worst, and where it is most similar to the Premier League.
In an interview with the BBC Sport (2019) football writer Jeremy Docteur Stated:
“This season is even worse than last season. It is good when it changes obvious errors and it is fair if a player is offside by two or three metres.
“We are judging offsides badly. The point is not to overturn a goal if a player is one centimetre offside, they draw a line and rule out a goal if an armpit or chin is offside. Football is supposed to be a human sport, but there are huge stoppages and they are reviewing everything, including ridiculous calls for handball.
“I was never pro-VAR but it’s creating even more problems than before. They need to have a meeting and discuss this. A lot of players have come to to say it is not working well and we have to listen to the people actually playing the game.”
As you can see this strongly conforms with many people’s opinions here of how VAR works as a system. The question we must ask ourselves is, of course, has VAR changed football for the better? At the moment you would have to say yes for most of Europe, but for the Premier League and Ligue 1 it is certainly a resounding no. So how can they improve their systems?
We can first look at the phrase that has been branded about all campaign – “Clear and Obvious”. We’ve heard it so many times it’s almost second nature to us football fans to refer to it in any VAR discussions. Yet its continuous use still hasn’t made it any ‘clearer’ as to what it means (no pun intended). Another common theme is the lack of consistency in decision making and confusing rules that even the players sometimes don’t understand.
When looking at the Premier League there are almost too many decisions to count. Some of the most controversial being Pedro Neto’s disallowed goal against Liverpool when Jonny’s hand was judged to be an inch offside, or when Liverpool had a goal scratched off for a ‘foul’ on David De Gea by Virgil Van Dijk when it looked to be an obvious 50/50 aerial duel. You could even point out how VAR didn’t spot a clear foul on Gerard Deulofeu that denied Watford a penalty against Spurs early on in the season. The list itself could be an article.
The biggest issues surrounding the system are ones that need to be fixed ASAP if the controversy is to end. The offside rule has been reworked to the point where a fingernail could chalk off a goal, many fans and pundits have said it ruins the human aspect of the sport. The debate has raged on about how science and calculations is taking the integrity of football away.
This in mind, it would be worth looking at how La Liga used their system for ‘clear and obvious’ decisions. One suggestion has been to set a 30 – 45 second timer on decision making- if it cannot be figure out within the limit it shouldn’t be deemed as clear and obvious and we should let the game play on. It would certainly be worth trialling considering the positive effect this brisk nature of thinking has improved the fluidity of the game in Spain. The debate on offsides would also be simplified and I’m sure the players would appreciate a change in the rulings. After offsides we then have consistency, which in itself is a different beast all together. With VAR checks taking place in Stockley park having different officials at each stadium for each game it would certainly be a positive start. This could allow for better and quicker decision making as communication would be easier and of course the VAR officials would get a feel for the match. Italy’s Serie A saw success with this method in their initial season with this system.
Another step for change would be getting more experienced referees to manage the decisions with VAR, rather than having younger referees do it. This one is pretty self-explanatory, we don’t want better/more experienced officials being swayed by inexperienced ones – it just doesn’t make any sense.
Finally we have monitors; fans have been crying out all season for monitors to be used pitch-side like in many other leagues. For some reason the Premier League didn’t start to implement this until towards the end of the current season pre-outbreak. A more consistent use would surely help referees and speed up the time taken. With the season due to return in less than a week it is paramount that there is a solid plan going forward. We are all eager to see the league return on the 17th June, however, fans could soon be reminded of what they didn’t miss should mistakes crop up again.
Overall, VAR has the potential to make a huge positive impact. As seen in Germany. Spain and Italy it has taken some time to get going but it appears they have gradually built a solid way of using VAR. The Champions and Europa League have also seen a more consistent use for it. Both Ligue 1 and in particular the Premier League some tweaks would certainly provide a much needed improvement for VAR going forward. For now we can only hope!