For years pundits, players and fans had been complaining about referees and the inconsistent decisions they made every weekend. It had virtually become part of the game. So the news that VAR – video assistance referee – would be introduced to the Premier League this season was greeted largely with applause – and a little relief.
Other countries had already trialled the technology, with mixed results, but it seemed to be a positive move for a sport that had previously steadfastly kept to its principles of giving the man or woman in the middle the final say. Finally, wrong decisions would be easily overruled and football would be the winner. But in England, at least, that has not quite been the case.
It is worrying that a profile of the people who will be in the news in 2020 is not about a star striker, a creative midfielder – or even a tactical genius of a head coach. For the Premier League it is Mike Riley, Neil Swarbrick and VAR itself – and that says a lot about how well things are going.
It is perfectly possible that you have never even heard of Mile Riley or Neil Swarbrick. To keep you up to speed, Mike Riley is a former referee and now the general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials [the referee’s body in English football] – and Neil Swarbrick is head of implementation of VAR in the Premier League. It is safe to say that these two have been very busy in the opening months of the season.
Everyone seemed happy with the introduction of VAR at the start of the season, with former players in particular believing that we had seen the end of poor refereeing ruining games and affecting results. Former England international Alan Shearer was even chosen by the Premier League to explain how VAR would work on a video shown to all fans before the opening games of the campaign. But a string of controversies have changed everything – and there is a significant backlash to the technology now, a backlash most keenly felt by Riley and Swarbrick.
As with any new technology or law change, part of the problem has been that not everyone understands exactly what has happened. Most fans were aware that VAR would be used when a ‘clear and obvious’ mistake had been made by the match official. But there have been numerous high profile cases of VAR only confusing matters – and in some instances, seeming to be plain wrong.
One of the more controversial VAR decisions of the season so far was Roberto Firmino’s disallowed goal against Aston Villa. The Liverpool striker was adjudged to have been offside as his armpit was marginally in front of Tyrone Mings’ knee. In this instance it could be argued that ‘offside is offside’, however marginal. But it is these types of VAR decisions that rankle with the fans.
Even worse is when VAR either doesn’t make a decision at all – or seems to get things completely wrong. Liverpool may not have needed any extra help this season but they were still pained to drop points against bitter rivals Manchester United. Marcus Rashford opened the scoring for the hosts but there seemed to be a foul on Divock Origi in the build-up. The referee could be forgiven for missing the offence – but this is what VAR is supposed to be catching. No foul was given and the goal stood. If Liverpool do end up missing out on the title this season, that will be one non-decision that will endlessly talked about.
Riley has understandably defended VAR and argued that it is early days in the implementation of the technology – suggesting that everyone should just accept that it will take time to settle down. But with such important games – and money – at stake, that answer doesn’t seem good enough.
Riley has also acknowledged that tweaks can be made to make the situation better, for the fans in the stadiums in particular. The paying public has been kept in the dark in most cases with only the VAR decisions displayed on the big screens in the grounds – sometimes a good while after the actual incident. Apparently there is to be better communication to allow fans to know what is going on. But that will not fix the issue of distrust in a system that was supposed to make refereeing almost fool-proof.
Even though other Leagues in other countries have not escaped VAR controversies, there has not been the same degree of uproar in places like Italy and Germany. Part of the reason for that is one of the ways that VAR has been implemented in England. Although there is the chance for the on-pitch referee to consult sideline video monitors to help make a final decision after VAR has been consulted, Premier League officials have decided not to use these devices this season. Riley has stated that the use of the monitors would disrupt the game. But fans and pundits alike point to numerous examples of games being held up for minutes on end while VAR is consulted – with the referees just standing in the middle of the pitch awaiting the decision.
Although Riley and Swarbrick have sat down with representatives of all the Premier League clubs to listen to concerns – and heard arguments for scrapping VAR altogether – there seems little chance of much happening before the start of next season. There has been talk of some laws being changed to work better with VAR, but for now the Premier League will need to learn to live with the new technology.
VAR was supposed to eliminate incorrect refereeing decisions and make disagreement in soccer a thing of the past. But it does seem that its implementation has only further muddied the waters and given Premier League fans even more to argue about after the game.