VAR is still an enigma in the Premier League over two years on, but can only get better

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Over two seasons on since its introduction, VAR still remains an enigma in the Premier League. The video technology, which was state-of-the-art at the time, has experienced its fair share of disasters along the way and divided supporters.

‘After two years of training everyone has been really excited to get started with VAR,’ Chris Foy, a former Premier League referee, said after the first weekend with it in use.

‘Did it go well? As Raheem Sterling said after the Manchester City game, if we’re getting the decisions right then it can only be a good thing.’

Over two seasons on from its introduction, VAR still remains an enigma in the Premier League

Over two seasons on from its introduction, VAR still remains an enigma in the Premier League

The video technology has experienced its fair share of controversy, and has also divided fans

The video technology has experienced its fair share of controversy, and has also divided fans

It certainly has been doing just that, with every incident scrutinised in detail, painstakingly so. As a result, the enjoyment has arguably been sucked out of the sport – and the lengthy delays over decisions haven’t helped, either.

Over its debut weekend, VAR checked over 70 moments of note. Dermot Gallagher, another ex-top-flight referee, was another who was left satisfied by the system. 

He said: ‘I think it’s a great platform and a great start. We’ve seen three decisions overturned and all three could not have been clear with the naked eye.

VAR examines all incidents in detail and has been accused of taking enjoyment from the game

VAR examines all incidents in detail and has been accused of taking enjoyment from the game

‘It will get better, they will get faster and it will become more commonplace. People will grow into it and it’s been a really good start.

‘I wish I had it when I was a referee. I can look back at a few mistakes I made. As a referee, why would you not want to have it?

‘It’s new, everyone has to embrace it. There are people that do not believe in it but people will say it’s the best thing that has happened in football.’

It has certainly been embraced, for better or for worse. But these days, with every tackle, shot and loss of temper scrutinised, the picture is very different. Long gone is the satisfaction of the fans, although the officials remain in support.

It has been embraced since being brought in, but there remains a clear divide over its usage

It has been embraced since being brought in, but there remains a clear divide over its usage

There is still confusion, anger, apathy – and, admittedly, a number of correct calls. The question is whether having 100 per cent accuracy is worth axing the suspense.

This season, at the time of writing, 59 goals or incidents have attracted the attention of VAR. Each of these are examined through a different lens because of the changes to how incidents will be weighed up – particularly handballs and offsides.

Premier League referees chief Mike Riley highlighted the fact that, as both have been amended for the current campaign, this will help clear up the controversy.

For handballs, the hand or arm position factors into the officials’ thinking, as well as whether the body has been made ‘unnaturally bigger’. It is also now an offence if an attacker scores directly, or immediately, after the ball touches a hand or arm.

The dilemma lies over whether having 100 per cent accuracy is worth sacrificing the suspense

The dilemma lies over whether having 100 per cent accuracy is worth sacrificing the suspense

And in the case of offsides, the benefit of doubt for attacking sides is now back.  

‘The toenails and noses that might have been offside last year won’t be next season,’ Riley said ahead of the current campaign.

‘We will carry on following the same process as last year, so you’ll apply the pixel lines, place the attacking line and defending line on top, and then the thicker broadcast lines.

‘But where they overlap those, situations will now be deemed as onside.’

The benefit of doubt for attacking sides over offsides is back, after several decisive decisions

The benefit of doubt for attacking sides over offsides is back, after several decisive decisions

The Premier League have been bullish about VAR from day one, and are fully behind the project. With their decision accuracy standing at 97 per cent with VAR, in comparison to 85 per cent without it, it is clear to see why.

In fact, the total number of checks in the 2020-21 season was 2,029, and 129 of those led to reviews. This by itself appears to justify why the technology was brought in.

However, there are plenty of flaws. In the past, Riley – who is the general manager of Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) – wrote to the 20 top-flight clubs and asked for their thoughts on how VAR could be improved in the future.

Following on from their canvassing, thicker lines were introduced in an attempt to prevent the marginal offside calls which have frustrated fans, players and coaches alike. Patrick Bamford pointing for a pass is just one jaw-dropping example of this.

The Premier League are bullish about VAR, but there are still countless flaws with the system

The Premier League are bullish about VAR, but there are still countless flaws with the system

There has also been a change in how decisions are reached and shown to viewers. Initially, there was a time when the lines would be calibrated in full view on television, but the final, thicker lines are now in use straight off the bat instead.

Ultimately, the whole point of VAR has been to clear up discrepancies, and part of that process has seen officials told not to penalise ‘trivial things’ this season.   

‘Contact on its own is only part of what the referees should look for,’ Riley said.

‘They should also ask themselves if the contact has a consequence, and then if the player used that contact to try and win a foul or a penalty.

VAR exists to clear up discrepancies, and officials have been told not to penalise 'trivial things'

VAR exists to clear up discrepancies, and officials have been told not to penalise ‘trivial things’

‘It’s not sufficient just to say: “Yes, there’s contact.” I think, partly, we got into that frame of mind by the forensic analysis that went into VAR awards.

‘If you’ve got clear contact that has a consequence, that’s what you’ve got to penalise. If you’ve any doubt in those elements, you’re less likely to be penalised.

‘I think it moves the dial back towards where we were in a pre-VAR world. We don’t want trivial things penalised.’

Riley has insisted that the much-maligned technology would take ‘three to five years’ to settle in, and was quick to point to rugby and cricket’s examples.

Referee chief Mike Riley has always insisted that VAR would take 'three to five years' to settle in

Referee chief Mike Riley has always insisted that VAR would take ‘three to five years’ to settle in

The heart of the Premier League’s VAR operation is based at Stockley Park in west London – but, intriguingly, only three people are involved. In the event of a controversial incident, a VAR, an AVAR and a replay operator are on hand. 

At Euro 2020, a larger number of officials were used, which unsurprisingly helped to speed up the entire decision-making process. However, it has been reported that there are no plans in England for them to ramp up the size of their teams.

It was revealed by the Premier League that they have experienced improvements in the time it takes to check over incidents.

In the 2020-21 season, the average length taken was reduced by five seconds, while the time taken was cut by 10 seconds compared to 2019-20 campaign. They also added that the average delay caused by VAR totals up to 50 seconds per game.

There have been improvements in the time it takes to check incidents across the top-flight

There have been improvements in the time it takes to check incidents across the top-flight

The Athletic have previously reported that the Premier League have accepted that their group of officials are not at the same standard as the Euro 2020 cohort.

There is also the issue of making the VAR process digestible for TV viewers. Camera operators will generate a model for each pitch in the top-flight, and these are then uploaded into the monitors in time for match days.

Every broadcast camera in the stadium is available for VAR officials, making for a precise location for tight offsides – but the fact that the process behind decisions is shown, in full, to viewers has also proven a problem.

There is a demand for supporters to let games flow and referees have been attempting to do just that. 

The Premier League accept their pool of officials are not of the same standard as Euro 2020's

The Premier League accept their pool of officials are not of the same standard as Euro 2020’s

And the move to make offside lines thicker led Riley to declare: ‘Effectively we have given back 20 goals to the game that were deemed offside last season.’

After 40 matches marked with a host of good decisions, and a handful of divisive, entertainment-sucking ones, a Football Supporters’ Association poll revealed 95 per cent of fans believe VAR made football less enjoyable in 2021.

To add to this outpouring of anger, a separate poll from February 2020 found that two thirds of fans believed the system also ruined the experience. 

A YouGov survey discovered that 67 per cent of viewers claimed VAR made the sport a turn-off, and six in ten said it was ‘working badly’. 

A poll found that 95 per cent of fans believe VAR has made football less enjoyable this year

A poll found that 95 per cent of fans believe VAR has made football less enjoyable this year

There was a concerted effort during the early months of this season to break away from the feeling of frustration with the ‘lighter touch’ policy brought into effect, but several failings then struck, seemingly all at once, to undo the hard work.

During Brighton’s clash against Leicester, they were awarded a penalty when a free-kick, and a blatant one at that, should have been given instead. Both Stuart Attwell and video assistant Graham Scott were, correctly, lambasted post-match.

Then, throughout Manchester United’s trip to West Ham, Martin Atkinson made a series of blunders. Just one of those was corrected by his VAR, Darren England.

‘It is a strange game, refereeing,’ Mark Clattenburg reflected, via The Athletic.

Several high-profile officials have been criticised, with the cohort also plagued by in-fighting

Several high-profile officials have been criticised, with the cohort also plagued by in-fighting

‘We are largely unpopular to the outside world and plagued by in-fighting and bitching on the inside.’

Interestingly, Europe’s most senior refereeing official, Roberto Rosetti, admitted in June 2021 that VAR is a ‘dangerous project’ – and believes that it will only work at its best if its interventions are kept to a bare minimum.

‘UEFA believes in [VAR],’ Rosetti, UEFA’s chief refereeing officer, said. ‘We really believe it is an important help for the referees. Not only for the referees but an important help for football.

‘Of course we need to use this project in the correct way; it can also be a dangerous project. We need to be careful, we need to be clear.

Looking forward, being able to hear referees explain their decisions would benefit supporters

Looking forward, being able to hear referees explain their decisions would benefit supporters

‘We need to follow the principles of the laws of the game. We want to continue to use VAR only for clear and obvious mistakes.’

Looking ahead to the future, that would be the ideal picture for supporters, players and coaches. For the Premier League, there is no plan to change the use of red and blue offside lines, and the current guidelines in place look here to stay.

It may be beneficial moving forward that people being able to listen to the decisions being made at Stockley Park would help clear up any confusion.

Riley (pictured) has predicted that 'semi-automated' offside checks may be used in the future

Riley (pictured) has predicted that ‘semi-automated’ offside checks may be used in the future

However, International Football Association Board (IFAB) protocols state that video cannot be shown on the big screen at a stadium before the officials make their call.

Riley has predicted that ‘semi-automated’ ways of looking at offsides may be in place for the 2022-23 season. This may help reduce the decision time from an average of 34 seconds down to just five.

The introduction of more VAR officials would also help cut down on the controversy caused over the course of a campaign – but, despite it remaining on shaky ground, with time it will almost certainly become better and smoother.

VAR statistics – 2021-22 season

Total overturns: 59

Rejected overturns: 0

Leading to goals: 22

Leading to disallowed goals: 20

Penalties awarded: 15

Pens for handball: 6

Penalties overturned:

Penalties retakes (GK encroach):

Penalties retakes (ATT encroach): 1

Goals ruled out for offside: 13

Goals awarded after incorrect offside: 7

Goals ruled out for handball: 2

Goals allowed after wrong handball: 0

Goals ruled out for a foul: 5

Red cards: 8

Overturned red cards: 2

(Stats taken from the time of writing, via ESPN) 

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