VAR has endured a rocky start to life in the Premier League, with supporters questioning how it has been implemented. Here's why VAR has struggled for widespread acceptance, and we offer one possible solution.
Why do Premier League fans have a real problem with VAR?
This isn't the VAR they've seen in other competitions
The Premier League said at the start of the season there would be a "high bar" for interventions.
Fans have watched the World Cup and the Champions League and what they are seeing in England is not what was sold to them. It's "VAR light," and not in a good way. As a result this concept of a "high bar" leaves fans feeling referees are doing nothing about many "clear and obvious" errors, with the VARs simply supporting their mates in the middle.
VAR in the Premier League has meant:
- Some "clear and obvious" errors are not being corrected
- Fans do not have confidence in VAR as a concept
- The decision-making process is questioned
- Supporters do not understand when and why VAR will intervene
Fans need to trust VAR, that it will come to the correct decision in a fair manner in the vast majority of cases. But we're a long way from that. In almost every instance of an intervention (15 of 19), a goal is being taken away. The perception is it's anti-football.
Clear subjective errors aren't fixed
Not a single penalty has been awarded in 90 matches. Compare that to the Bundesliga, which has seen 12 penalty decisions in the first 72 fixtures of this campaign: that's a penalty intervention every six matches, and an average of at least one a matchweek. Germany has seen two red cards, England zero. How can the Premier League be so different? Because it's getting VAR wrong.
Mike Riley, the managing director of PGMOL, the referees' body that implements VAR, accepted that there were errors on subjective calls in the first month of the season: two penalties and a red card not given. It's safe to assume there have been further instances.
But despite also hinting the "high bar" needed to be a little lower, there is no evidence that anything has changed. Of the 19 overturned decisions, only three have been on subjective calls and all three have ruled out goals: Olivier Giroud's foul on Norwich goalkeeper Tim Krul, Aston Villa striker Wesley impeding Brighton goalkeeper Mathew Ryan, and Burnley's Chris Wood tripping Leicester defender Jonny Evans.
How can Jan Vertonghen's challenge on Watford forward Gerard Deulofeu not be adjudged a penalty, yet the "trip" by Wood on Evans disallows Burnley's equaliser? Which decision was truly "clear and obvious"?
Why are so few subjective decisions overturned?
Once a review begins, the match referee describes what he has seen to the VAR. If this roughly matches what the VAR has watched on his monitors, then the decision will not be changed.
In almost every case a referee will see an incident to a degree, which means they can provide some kind of description and, as has been proven, there will be no overturn. It means getting a penalty through VAR is almost impossible.
Take the shirt pull by Sheffield United's John Egan on Arsenal's Sokratis on Monday, or Vertonghen's challenge on Deulofeu. In each case, the referee may have said he saw a pull of the shirt or the tackle in the box, but did not feel there was enough contact to constitute a foul. Under the Premier League's review protocol, these decisions would simply never be overturned because the referee can offer a description.
Fans are watching replays and seeing what they feel is a clear foul. No wonder there is little confidence: VAR in practice is the antithesis of what it was supposed to be. But what if the referee himself could see that replay?
How can the Premier League begin to fix VAR? Use pitchside monitors
Make no mistake, VAR isn't going anywhere. So rather than scream and shout about ditching VAR, we have to work on solutions to make it better, to foster acceptance.
The Premier League is, for all intents and purposes, not using pitchside review monitors. Believe it or not, they actually exist at every ground, using up electricity and gathering dust. Officials have been told to only use them "sparingly." Right now, that means the sum total of never.
It becomes even more incredulous when many Premier League referees use pitchside monitors on Champions League duty but are told to ignore them come the weekend.
The Bundesliga went through this two years ago. It decided to implement VAR from its central hub in Cologne. What followed was months of uncertainty and confusion with Hellmut Krug, the VAR project manager, stripped of his role after questions were raised over manipulation. There is certainly no suggestion of such interference in England, in fact it would be the opposite. With so few decisions being overturned, the end result is the same: if the match referee himself is not seen to be making these key decisions, there is a lack of transparency and confidence in the process.
Use the monitors and supporters can perhaps start to accept it, seeing that referees are taking the responsibility on themselves. If the referee still sticks with his decision, fine. But at least supporters see action being taken rather than two minutes of inertia, the referee stood with finger in ear waiting for the VAR to simply tell him to play on.
As the game is being stopped anyway, it wouldn't add much more time. The number of pitchside reviews would be small, perhaps a handful each weekend. It would also remove the accusation that the referees have each other's backs, not wanting to embarrass colleagues by telling them they have made a mistake -- especially when the VAR is a more junior official to the match referee, afraid of being disrespectful.
Will it make VAR perfect? Far from it, there are plenty of other issues which will take time to resolve. Will it be better than what we have now? It has to be.
It's as though each Premier League referee is afraid of being that guy, who is the first to use a pitchside monitor. Hopefully somebody soon breaks the taboo.