VAR Is Not The Problem

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Ray Burton
Ray writes mostly in-depth analytical pieces covering a range of sports from a more statistical perspective drawing his inspiration from the fanalytics movement. Ray is a fan of all sports, but mostly the NFL (Dolphins), Premier League (Man Utd), MLB (Mariners), NHL (Ducks), NBA (Heat) and NRL (Warriors) and motorsports. Usually to be found in front of the TV or in a stadium somewhere cheering on one of his teams. Never short of an opinion Ray is always ready to talk sports and is a co-founder of Lazy Fan Sports.

The inclusion of VAR in the 2019/20 Premier League season was always going to be tough, but how has it gone so wrong so fast? Many will say they predicted this, but the truth is far more complicated than they thought, and also much simpler.

VAR The Dream Vision

VAR was hailed as the saviour of the modern game. With TV cameras in every ground able to almost instantly show when goals were offside, or when officials missed fouls, VAR would stop all of that nonsense. It would clean up the controversies and make the game purer.

This, of course, was a far too simplistic and rosy view of what would happen. There would be delays to the game, there would still always be controversial calls because most of what happens on the pitch are judgment calls.

In sports around the world, from American Football to Cricket, Rugby League to Basketball, versions of video replay are used successfully. Sure there are delays to the flow of the game, which is more important in some games than others. However, by and large, getting decisions right has been viewed positively.

VAR The Horrendous Mess

The Premier League decided not to follow the tried and tested formula. They have instead instituted a system that offers few benefits of other systems but keeps all of the downsides.

In July 2019 the Premier League announced :

  • VAR will only be used for “clear and obvious errors” or “serious missed incidents” in four match-changing situations:
    – Goals
    – Penalty decisions
    – Direct red card incidents
    – Mistaken identity

We could go on and list the litany of mistakes made by VAR, but for the sake of brevity we will focus on just a few.

On Sunday, late in the game between Newcastle United and Manchester United, Andy Carroll raised his elbow and caught Scott McTominay in the face. The contact was not heavy, but there was no reason for Carroll to raise his arm in at a 90-degree angle, like a chicken wing, except to foul the opponent. VAR decision : none.

In the Bournemouth v Man City game in August, Jefferson Lerma clearly stood on David Silva’s foot in the penalty area. Plain as day. VAR decision: none.

VAR Isn't being Used Properly By Officials © The Times
VAR Isn’t being Used Properly By Officials © The Times

Nano-meters Aren’t Clear And Obvious

The offside rule is one that is clearly very suited to VAR. A player is either onside or offside. But when we bring in the Premier League’s own “clear and obvious error” criteria there would be some sort of margin for error won’t there? No. Absolutely not.

VAR has made a number of millimeter decisions for offside decisions. Some resulting in goals, and some not. However, one stood out as slightly bizarre, and that was Crystal Palace’s winner at West Ham last weekend.

There was a millimeter decision in the build-up, and then once in the penalty area, there was a header back towards the camera, where another millimeter decision was made. But hold on you say…how can you tell when the ball leaves the players head?

No seriously, how can you tell when the ball leaves the players head?

 VAR It's a matter of Perspective When The Ball Is Headed © Sky Sports
VAR It’s a matter of Perspective When The Ball Is Headed © Sky Sports

As the linesman flagged for offside, how can VAR reverse the decision, as a “clear and obvious error” when you literally can not see when the ball leaves the players head?

We could watch 90 mins of special football and afterward all anyone is talking about is VAR. In an attempt to remove controversy all they have done is remove football Click To Tweet

All Hail Our Refereeing Overlords

So what we are left with is a system that shows us replays, and reviews missed calls by on-field referees and then validates them even when they are wrong. But when it comes to offside decisions, they will make the tiniest determination based on single frames of footage, whether or not that can categorically see if they are clear and obvious or not.

It’s a bizarre system we are left with. But it’s not actually VAR’s fault. VAR is there to help us get decisions right. We can see, particularly in the David Silva penalty decision, that the right call was not made. That’s VAR working. The problem is the man looking at the VAR then bows to the referee and allows the wrong decision to stand.

The Premier League have brought in a system that works and bastardised it to the point where it is ruining the game. Let’s pause the game for a few minutes so that everyone can see the wrong decision was made, and then carry on as if nothing has happened.

It’s ludicrous, and the Premier League need to sort it out before the season becomes a complete joke.

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