The Video Assistant Referee – Help or hindrance?

Wembley’s scoreboard as VAR is viewed during the FA Cup Fifth Round Replay between Tottenham and Rochdale. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

“Embarrassing”. “Degenerate” “A mockery of the game”. Words you’d probably associate with racism, sexism or violence in football perhaps?

Not in this case. These are terms used by pundits and figures in the football world to describe the use of the Video Assistant Referee, or VAR.

We are in an age where Joe Bloggs at home has a better idea of what happens in an incident than the match officials do. The system is designed to bring increased legitimacy to matches, and to add support to referees in times of confusion and doubt.

Thus far, VAR has done anything but that.

Simply put, VAR is a method where if a referee is unsure about a key on-field incident, which includes: the awarding of a goal, penalty, a red card, or mistaken identity, they can liaise with a referee sitting outside of the ground. They will have multiple screens in front of them, and have the ability to see the incident from all angles as you would on television. This official can come to a more informed decision, and refers this to the pitch referee, who ultimately makes his decision with little/no doubt.

The system is in place in many top European leagues, and it was announced it would be trialled in England during Carabao and FA Cup matches. On January 8th, it debuted in an FA Cup fourth round tie between Brighton and Crystal Palace. The referee was Andre Marriner, and the VAR official was Neil Swarbrick. The match passed relatively without incident, VAR being called upon once when Palace players felt Glenn Murray handballed before scoring a late winner, but the goal was correctly allowed to stand.

The first goal ever to be awarded through VAR was Kelechi Iheanacho’s for Leicester against Fleetwood Town a week later, where his goal was initially ruled out for offside, but after consulting the monitors the goal was given, again the correct decision.

VAR confirms Iheanacho was onside. This was the 1st goal ever awarded through the system.

These two showings were promising. Since then though, the majority of high profile matches it has been a part of have been clouded in controversy.

One glaring problem with the system isn’t necessarily the decision it comes to, but instead the time it takes to reach that decision. There have been two notable instances where continuous delays with VAR have led to issues.

During Liverpool’s FA Cup clash with West Brom, referee Craig Pawson consulted with VAR for two minutes to disallow Craig Dawson’s goal, which would have put the Baggies 3-1 ahead. Seconds later, he needed VAR again to decide whether or not to award Liverpool a penalty. He took three minutes to change his mind and give the penalty. Roberto Firmino subsequently missed, having had over three minutes to wait to take it. In the end, nearly six minutes of the game were lost while VAR did its work.

Referee Craig Pawson consults VAR & his pitchside monitor while confused Liverpool fans look on

West Brom manager Alan Pardew even suggested that the constant delays in the match may have led to two of his players suffering hamstring injuries, while also calling it “bizarre”.

He said: “There’s no screen for us. So it’s not like tennis, when the ball’s in our out. We’re completely in the dark. Everybody’s in the dark. Is it a goal? Isn’t it a goal?

“I think if you were in the stadium today, and you experienced that system in the first half, you would have to doubt it.”

Another example was yesterday’s FA Cup replay between Tottenham and Rochdale at Wembley. With a quarter final place at stake, in the opening half an hour, the game was stopped five times. This included:

  • 7th Min – Spurs’ Fernando Llorente shields the ball for Erik Lamela, allowing him  tap into the net. Referee Paul Tierney calls on VAR, and decides Llorente fouled Rochdale’s Harrison McGahey in the build-up. Pundits disagree with the call.
  • 22nd Min – Checking whether or not to award a penalty when Lucas Moura went down under apparent contact. No penalty was given. One minute delay.
  • 23rd Min – Son scores, but protocol kicks in, with every goal scored, VAR is automatically checked. The original decision stands. Two minute delay.
  • 25th Min – Tierney awards a free kick for a foul on Kieran Trippier on the edge of the box. He then refers to VAR, who eventually award a penalty in dubious circumstances after a four minute delay.
  • 29th Min – Son converts the penalty, but VAR is instantly addressed. It concludes that Son ‘feinted’ in the run up, triggering a foul for unsporting behaviour and receives a yellow card. Another minute delay.

This led to six and a half minutes of injury time, and a huge wave of confusion amongst players and fans while the mess took place. Many players were clearly agitated and fans audibly boo.

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said it was “a little bit embarrassing for everyone” and that he “was not sure that system is going to help.”

“I think football is about emotion. If we are going to kill emotion, it’s not so happy what we have seen.

My opinion is we have the best referees in Europe. The referee is the boss on the pitch and has the last word always.”

Even its accuracy has been called into question. When Huddersfield hosted Manchester United in February, Juan Mata had a goal disallowed for offside. However upon looking at the VAR replay, the lines used to judge whether he was in line were clearly not straight, which dragged the whole question into dispute, with BT Sport commentator Robbie Savage deeming the whole system a “shambles.”

The VAR line showing Mata offside is clearly not straight, throwing the reliability into doubt.

So where does VAR go from here?

The thought behind it is perfect forward thinking in this day and age. All sport has to evolve in time, and needs to evolve, in order for it to progress. Tennis, rugby and cricket amongst others have a similar system of decision reviewing, and have deployed this successfully for some time now.

The overall issue with VAR, is HOW it has been utilised so far. Yes, it is still new. Yes, it has teething problems. But when a system like this is affecting games for the worst, it is simply is counter-productive and a step backwards.

Despite its issues, it has received positive views from some pundits and players.

Former England manager Steve McClaren, who said on Radio Five Live: “There are teething problems with VAR, but if it takes 20 minutes (to come to a decision), that’s how long it should take.

“If it proves that it’s the right decision, then it’s right to have VAR.”

Even Juan Mata himself defended the use of VAR, when he told BBC Sport in a post-match interview: “I am up for VAR to be honest, it is good for football. But today it seems like the decision was not very clear.

“I think we all wished the decision was made quicker.”

While VAR’s credibility has definitely decreased, the potential for its unquestionable positives to shine through is there.

Rugby Union is a perfect example of how a VAR system should function. Referees can be heard by everyone, so fans and players alike are kept in the know as to what is happening. There is no lack of communication between anyone, there is a minimal time delay and everything runs smoothly almost every time. Football needs to learn from this, and model their system around it if it to be successful going forward.

Having said that, football isn’t rugby union. The beautiful game is so much more subjective. The whole game is based on judgement; every move, contact and decision will always be interpreted differently by different people. These aspects cannot simply be measured by a screen.

Some will say that the natural element of football dies if every crucial moment in a match is scrutinised, but a system like VAR would have stopped hugely controversial incidents like Frank Lampard’s infamous ghost goal in the 2010 World Cup for example. Goal-line technology was initially questioned upon its introduction, but its success and importance so far has been undeniable.

It may just take warming up to, but there are many things that need ironing out if VAR is to be fully instated in England. Only time will tell if VAR will become a staple of English football, but it does leave food for thought for the FA as the debate rolls on.

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