VAR in the Premier League: Communication at the heart of VAR's tricky introduction
Richard Jolly looks at how video assistant referee has fared in the English top flight so far and what can be done to improve
It was around 45 minutes after the final whistle had blown to seal Liverpool’s victory over Arsenal. In the mixed zone, the tunnel within Anfield where players are supposed to talk to the media, a member of staff wheeled a television past waiting journalists. Perhaps it felt a fitting metaphor for an age when the technology can get greater attention than the footballers.
In any event, a few minutes later David Luiz appeared to discuss it. VAR, he rued, meant the penalty given against him would not be overturned. It was an argument that flew in the face of logic as, before its introduction, the referee’s decision would have been final anyway.
Luiz did not deny tugging Mohamed Salah back in the box but claimed that the pictures did not show the power – or lack of it, rather – and thus it looked worse than it actually was. It was not the Brazilian’s only example of warped thinking on the day.
But the sight of what looked like the pitchside monitor did prompt a thought. During the 2018 World Cup, an element of the drama came from referees halting the game, going to consult replays and, sometimes, reversing their own on-pitch decisions.
During the embryonic Premier League campaign, it has been possible to forget that option is open to officials. Decisions have been changed, but by referees in Stockley Park, the offices in an industrial estate near Heathrow Airport. Perhaps that is a reason why comparatively few verdicts have been reversed, with colleagues reluctant to overrule each other.
It suggests two things. Firstly that, despite the complaints that VAR is slowing the game down, it would be slower again if the on-field official halted play to trot over to the touchline more often. And secondly, that there seems a policy to let the men in Stockley Park deal with the replays.
If it indicates a level of trust among the refereeing fraternity, perhaps that is easier to develop among the relatively small world of PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Board), compared to the international officials from across the globe converging for the World Cup.
That may be predicated on a reluctance to overturn decisions. If it leads to the double standard of people who complain about VAR complaining when it is not used, in itself that may be no bad thing.
The DRS (Decision Review System) in cricket is based in part on the desire to get rid of the howler; the close decisions remain “umpire’s call”, staying with the decision made on the field. VAR should not overturn the 50-50 decision, or even the 40-60, though it is subjective what qualifies as a clear and obvious error.
Fans who have taken their seats at many grounds before kick-off will have seen a video featuring the division’s record scorer. “The Premier League is setting a high bar for VAR interference,” Alan Shearer proclaims.
Some would say that bar is too high. In a bid to be non-interventionist, to not re-referee everything immediately, the officials’ decisions have tended to be upheld. Only six were overturned in the first 30 Premier League games; thus far, referees are not being undermined or their authority reduced though no doubt in time, tables will emerge to show which officials have the most decisions changed.
Within those decisions, there is a difference between the issues that are a matter of fact – offside can be proved and while some object to the slenderest of margins, there is no logic to saying that anyone less than, say, two feet offside is actually onside – whereas fouls can be a matter of opinion.
Offside and handball decisions have been overturned more than those for challenges, partly because of the change in the rules that means if any attacking player handles accidentally in the box, the goal is chalked off, leading to Wolves’ Willy Boly and Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus seeing their strikes controversially disallowed.
Penalties are more a question of the judgment of the VAR. On Sunday August 25, there were two penalty appeals – for challenges by Bournemouth’s Jefferson Lerma on Manchester City’s David Silva and Newcastle captain Jamal Lascelles on Tottenham’s Harry Kane – that, to the naked eye, could have been spot kicks.
Replays indicated they should have been, particularly for Lerma’s foul on Silva. Neither was given, even when VAR was involved. Equally, neither ranked as a gross miscarriage of justice.
Perhaps the most egregious example of a refusal to alter decisions came six days later when Leicester City midfielder Youri Tielemans’ high challenge on Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson looked dangerous and ought to have resulted in a red card. The Belgian remained on the pitch. “There is no point in VAR,” Bournemouth defender Steve Cook said.
Yet, three days earlier, the opposite scenario applied, again in a Leicester game. City’s Hamza Choudhury was guilty of an atrocious tackle on Newcastle’s Matt Ritchie, for which he was only booked. But it was in the League Cup. The referee’s decision was final. “It might have been different if there had been VAR,” said Newcastle manager Steve Bruce.
There seemed to be more VAR stoppages in the opening weekend. Since then, the flow of games has continued with fewer interruptions. But irritation during the delays when referees halt play has been compounded by a lack of information.
Crowds ought to see the incidents VAR is reviewing but, if football support can be more toxic and tribal than in some other sports, that could prompt fears it would inflame atmospheres. At the moment, there is a particular problem at two of England’s biggest grounds, Old Trafford and Anfield, which do not have big screens to even show replays of the incidents. At some others, the screens are not visible from every seat.
There is clearly a reluctance to broadcast conversations between on- and off-field officials, in the way cricket does with the third umpire; perhaps officials new to it are not comfortable. In the long term, that will surely happen.
In the meantime, and as a half-way house, it ought to be able to display on the screen the reason for a decision and the player involved. If a goal is disallowed, for instance, a message of “Handball No 8”, “Offside No 9” or “Foul No 10” would inform spectators of the why and who, if not displaying all the details or ending the debate.
Where there is a red-card check, especially for an off-the-ball incident where it may not be obvious, it would help to identify whose actions are being reviewed. The concern is that the paying public sometimes know least. Rectifying that should be the top priority.
A lack of communication is the most grievous problem as everyone – players, officials, spectators, media – gets used to the new way of life. Wilful ignorance is an issue from those claiming not to understand: as the reasonable Bernardo Silva, an advocate of VAR, revealed, officials came to clubs before the season started to explain how it would work.
If there is an obvious element of trial and error, the Premier League and PGMOL can be accused of erring on the side of caution, of making sure there are not, as some predicted, vast numbers of decisions overturned and huge numbers of penalties.
In reality there have been nine spot kicks in 40 top-flight games so far; the average of 0.23 per game is actually fractionally lower than last season’s 0.27. It suggests that, beneath some of the overblown rhetoric, it is more evolution than revolution, albeit clouded by some confusion.
More information would help, although as PGMOL are reluctant to let referees do interviews, let alone immediately after a game, it feels unlikely they want on-pitch conversations about VAR decisions broadcast.
But if it is a learning process for them as well, and they find themselves short of officials now there is the need for some in Stockley Park, there was an intriguing addition to the panel. The highly-rated Australian Jarred Gillett moved to England because he is studying at Liverpool John Moores University. But he is also an experienced Video Assistant Referee.
As some of the most familiar referees, like Mike Dean, Martin Atkinson and Jon Moss, near retirement age, is it possible their skills will be utilised in a job where they do not need to keep up with athletes three decades their junior, where they can specialise in determining precisely which decisions should be overturned and become full-time VARs? In time, it might be the next step.
Updated: September 13, 2019 11:47 AM