Every week, fans and pundits around the country are talking more and more about VAR. Each week the debate turns from one of learning how to accept the video referee to questioning its existence. There’s no doubt it has failed in the Premier League. I won’t repeat the same observations from A Game too VAR but since then, the evidence against the technology has been sidelined by the application of the rules.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB) under the direct authority of FIFA issues the Laws of the Game every season. This year’s (2019/20) rulebook came into effect from the start of June. It is the rulebook every governing body — including UEFA — need to comply with. This includes the application of VAR. To use it, an association or competition has to follow the IFAB VAR Protocol.
You’ll have heard terms lifted from the rulebook all season, the biggest soundbite has been “clear and obvious error”. This simple directive now faces ambiguity because of the way Premier League Assistant Referees have ignored this instruction. A heel offside isn’t clear or obvious. It’s not even correct. The two types of technology required to be that precise do not exist.
The first being the ability to measure millimetres from existing camera angles without exact datum points on opposing players. The second, is the inability to determine when the attacking player’s foot plays the ball forward using 0.25 of a second freeze frames. There is an indeterminate amount of time when the ball will receive the force, slightly absorb it, then visually propel forward.
This isn’t the Premier League accidentally overlooking the IFAB rule book, it is a conscious decision. In their definition and explanation of VAR principles it is stated: Factual decisions such as whether a player is onside or offside, or inside or outside the penalty area, will not be subject to the clear and obvious test.
It goes against the extensive set of instructions the IFAB created when authorising nations to implement VAR, as stated in Chapter 2 of the rulebook: The referee’s original decision will not be changed unless there was a ‘clear and obvious error’ (this includes any decision made by the referee based on information from another match official e.g. offside).
Another clear instruction from the IFAB rule book is that a VAR official doesn’t have the power to make a decision. They can only give recommendations. The Premier League do acknowledge this and have even given a by-the-numbers process for referees in this scenario: Where the information received from the VAR falls outside of the referee’s expectation range or where there is a serious missed incident, they should use the RRA to assist with the final decision.
The problem is, no referee in England’s top flight ever uses the RRA (Referee Review Area). It is clear the IFAB suggest an RRA isn’t necessary if the VAR official reports back with an overwhelming oversight that is so clear and obvious it isn’t worth the jog to the halfway line. For everything else, the ref needs to be taking a look.
Perhaps on-field reviews were killed off in this country by the Liverpool FA Cup tie against West Bromwich Albion in January 2018. That particular game saw referee Craig Pawson spend three minutes at the pitch side monitor. West Brom manager Alan Pardew claimed VAR delays caused hamstring injuries to two of his players. The RRA hasn’t been used in big English games since.
If this was the reason RRA was shelved in England, that’s a further indictment against VAR. In the trials that should have highlighted problems, we ignored another issue — to add to the growing list — and forced it in regardless.
An interesting rule about replays reads as such: The referee can request different cameras angles/replay speeds but, in general, slow motion replays should only be used for facts e.g. position of offence/player, point of contact for physical offences and handball, ball out of play (including goal/no goal); normal speed should be used for the ‘intensity’ of an offence or to decide if it was a handball offence.
It’s the final part which really stands out — “normal speed should be used”. This clearly has been ignored in the Premier League. The on field referee who should be reviewing the incidents on a pitch side monitor choose not to. We then watch endless replays of the VAR ref doing exactly what the laws of VAR tell him he shouldn’t: he watches it over-and-over again in slow motion. A non-deliberate handball then becomes a penalty.
Trent Alexander-Arnold handled against Manchester City but the Premier League’s VAR Chief, Neil Swarbrick, defended the decision saying, “It was from a short distance, his arm did not move towards the ball and it was not deliberate. His arm was in a natural position for his body position at that time and he was happy for that to go.”
The same could be said — if not more so — for Çağlar Söyüncü’s handball when Leicester played Liverpool. His arm was by his side, he made efforts to wrap it around his back, it was close range, yet it was a penalty. The replays used were slowed down rather than accept the intent — if any — in real time.
There was always going to be human error with VAR, what exacerbates the situation is when the humans involved are picking and choosing which VAR protocols the IFAB have written into law they’ll actually use, then appearing to be inconsistent with the redrawn lines.
Back to the Alexander-Arnold “handball”, another facet to this debate is how it appeared to touch Bernardo Silva’s arm before Trent’s. By the letter of the new law, any contact with the attacking player’s hand/arm, is a foul regardless of intent. Liverpool went on to score from the breakaway. Should they have been under review for giving away a penalty then redeemed by Silva’s arm but denied the chance to score?
The “phases of play” argument is now alive and well thanks to VAR. Foden’s goal for Manchester City against Everton ruled out because a “pre-assist” pass was offside. By the letter of the law: correct decision. But there’s not a clear marker for when a phase of play can be reviewed from, most weeks it changes. Sometimes even in the same game week.
Liverpool versus Wolves, Virgil van Dijk handles the ball then whips it long into Adam Lallana who assists Sadio Mané. Same principle, a “pre-assist” pass. No longer using the rule the attacking player handling — regardless of intent — is classed as a foul, supposedly because of the phase of play.
This article isn’t meant to take aim at Liverpool. Wolves are the team most affected by VAR (at a cost of -7 points). Liverpool’s lead at the top would be halved if VAR hadn’t been used but there’s no denying they have been head and shoulders above the competition. Because of that, poor VAR officiating in their games will draw more attention.
The disallowed “heel” offside in the Villa game this weekend received a fair amount of media coverage. Imagine if that had been against Liverpool? VAR would really be at risk of cancellation.
Which brings us to the ground swell of public opinion that VAR needs a review to the extreme idea it should just be scrapped altogether. Mid-season, there’s zero chance of the Premier League even modifying the application of the system. To do so would call into question the integrity of the competition. The problem is, the Premier League’s integrity falls away with every bad, incorrect or pedantic VAR call.
The Twitter account above has a 14,000 strong petition on Change.org to remove the use of VAR in the Premier League. That number will continue to rise. People in the stadia need to take action too. One fan on Twitter suggested:
Perhaps a co-ordinated walkout of the 15:00 kick offs, or the refusal to return after halftime will send a strong message. The global TV audience will see empty stadiums because of the mess VAR has become. The Premier League doesn’t care about the law (it’s not using the IFAB protocol correctly), it doesn’t care about the fans in the stadium, it does care about it’s global image.
We need to hit them where it hurts and make the product appear tarnished and in disarray. Back in August, the majority were prepared to accept VAR and grow accustomed to its effect on the game. Months later, it’s clear that acceptance would be akin to assisted suicide for domestic football.
VAR has to go, before the fans do.