Is it time to rethink VAR in the Premier League? | Football Digest
We need to talk about VAR. If you feel the need to leave the room at this point, set the newspaper on fire or string yourself up from a lamppost it is understandable. The mere mention of the initials can drive strong men to drink.
But if there is any justice in this sporting world, VAR’s week from hell last week should go down as the moment football realised the tech needs rebooting. The problem is not the apparatus itself – although the Anthony Gordon Newcastle goal which lit Mikel Arteta’s blue touch paper revealed a camera blindspot which needs rectifying – but what the operators are doing with it.
This is not simply about the human errors at Stockley Park – although the figures before this weekend’s round of Premier League matches show that VAR has been responsible for 16 errors compared to 11 at this point of last season. But there is a wider issue at play.
A form of VAR creep has set in which has seen its tendrils snake into every corner of the game at elite level. Scarcely a match seems to go by these days without some time-consuming intervention or other. The gismo is there so the gents in charge cannot seem to resist using it. Maybe it is on-field refs missing more incidents, maybe it is simply a bloke thing – love this gadget – but the upshot is 90-minute games threatening to turn into five-day Test matches.
Tottenham versus Chelsea last Monday was a grippingly insane ride for the TV viewer but when it was finally over and the remote control had been reached for, the 10pm news headlines had come and gone. For those actually at the game all the delays for the stream of off-site decisions rendered the whole experience boring. That was according to the England manager Gareth Southgate who was there.
Southgate was never a VAR fan but his testimony has to tell the football authorities something. The system is failing. It would be backward-looking to just bin the whole thing when other sports like cricket and rugby use technology perfectly well to improve the accuracy of decision-making but there needs to be a recalibration.
VAR has a place in football but it should be as a blunt instrument to prevent horror stories like Thierry Henry’s handball goal that broke Irish hearts in 2009, not as the surgical scalpel it has become. Forty-eight hours after the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium lock-in came the red card for Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and a penalty apiece for both sides in Copenhagen.
All three were prompted by VAR intervention, all three were borderline rather than blatant but once the referee had been diverted to the pitch-side monitor there was only going to be one outcome. Likewise the Liverpool equaliser which was chalked off against Toulouse on Thursday evening because VAR smoked out a hand ball by Alexis Mac Allister 13 seconds beforehand.
It was technically correct but 13 seconds? Come on. There needs to be a rollback. Part of the joy of football is its simplicity. It is what makes it so globally appealing. Complicating it to this extent is hugely counter-productive.
So let’s embrace the technology that improves football – the goal-line Hawkeye and the semi-automated offside which worked so well at the Qatar World Cup – and put VAR back in its box. Its remit should be restricted to the act of goalscoring itself and violent foul play.
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And clear and obvious mistakes should mean exactly that – clear and obvious. That would make for fewer interventions and more flow but still provide a howler-proof backstop. The flip side would probably be more of the little stuff would get past on-field refs but that is a price which will have to be paid. There needs to be a recalibration.
The point of VAR needs to be re-defined. It is not there to provide perfection in decision-making because such a scenario is an impossibility. The majority of decisions in a football match – whoever ends up making them – are subjective.
Despite Arteta’s hissy fit over the Gordon goal at Newcastle last weekend, it transpired that the five-man Premier League panel convened during the week to rake over these things, announced – rather less noisily – it was the Arsenal manager who was in the wrong, not the officials.
Different people see things differently – especially those with skin in the game. And that will always be the case whoever – or whatever – is making the decisions.
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