VAR: Valuable, Accurate or Rubbish?

By Alex Harvey and Daniel Geey

VAR has well and truly arrived in the Premier League and it would be fair to say it’s caused quite a stir. Despite a relatively steady (although not entirely convincing) start to life in the top flight, a recent flurry of high-profile and contentious VAR decisions has seemingly shifted public opinion away from the technology.

Fans and pundits have become increasingly sceptical, leading to calls for VAR to be suspended or scrapped entirely.

Gary Lineker recently tweeted, “Sick of VAR. In its present state it is killing the game… Was always going to take time to settle down but they couldn’t be getting it more wrong than they currently are”.

Jamie Carragher also explained on Sky Sports that he initially favoured giving VAR a chance, but that he can no longer support it as we’re now spending “double or triple” the amount of time talking about VAR decisions. A cursory Sunday evening search on Twitter for “VAR” would suggest Mr Carragher is not along in his anti-VAR opinion.

The VAR Protocol and the Premier League

Before we get into the merits of VAR, it’s worth taking a step back and recapping the basics.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB), which acts as the independent guardian of the laws of football, created the VAR Protocol. The key principle is that VAR will only intervene in the event of a “clear and obvious error” or “serious missed incident” in relation to one of four match-changing incidents: goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity. There are no exceptions to this, so if none of these ‘trigger events’ take place, VAR will not intervene.

The Premier League, however, has sought to implement its own nuanced interpretation of the VAR Protocol in order to minimise disruption and interference to the game. Premier League officials initially imposed a “high threshold” for VAR intervention and advised on-field referees not to use the pitch-side monitors and to trust the advice coming from Stockley Park.

Factual decisions

Whilst some decisions will always have an element of subjectivity (i.e. fouls, red cards etc), others are more binary. The best example is the off-side rule: a player is either off-side or not, whether by 1cm or 10 yards, and VAR is expected to provide the correct answer every time. This FIFA explainer video is instructive. The problem is that human error is continuing to creep in.

Take David Silva’s goal against Aston Villa as an example. De Bruyne’s inswinging cross went all the way through the crowd and into the back of the net. VAR wanted to check whether Silva had touched the ball; because if he did then Sterling would have been offside and the goal would have been disallowed. Despite one of the camera angles seemingly showing a touch off Silva, VAR didn’t spot it and allowed the goal the stand. VAR’s cover was blown when the dubious goals committee ruled it as a David Silva goal.

Another binary decision is whether the ball hits an attacking player’s arm/hand in the lead up to a goal (think Gabriel Jesus’ injury time strike against Tottenham). This is a new rule introduced by IFAB and the expectation is that VAR should have a 100% record in this area too. However, again, mistakes have shown that VAR is not immune from human error in these “black and white” decisions, as Fabian Schar’s equalizer for Newcastle against Watford back in August should have been disallowed because of a hand ball by Isaac Hayden in the build-up.

Subjective decisions

The nature of football dictates that, for other incidents, subjectivity will always remain. What some people see as a foul, red card or deliberate handball, others may not. For these decisions, significant weight will be given to the on-field referee’s initial, real-time perception of an incident and VAR will only intervene where there has been a “clear and obvious error”. As mentioned above, at the outset of the 2019/20 season the Premier League initially at least appeared to be imposing its own “high threshold” for clear and obvious interventions.

The issue with these subjective decisions is that there will always be an element of subjectivity. VAR has simply shifted the lines.

Whereas the question was previously, “is that a foul?

The question is now, “has the referee made a clear and obvious error in not awarding a foul?

Both are subjective decisions. A recent Twitter exchange with Gary Lineker illustrates the point, where we debated the question of whether Divock Origi was fouled in the build up to Manchester United’s opener against Liverpool.

Interestingly, the early criticism levelled at VAR was that the threshold for intervention was being set too high. In the first 9 rounds of Premier League games, no penalty or red card was awarded by VAR. Indeed, Premier League referee chief Mike Riley later admitted that VAR should have intervened on four occasions in the opening weeks; three of which related to subjective decisions.

As winter has approached, however, there seems to have been a shift, with VAR seemingly applying a far lower ‘clear and obvious’ threshold for intervention. One example was the decision to award Brighton a penalty after Everton’s Michael Keane was judged to have fouled Aaron Connolly by stepping on his foot. Another was the decision to give Man United a penalty at Norwich after Daniel James went down in the box.

The concern among many, including the authors, is that an on-field subjective decision is simply being replaced with a second subjective view. The difference is that fans expect the VAR subjective review to be rolled out consistently across all matches. It is this potential inconsistency which has led many to articulate their frustrations.

Just You Wait…..

It’s coming, and when it does, it will be a defining moment in the VAR story. The situation almost occurred in the Liverpool v Manchester City game at Anfield in early November. Bernardo Silva darted into the Liverpool box, the ball ricocheted off Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren back onto Silva’s arm before then hitting Liverpool defender Trent Alexander Arnold (TAA) on the arm.

Much to the frustration of the City players no penalty was awarded, only for Liverpool to go down the other end and score the opening goal 22 seconds later through Fabinho’s long range strike. As soon as the goal went in, the City players asked referee Michael Oliver to check with VAR as to the rejected handball decision; with the distinct possibility of Liverpool’s goal being disallowed and a penalty being awarded to City. At the time of writing, the disallowing of a goal and the award of a penalty to the other team has not yet occurred in the Premier League. When it does, the VAR debate will inevitably erupt again.

The fascinating element of the TAA handball incident was that it encompassed so many different VAR intersections. There was the overall controversy; if the handball had been given, Liverpool’s goal would have been disallowed and City would’ve had the chance to score from the penalty spot. But even within the TAA handball there were at least three nuanced considerations for the referee and the VAR official to consider (the Silva handball, the ricochet onto TAA’s arm and whether TAA’s arm was in an unnatural position when the ball struck).

  1. Silva’s Handball: Many first reactions to the Silva handball from Lovren’s attempted clearance was to suggest that a handball offence had occurred as an attacking player had handled the ball in the lead up to goal scoring opportunity. However, IFAB Law 12 designates that if Silva did not deliberately handle the ball, it is only an offence if the attacking player “gains possession/control of the ball after it has touched their hand/arm” (emphasis added). As Silva did not have control of the ball after it hit his arm, no offence could have been committed.
  1. TAA’s Handball: If there was no offence by Silva, the real question was whether TAA’s action was an offence. Firstly, how did the ricochet from Silva’s arm affect the referee’s interpretation? The Premier League in its guidance suggests that players will be “allowed extra leeway when it comes to ricocheted handballs”, and specifically “a handball will not be awarded if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from their own head/body/foot or the head/body/foot of another player who is close/nearby” (emphasis added). The subjective element is what “close/nearby” means[1]. Secondly, the referee and the VAR official then needed to consider whether there was an offence if the player “touches the ball with their hand/arm when: the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger”. If it is deemed that the player does make his hand/arm unnaturally bigger, then the guidance deems that an offence. On this occasion, the Premier League confirmed that TAA’s arm was not in an unnatural position. A subjective call.

Conclusion

The intricacies of the above mean that, although through a relatively unusually complex example, human error in the interpretation and confluence of various VAR rules and guidance may still occur.

It may be that the Premier League evolves and tweaks the VAR process, including the “high threshold” applied for overruling clear and obvious errors. Regardless of any changes, however, VAR will still be left in the unenvious position of having to deal with multiple rule issues that require subjective judgment calls in a matter of seconds. Some have argued for only objective decisions to be VAR reviewable but at least in the short term, VAR will continue to play a major part in outcomes of Premier League matches.


[1] As well as the fact that the ricochet came off Silva’s arm which doesn’t explicitly appear in the drafting of the rule (i.e. only head/body/foot are mentioned).

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