VAR & The Premier League
The introduction of VAR in the Premier league is fraught with difficulty because the scope is too large and the reviews will be hobbled by the same biases the match referees and their assistants suffer. Rules of location, ie where the ball happens to be, are a relatively straight forward issue and, as we have seen from the use of goal line technology, can be tackled. Just because it is straight forward doesn’t mean the technology required is simple but goal line tech helped decide the PL title this year without dispute. They should extend that facility around the entire pitch, freeing assistant referees to watch the action, rather than both the sideline & the play. I can think of at least one occasion this season when the assistant was so intent on the ball and the sideline he missed an offside pass that led directly to a goal.
Under VAR the list of reviewable events is limited to four points:
- Goals and the play leading to them
- Penalty decisions
- Direct red card decisions
- Mistaken identity in awarding a red or yellow card
The third and fourth points are relatively straight forward and won’t cause near the outrage the events covered by points one and two will cause. Goals will be reviewed back to “the start of possession” or restart of play and will cause intense debate. I have little doubt that in most states of play there are fouls occurring off the ball. Contact off the ball is interesting as it rarely leads to the kind of flopping about one sees in similar situations with the ball involved. Will VAR lead to players away from the ball diving on contact on the off chance there will be a review of the play?
How about corner kicks? Every time there’s holding occurring all over the place, and while the goal scorer may not have committed a foul is there any doubt a teammate has done so away from the incoming ball? This is from the FIFA Rules of the game PDF, information for referees section:
- Holding an opponent
Referees are reminded to make an early intervention and to deal firmly with holding offences, especially inside the penalty area at corner kicks and free kicks. To deal with these situations:
• the referee must warn any player holding an opponent before the ball is in play
• caution the player if the holding continues before the ball is in play
• award a direct free kick or penalty kick
So if a goal is scored from a corner the VAR will review the play from the restart looking for an offensive foul. If they actually follow that course of action to the letter of the law we could see a reduction in set-piece scoring for the first few weeks as players adapt. Handballs also present a good example of potential pitfalls of the scope of VAR. once again from FIFA:
Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm.
Handling the ball
The following must be considered:
• the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)
• the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)
• the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an offence
Officiating any sport at any level involves human error. Even top level referees can find areas of dispute when watching the same footage of close calls and reading about what is a “handball” is a glimpse into why that is the case. What is a handball to one referee or assistant referee is not considered one by another officiating team. VAR won’t do much, if anything, to alleviate that inconsistency because it will be down to the judgment of another human team.
I’m not a Luddite, I don’t particularly care if some decisions are taken out of the officials hands provided the system supplementing them is demonstrably better. There are some areas where this is the case and using VAR for such situations makes a lot of sense. More clarity in how offside is determined means VAR offers a better method than relying upon assistant referees. The same technology that monitors the goal line could be expanded to the end lines at least, if not the entire sideline. Where VAR fails is in making calls judgement calls that are potentially just as prone to bias or error as those of the match officials. I think the concept and technology are fantastic and have lots of potential but I think a more limited scope of review would have been a more sensible approach.