VAR has become a hot mess in the Premier League. Here's how to fix it
Even the best ideas struggle if poorly executed.
Video assistant refereeing (VAR) was never a bulletproof, consensus innovation to begin with. Some opposed it on philosophical grounds, some because they did not fully understand it (and still don't) and others because they thought it would be unworkable. Still, by the time the Premier League introduced VAR for this season, it was already a working reality in 15 top-tier leagues around the world. Public opinion had shifted somewhat, mostly after its success at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the latter stages of the Champions League last season. Of course, there would be teething problems, but it was time to bring England's top flight into step with the rest of the world, and the game would benefit in the long run.
So why, barely three months later, is the Premier League holding emergency VAR meetings, with The Times reporting that some want it scrapped altogether?
Why are we talking about VAR, and not the football, after a thrilling top-of-the-table clash between Liverpool and Manchester City?
The answer, fundamentally, lies in the first sentence of this piece -- it was implemented in a way that lay somewhere between ill-advised and ham-fisted -- and a range of cultural and extraneous factors only exacerbated the situation.
The problems with implementation
The Premier League, through something called the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL, the body that trains and supplies match officials and runs VAR) and its managing director, Mike Riley, opted to do things differently from the rest of the world. They decided there would be no on-field reviews (OFRs: when the referee consults a pitchside monitor on the advice of the VAR) and that there would be a "high bar" for VAR to intervene in the first place.
There was logic to it: They were invested in preserving the flow of the game. The "high bar" would not only ensure that the most egregious errors see VAR intervene, thereby saving time, but also eliminate the need for OFRs. The thinking was that if the errors were clear and obvious, surely the referee would agree and not need to look at the monitor.
This was a crucial mistake. Not just because it is a wrong approach, as we'll soon discover, but because it had never been done this way. Not in the 10,000 competitive games around the globe in which VAR had been used, and not in the past two seasons of testing in England. In other words, the authorities were flying blind to the possible pitfalls and fans, players and managers who had experienced VAR in other competitions -- even if only from a distance -- were unfamiliar with the approach. What is the "high bar" all about, for example? Why did VAR intervene in some cases and not in others? Moreover, despite efforts at communication, the lack of real-time information to spectators both at home and in grounds only added to the confusion.
In the first nine weeks of the season, VAR predominantly got involved in objective decisions such as offside (more on that later), as if it were fearful of contradicting any officiating decision. Then, after pressure and criticism from media and clubs, it went the other way, only to somewhat stabilise last week. Excluding offside or encroachment decisions, which are objective, there have been 16 VAR overturns this season and half of them came in Week 10 or Week 11 of the campaign.
The reality is that subjective decisions are just that: They can be interpreted different ways. And that is why not having the on-pitch referee take another look, either to reconfirm and perhaps reassure, is simply silly. It is not a case of "re-refereeing" or, to use a legal analogy, "double jeopardy." Rather, it is reopening a case because you have additional evidence provided by cameras.
The other major criticism concerns offside, which has led to frame rates, Roberto Firmino's armpit and John Lundstram's big toe entering the public consciousness. Here, you have some sympathy for PGMOL. The Laws of the Game are what they are -- Riley did not write them -- and have been such for the past 15 years: Any part of the body with which you can score a goal can make you offside. People's inability to grasp this, coupled with their inability to understand that footballers are three-dimensional objects and therefore lines drawn on their two-dimensional screens will not be straight, have wreaked havoc.
That said, VAR has done itself no favours with the speed of offside decisions, which have been slower than they need to be. Case in point: Lundstram's offside, which negated a Sheffield United goal against Tottenham. It took more than three minutes to come to a decision. That has much to do with dexterity and experience in calibrating the imaging equipment to reflect the three dimensions.
In time, you hope that aspect of the system will improve. As one former match official told me: "VAR is like a Ferrari. You need to know how to drive it to get the best out of it. Not everybody has the experience or ability to do it and certainly not straight away."
England's exceptionalism a factor?
In the United Kingdom, Parliament is opened by someone known as the Lady or Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (currently it's a lady and yes, she carries a big, black stick), who first has the door to the room slammed in her face and then bangs on it three times to open the session. Chuck in the monarchy, driving on the opposite side of the road and the fact that, until recently, most pubs had to close at 11 o'clock (and many still choose to do so) and, yeah, this is a place that values its past.
It's not that the country is necessarily slow to change; in fact, it has been on the cutting edge of innovation in many sectors. It's just that when change is forced -- or it feels as if it's being forced -- from the outside, the powers that be tend to stiffen up. But when change comes from within, it's readily embraced. Football, one of the country's greatest exports, is a mirror of this.
From having names and numbers on shirts to slick production values for televised games, from analytics to all-seater grounds, from attracting and encouraging foreign ownership to marketing the game globally, the Premier League has been innovative. Yet this is also the country where, until the mid-1990s, you were allowed only two substitutes on the bench in the FA Cup, where squad rotation was seen as a weird foreign influence and where the 4-4-2 formation was so entrenched they even named a magazine after it -- fans also booed Sir Alex Ferguson for abandoning it.
The simple fact of the matter is that VAR -- and the new interpretations of the handball rule (more of which later) -- did not originate in the Sceptred Isle and as such, it was always going to be viewed with a degree of wariness by a big chunk of the public. Not everybody was as extreme as former Queens Park Rangers boss Ian Holloway -- "I think that's people telling us what we should do with our game ... you cannot have someone telling us how to do our own game" -- but it fit the narrative of outside institutions meddling in domestic matters. Never mind the fact that half the votes on the International Football Association Board, which instituted VAR and is responsible for the Laws of the Game and their interpretation, come from the four United Kingdom associations. Or that the technical director of IFAB, David Elleray, isn't just English but uber-English, who spent most of his refereeing career moonlighting in various roles at the Harrow School, which counts Sir Winston Churchill as its most prominent alumnus (Jawaharlal Nehru, too, if you're keeping score at home).
The term "island mentality" gets thrown around way too much and often unfairly. But there is more than a touch of it in English football's attitude toward VAR.
Recent rule changes didn't help
In an effort to standardize officiating around the world, IFAB decided to tweak a number of laws and their interpretations last year, with the changes coming into effect July 1: just in time for the introduction of VAR to the Premier League. That would prove to be a double whammy as the changes became conflated with VAR itself in a vicious cycle which left some of the commentariat dazed and confused.
The most significant, at least as far as English football was concerned, were the guidelines on handballs. Different countries had long used different, de facto standards in determining a deliberate handball. Spain, for example, was notoriously strict compared to England, which meant that La Liga officials awarded penalties for handling that Premier League officials would have laughed off. The new guidelines still leave room for discretion (i.e., "common sense") but are stricter than to what English clubs were accustomed.
Strictly speaking, this is not a VAR issue, but it has inevitably been conflated, not least because the review system gets used to adjudicate handballs. For rank-and-file fans and the punditocracy, it sometimes felt as too much change in one go, with critics of the tweaks to the handball rule directing their anger at VAR and turning it into collateral damage.
Media and fan perception is a problem
The 2018 World Cup was the first with VAR, and by all accounts, it was a rip-roaring success. But while it helped build support in England, showing how the system can work, it proved to be a double-edged sword because it set unattainable standards. Folks compared the version seen in Russia with what they witness every week in the Premier League and realize the latter is a comparative dud.
It's not hard to see why. The World Cup featured the best referees, hand-picked from around the world; the Premier League is, for all intents and purposes, limited to a smaller English and Welsh pool of officials. VAR is an aid to match officials; if they are good, they will need less help and flaws will not be as noticeable. The other obvious point is that a World Cup encompasses 64 games, and we've had nearly four times as many in the Premier League already. It is harder to be consistently good over time, and screw-ups stand out far more than the many games in which VAR gets used without incident.
The Premier League might be the most customer-facing football competition, at least in terms of reacting to what customers want (I mean fans, but here they are primarily customers). This can be good in some ways, but it also means fretting continuously about how certain media and pundits will react. Certain tropes, like "being robbed of the spontaneous joy of celebration" -- this is foolish: Fans and players can celebrate twice, once when it goes in and once when ref approves it -- and "match-going fans confused as to what's going on" -- doubly foolish: If a goal has been scored or a foul has been committed in the box, there is a good chance VAR is reviewing it ... unless you've been living under a rock, you ought to know this -- take on outsized importance. Throw in the fact that many ex-pros turned pundits are not well versed in VAR (or the handball rule) and you get instant magnification of conventional wisdom: VAR was good at the World Cup, but it's bad now.
You can add two other factors. One is the power vacuum at the top of the Premier League since Richard Scudamore's departure as executive chairman. A canny, veteran operative, Scudamore knew how to keep clubs and media singing from the same hymn sheet for two decades. His replacement, Richard Masters, got the job only in October after months as the interim boss while the organization tried (and failed) to hire a more high-profile replacement. Not surprisingly, he's found it challenging to keep his ducks in a row.
The other issue is the proliferation of former match officials in the media, many of whom either worked for or with Riley. Referees are a peculiar bunch whose competitive careers peak in their mid-40s. Several have turned into professional snipers since retiring, whether to draw attention because they are now on the outside or to settle old scores.
The simplest way to fix VAR in England
This genie isn't going back in the bottle. It's one thing to philosophize about a post-VAR Premier League that looks like the pre-VAR era, but the next time a team is relegated because of a blown call or a cup won thanks to a wantonly offside goal, the hounds of hell will be unleashed.
There are immediate changes that would help relieve this. A summary of the conversations between referee and VAR released in real time might quash some of the speculation that sometimes makes the man in the video booth look blind or incompetent. Replays in grounds help, too, and because not every club has big screens, some creative thinking might help: How about allowing those on the stadium Wi-Fi to see the VAR decision with a little explainer?
Beyond that, the easiest decision is also the most logical: Bring the Premier League's version of VAR in line with the rest of the world. First and foremost, that means having OFRs so at the very least the referee -- the person who represents authority -- can "own" decisions, whether it means correcting himself or overruling VAR.
The rest will come in time. Fans and pundits will be educated. Referees' dialogue with VARs will become more efficient and to the point. Because officiating and VAR are two related, but distinct, skill sets, in a few years we might have a wholly different class of VARs: guys who might not have the personality or fitness to be top-flight referees but are eagle-eyed and dexterous enough to handle the replay angles and imaging software.
Right now, to go back to the Ferrari analogy, the Premier League feels like Ferris Bueller borrowing Cameron's dad's vintage Ferrari. With a bit of patience and some serious work, they might yet learn to drive it properly, but only if they have the humility to learn from the rest of the world.