Why English football’s system of Very Average Reviews, sorry VAR, needs rethinking

Wednesday 17th April 2019.

The 93rd minute.

After what can only be described as a mindless back-pass by Christian Eriksen goes wayward to Bernardo Silva, the ball is redirected to Sergio Agüero, who squares the ball to Raheem Sterling, who slots it calmly past Hugo Lloris’ outstretched leg and into the bottom corner.

Manchester City 5-3 (5-4 Agg) Tottenham Hotspur.

Through to the Semi-Final of the UEFA Champions League.

But wait.

VAR finds Agüero to be offside in the build-up and the goal is disallowed, allowing Spurs to progress in the competition. After the celebrations with my dad have died down (many hours later), I find myself on my phone discussing the game with my flatmates, who are also on their Easter break. Immediately I was told how I – a long-term critic of VAR – must be in love with the technology now that it had helped write a big new chapter in my club’s history. My answer? No.

All of that breath-taking drama, which was a huge moment in Lilywhite history that would simply not have occurred were it not for the new technology, was not enough to convince me that VAR should stay, such is the extent that I hate it.

In a poll conducted earlier this year, VAR was marked at an average of 4/10 by over 1,000 fans, illustrating how I am not alone in my belief that reform is desperately needed.

To me, VAR has 3 principle flaws; clarity, transparency and equality.

To address clarity, VAR was brought in to level the playing field by limiting refereeing mistakes, doing so through eradicating ‘clear and obvious’ errors. However, nearly every game you watch nowadays that has the technology installed ends with an analysis of the contentious VAR decisions. This drives me mad.

If there is a debate to be had, then the initial verdict should not have been overturned as it cannot have therefore been a ‘clear and obvious’ error in any sense.

The only thing that is clear and obvious to me is that the system has created far more problems than it has solved and with it not functioning effectively in any other top European league, I do not understand why it was introduced in the first place.

Moving on to transparency, as an avid rugby fan, I can confirm that a television match official (TMO) can be effective if refereeing decisions are explained to the viewer.

As of yet, the Premier League has refused to broadcast the communications between the on-field official and their video-assisted counterpart in Stockley Park.

Without this, fans both in the stadium (hopefully in the future) and at home, are left clueless as to what is being assessed, why it is being challenged and what outcome is likely, with commentators often left equally in the dark. This results in a prolonged suspense that significantly reduces the joy fans are able to experience when a goal goes in or a penalty is awarded.

For me, fan celebrations are one of, if not the most important aspect of the beautiful game and anything that worsens this experience simply cannot be good for football.

Lastly, coming on to equality, the system currently in place allows the on-field referee to look at incidents that occur in open play and make a subjective judgement, which VAR can then subjectively assess and then refer the on-field referee to a pitchside monitor to make a further subjective decision. Now, if you don’t have a headache from reading that last sentence – and you should – perhaps you have the patience for VAR and can appreciate the statistical data that suggest it has reduced refereeing mistakes.

However, if you, like me, think that the time VAR takes to make a decision that is ultimately still just as opinionated as the referee’s initial verdict, then you may agree that changes need to be made.

Prior to VAR, everyone had to bite the bullet equally on refereeing mistakes, as it was simply human error. This I could happily accept.

VAR on the other hand, takes painstakingly long to make supposedly objective decisions, that following games PGMOL (the Professional Game Match Officials Board) has openly admitted are objectively wrong. This I cannot accept.

Encouraging referees to use the pitchside monitor clearly does not work, as Graham Scott allowed Tariq Lamptey’s equaliser in Tottenham’s recent win against Brighton, despite a clear foul occurring in the build-up on Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, simply because Scott saw himself in the pitchside monitor and how close he was to the initial incident and, in the words of former Premier League referee Dermot Gallagher, he was looking ‘for a reason to back himself’.

Not only did I have to watch a refereeing mistake get made, but I had to watch it over and over for several minutes, without any explanation being given as to how a foul could possibly have not been awarded.

Furthermore, it seems unfair to me that VAR is used so much, yet, for example, if a foul was incorrectly given and a legitimate goal was scored from the ensuing free-kick, that goal stands and cannot be reviewed, when so many other incidents are. Granted, this would mean VAR would have to be used everywhere and we would soon end up with matches resembling Nike’s famous ‘The Last Game’ advert.

Therefore, the only fair way to use VAR is to reduce it down to being solely for use in objective decisions, such as offside. This, like goal-line technology, I can get behind. For me, offside is offside, just like a goal is a goal.

However, I do not see how VAR can be allowed to remain in its current capacity and if it, unfortunately, is to stick around for the long-term, radical changes must be made.

It is inconsistent, it is slow, it is unclear.

All this has led to Very Average Reviews taking place, befitting of the system’s name.


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Luke Saward

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