D3D4 Cambridge United correspondent Tom Walker examines the advantages and disadvantages of introducing VAR throughout the EFL…
VAR in the Football League? What is it good for?
A Video Assistant Referee, better known as VAR, was trialled in the English game for the first time during three FA Cup Third Round matches: Brighton vs Crystal Palace, Leicester vs Fleetwood and Chelsea vs Norwich. It is fair to say that following this trial, and the previous introduction of this type of technology in various competitions abroad, including Italy’s Serie A, the debate surrounding whether or not this type of technology should be introduced universally in the Premier League & EFL has never been stronger.
The trialling of VAR in English football competitions follows the introduction of goal-line technology to the Premier League in 2013, and later to EFL competitions such as the League Cup and the championship, which has been hailed almost unanimously as a resounding success. However, the discussion regarding whether or not VAR should be introduced into the English football league pyramid is somewhat more controversial.
First of all, it makes sense to look at the proposed scenarios in which the new technology would be used. ‘Reviews’ will be used, usually during stoppages in play, and will be restricted to adjudging the following types of decision: goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity. The overall aim of the system will be to remove as much doubt from the way that football matches are officiated as possible, presumably to ensure that they run as smoothly as is possible, and as suggested by FIFA, improve the game in a more general sense. In terms of actually overturning a decision, this will only be done where there is sufficient evidence that a ‘clear and obvious’ error of judgement has taken place on the part of the referee. For example, if a player has clearly handled the ball into the net, a referee could consult with VAR and disallow the goal; if a player has ‘clearly and obviously’ been fouled in the area, but the referee misses it, he could then consult with VAR and reverse his original decision to award a penalty, and so on.
The first match of the VAR trial was Brighton vs Crystal Palace. The technology was only used to a point, with the match’s outstanding incident coming in stoppage time, during which Brighton’s Glenn Murray bundled the ball home. Amongst suspicions of handball. VAR was consulted, which confirmed referee Andre Marriner’s initial decision, that the ball had in fact been guided in off Murray’s knee, rather than his hand, to be correct, and therefore the decision, and the winning goal stood. Clearly, in this instance, there was no controversy about the use of VAR. A goal was given, the opposition players protested, VAR was consulted, the decision was ratified and doubt surrounding the winning goal in the fiercely contested M23 derby was all but removed.
However, the controversy surrounding VAR was yet to come, and it was in fact the 3rd Round replays where the system was used and debated most notably. Leicester City’s replay with League One Fleetwood Town was the second game in which VAR was trialled, and it was at the King Power Stadium that the technology’s first real moment of significance was to come. Frontman Kelechi Iheanacho was played through, and comfortably put the ball past visiting ‘keeper Chris Neal, only to see the offside flag raised. However, match referee Jonathon Moss consulted VAR, and after a brief pause, the offside decision was reviewed, and eventually overturned, meaning that the goal was in fact to stand, despite having initially been ruled out, and so VAR had awarded its first ever goal in the English game, a momentous occasion some might suggest.
I attended the match the following evening at Stamford Bridge, which saw Chelsea’s clash with, and eventual penalty shootout triumph over Norwich City, during which the real talking points were provided. Referee Graham Scott bravely booked three Chelsea players: Pedro Rodriguez, Willian and Alvaro Morata, all for simulation as they went down in the area appealing for penalty kicks. It was the Willian incident, though, which provided the real controversy of the VAR trial to date. Having gone down under pressure from Norwich centre back Cristoph Zimmermann, Willian was booked for simulation, a decision which stood after VAR referee Mike Jones decided the match official needn’t be consulted, and suggested that Scott had made ‘no clear and obvious mistake’ in booking the Brazilian forward for taking a dive, rather than awarding a penalty kick. Despite this, pundits, the media and fans alike came to an almost unanimous conclusion that in actual fact, a penalty should have been awarded, and quite obviously so. The ramifications of this are perhaps a topic of discussion for another time, but the incident at Stamford Bridge definitely raises the question: VAR – what is it good for?
Well, in my opinion, the answer to that particular question is perhaps not as simple as ‘absolutely nothing’, but I am definitely against introducing this type of technology in a more widespread manner in its current format, for example to the lower divisions which I watch week in, week out, and the reasons for this are as follows…
Firstly, and perhaps most crucially, I have a real issue with using this type of technology for decisions which are in essence, subjective. For instances where perhaps an offside needs to be reviewed, or the ball has gone out of play, or even crossed the line for a goal, this is not the case; these decisions are binary, they are objective, they either ‘are’ or they ‘aren’t’. For example, the ball has either gone in the goal or it hasn’t, the ball has either gone out of play or it hasn’t, the centre forward is either stood in an offside position or he isn’t. In these scenarios, the use of technology and a replay to make a decision is far more logical, and I would suggest is actually common sense.
However, in the case of a penalty decision, or the ‘awarding’ of a straight red card, there is far too much opinion involved for technology to be of much use at all. The incident involving Willian is the prime example of this – if you were to sit one hundred fans, players and journalists in a room, I would guess that around 80% would agree that a penalty should have been awarded. Crucially, though, there is still a significant element of doubt, and continuing to use the Willian example, unfortunately for Chelsea, seemingly the only two people who didn’t think a penalty should have been awarded were the referee, and his Video Assistant. Therefore, unless the concept of VAR is reworked to include only objective decisions, which would, for all intents and purposes represent more an extension of goal-line technology than the introduction of a new system, I am of the opinion that it will create more problems than it solves, purely due to the level of subjectivity, opinion and debate which would remain around decisions and scenarios such as the above.
Next is the question of how far back will VAR go to reverse a decision? This is a question, the answer to which will be key if VAR is to have a successful introduction in a more widespread sense in the English game. For example, at the game at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, Norwich scored their equaliser in the 94th minute to take the tie to extra-time. Now, between Batshuayi’s 55th minute opener, and Lewis’ stoppage time leveller, there simply must have been at least one decision which went the wrong way. Whether it was a foul, a throw in given the wrong way, or a free kick taken from the wrong position, no matter how irrelevant each of these instances may seem in isolation, they do in some way impact the events of the rest of the match (see: Butterfly Effect!), and so, although it seems facetious, it can be argued that Norwich’s leveller was a result of the game being officiated incorrectly. Therefore, what must be decided is how far back the match official and the VAR can go to overturn a decision, whether that be a goal or a red-card. Should it be from the last time the ball left the field of play? From the moment the move which leads to a significant decision is started? Again, it all comes back to the issue of subjectivity, and until this is ironed out, I cannot see VAR being a successful or welcome addition to the English game.
Finally, and arguably least important (especially from the view of the game’s governing bodies!) is the issue of stoppages in play. I, like many others, believe that football matches should be a spectacle, they should be enjoyable to watch, at least as far as the quality on offer will allow, and after all, fans pay extortionate amounts of money to attend them. It has been suggested that the average stoppage in play for a consultation with VAR would be around 100 seconds, so the best part of two minutes. Again, on the face of it, this may seem like a short period of time, but when put in the context of a sport which is renowned for its fast pace and atmospheric nature, simply stopping play so the referee can check whether he’s sent the right player off or not for that length of time is problematic. If I’m watching my team, Cambridge, and we find ourselves a goal down in the latter stages of a match (as we so often do), as a fan, I want the match to flow, for it to be fast paced, so that the U’s can build up as much momentum as possible. If the aforementioned scenario is allowed to happen, then this hugely limits the extent to which this can happen. Therefore, there is a need to make sure that any introduction of Video Assistant Refereeing is done so with fans in mind – make it entertaining as they have done with reviews at cricket and in tennis. It can be done – and I feel it is far more crucial than it is perhaps given credit for.
Overall then, in response to the overarching argument of whether or not VAR should be introduced into the English Football League pyramid, it is clear that there are a series of pros and cons. Removing doubt over offside decisions and cases of mistaken identity can only be a good step forward for the game, but as seen with the trial format of VAR, there are still clear issues with the level of subjectivity which remains, and also the need to ensure that football remains a spectacle that match attending fans can enjoy and engage with on a weekly basis, as fans of all D3D4 clubs do so now. So, while there is a clear need for assisting referees as much as possible, and while I have absolutely no doubt that VAR is something which will be introduced in the foreseeable future, there is an even greater need to ensure that the system is made as streamlined and as functional as possible, otherwise a huge proportion of the D3D4 football podcast will have to be attributed to discussing how VAR has been implemented at matches up and down the country – and nobody wants that!