Video Allowed Errors

Video Allowed Errors

October 2023 | Sport

VAR is still as controversial among football fans as ever. New technology, new attitudes and a new approach are needed to restore confidence.

It's been four years since the introduction of VAR in the Premier League. Its introduction was widely welcomed at the time after a succession of high-profile refereeing errors that affected the outcome of key games. Now, four years later, plenty of people are calling for VAR to be scrapped due to a succession of high-profile refereeing errors that affected the outcome of key games.

Automated vs Manual

VAR has clear problems. The biggest of them is that people expect it to be perfect. No technology is perfect. Even goal-line technology makes errors. VAR makes more errors than most because it's not really a technology - it's a process of people manually using technology to review on-field refereeing decisions. VAR can't eliminate refereeing errors but can reduce their frequency when used correctly.

Offside decisions are the clearest example of this. The number of controversial offsides has decreased in recent years to the point where it's a shock when the officials get one wrong. This week has provided a good example. The midweek league cup game between Chelsea and Brighton had multiple offside decisions which would have been overturned had VAR been available. This kind of thing used to happen multiple times a week, but now it's notable when it does.

Then there is the incorrectly disallowed goal in this weekend's Spurs vs. Liverpool game. That was an offside incident which should have been reviewed but wasn't because of a misunderstanding between officials around what the on-field decision actually was. You don't need to scrap VAR to eliminate such issues; you just need clearer communication between the VAR official and the on-field referee. PGMOL will update VAR protocols so decisions are more clearly communicated in future.

Sooner or later, that won't matter. FIFA's objective is for offside decisions to be automated. We saw the first steps towards this at the recent World Cup. The semi-automated offside technology worked well in both the men's and women's tournaments, but wasn't without issue. We had several calls that were too marginal and a technology failure in one of Frances's group stage games. It will take several years of further trials in the Champions League and Serie A before we see automated offsides in the Premier League, a notoriously late adopter of new technology. However, eventually, we will see automated offsides in all major leagues.

Subjective vs Objective

Instead, the fundamental questions about VAR relate to its use for Penalty and Red Card incidents. The problem is that most such incidents are subjective. IFAB did try to introduce more objective interpretations of the handball rule but ultimately failed. Judgements around natural position are just as subjective as intent but far more difficult to understand due to the added complications of bio-mechanics.

Different referees can have different opinions about the same incident. In many marginal situations, a strict VAR is too quick to intervene, pushing the on-field official to the monitor when even opposition fans don't see the need for a review. Then there are the situations the referee missed, but a more lenient VAR doesn't see the need to intervene. We see both types of situations every week, and fans and players complain endlessly about them.

Clear vs Obvious

The main trouble with VAR is not the occasional errors. Despite the over-reaction of the last few days, people are generally understanding of the odd mistake. The main problem is that no one seems to have any idea what clear and obvious really means. From a fan perspective, there's no clear standard nor any real possibility of introducing one.

Perhaps the solution is to move towards a more challenge-based approach to VAR, similar to cricket or tennis. Serie A wanted to move in this direction a few years ago but were denied by FIFA. Rather than having automatic VAR reviews, only initiate them when on-demand. Give the on-field captains, 2 or 3 chances to request a VAR review of major decisions.

That does open up the possibility of time-wasting. Teams would spuriously request VAR reviews of marginal decisions just to run down the clock. However, that's a problem worth accepting for better VAR outcomes. There are other ways of minimising time-wasting. There are few better ways of running VAR.