English football took a cautious step forward this week when Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) was trialled in both the FA Cup and League Cup, or “Carabao Cup”, to give its proper moniker. While there might have been more niggles than the FA would have liked, the trial marked a positive step forward for the game, writes Sean Lunt.
What is VAR?
In short, a video assistant referee is an official charged with watching a game from somewhere other than the pitch. If the on-field referee feels that he doesn’t have enough information to make an accurate decision, he can call on the VAR to throw in his two cents and review the decision. Alternatively, the VAR can simply review — and overturn — a refereeing decision of his own accord.
Current use of VAR
Although VARs aren’t yet included in the “laws of the game”, the International Football Association Board (comprising the Home Nations and FIFA) have outlined four instances in which a video assistant can be asked to make a decision: (1) goals, (2) penalties, (3) red cards, and (4) mistaken identity. The IFAB voted in March 2016 to trial VARs for no more than two years, and Monday night marked the first time the trial has been extended to England.
A solid debut
As debuts go, it was something like a ‘seven out of ten’. No major mistakes were made, but the technology didn’t do anything to justify the hype. At first, it appeared largely superfluous as Brighton and Crystal Palace — rivals for reasons nobody is quite sure of — played out a relatively boring derby clash.
However, with three minutes remaining, Glenn Murray popped up with a late winner that had just a whiff of controversy about it. Andre Marriner got a message in his ear and the game was stopped for a second look. 15 seconds later it had been concluded that there was nothing wrong and the goal stood. It was all as simple as that, and nowhere near as exciting as many would have hoped.
Sadly, the same could not be said at Stamford Bridge, with the decision to have a look at two incidents in either box bringing the game to something of a standstill. The original decisions were not overturned and things went on as normal. It was all a pretty standard, if somewhat slow, affair.
Relief at the reactionary FA
Not that a big sigh of relief won’t have been breathed at FA headquarters. The old organisation run by old men is fearful of change, so when they do, they like it to happen without controversy. Those niggles about time aside, VAR at least passed its first test without any of that. Whether they were impressed enough to introduce it full time remains to be seen.
Much like those in charge, the fans are yet to make a decision on that front as well. Most can see the benefits but wonder if it’s truly needed, worrying about the added time ruining the very hectic nature of football that they love.
There were similar fears about goal line technology, some fans even going as far as to claim they liked the controversy and the debates is sparks. Perhaps such fans would be more accommodating if they understood what VAR is here to do given that the current information is a bit mixed.
VAR won’t eradicate every mistake
VAR is not here to end controversy and contentious decisions; they will always be a part of the game. A look at any football debate demonstrates this fact, even after multiple views at reduced speeds, ex players, pundits, and fans cannot agree about decisions.
There have already been several incidents this season to prove this and there will likely be numerous more between now and the end of the campaign. VAR is not about eradicating every single mistake — that would be an impossible task. Human error will always have its place in football and expecting VAR to remove it is a foolish hope.
Instead, video replays are there to be used in the most difficult of situations, where a referee has no hope of telling what decision he should make. Think Kieran Trippier winning a penalty against Swansea earlier this season, or Kyle Walker being sent off against Everton. Or, on a grander scale, the penalty that saw Northern Ireland miss out on a place in the World Cup. A quick look at the monitor in that game would have prevented Michael O’Neill’s side going out in entirely unfair circumstances.
Success in the Bundesliga
VAR’s introduction will also help to eradicate doubt and, more importantly, inconsistent refereeing. The effects have already been seen elsewhere. In the Bundesliga, where the public and players appear to be against VAR, results have been drastic. A report from Sky Deutschland found refereeing mistakes have nearly dropped by half, with a wrong decision now coming every six games rather than every two games like last season.
That is a positive result and finer tuning can only make the system a more reliable one moving forwards. VAR is not here to change eradicate every mistake, nor will it end controversy or the debates that football fans love. Whatever the FA does, there will always be a grey area when it comes to refereeing.
But if fans are made aware this is a system that will level the playing field and give their side a fairer chance, they will be singing its praises from the rooftops.
Perhaps its time the FA, and media, went out of their way to explain that to those who don’t see the point. VAR is a much-needed introduction that will move the game forward in more ways than one. It’d be a shame for the Premier League to miss out because of a few minor niggles this month.