The American Gerrard- OVARturn Overture

Last month after some dodgy officiating, I wrote an in-depth article exploring the potential for bias among referees and their decisions. Due to recent events I was inspired to write another. This time I am going to focus strictly on Liverpool’s current arch nemesis… VAR.

This season will see Video Assistant Referees (VAR) used for the second consecutive season in the Premier League. Every Premier League match now has a “qualified” referee who watches the game using several television screens at the VAR Hub in Stockley Park, West London. They can view slow-motion replays and adjust camera angles, enabling them to provide advice to the on-field referee. The VAR has an Assistant VAR (AVAR) and a Replay Operator (RO) to help him with any added difficulties he may encounter with technology.

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So how the hell do they keep getting it wrong in Liverpool matches?

This season has seen Liverpool involved in a league high NINE overturned decisions contributing to five disallowed goals and two goals scored against Liverpool. These decisions can be attributed to a loss of seven points overall. They also gave our opponents three penalties this season. To put it in perspective, the team with the closest number of overturned decisions this season is Brighton Hove Albion with four. Liverpool literally have more then double that number.

Orchestrating Overturns

To really examine why Liverpool keep getting the short end of the stick, we need to understand just how VAR overturns work.

It is a common misconception that VAR controls the modern game. In theory VAR does not control a game and is only used for subjective decisions. VAR only really gets involved in one of two situations, either the on field referee himself tells the VAR over the radio that a decision should be reviewed or the VAR identifies a “clear and obvious error” and tells the referee.

Typically at the next stoppage of play, the referee will hold up the restart until a decision has been reached. The on field referee will explain their decision to the VAR, and what they believe they have seen from the pitch. The VAR will review the broadcast footage, using as many camera angles as possible. In the question of a foul real-time replays will be used initially to check for intensity. Slow-motion replays will be used to identify the point of contact.

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If the VAR’s view does not agree with what the referee believes they have seen then they can recommend an overturn. The final decision will always be up to the on field referee and VAR only really provides advice to help him make the call.

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Human Error

Sometimes VAR just misses a foul or becomes confused about the rules exactly. Liverpool’s match against Everton this season provides a perfect example of a time when human error was behind another VAR blunder. Early on in the match, Everton and England goal keeper Jordan Pickford was responsible for an extremely dangerous tackle on Virgil Van Dijk resulting in Van Dijk being ruled out for the rest of the season.

The tackle was overshadowed at the time by another offside debate. Leading up to the tackle Van Dijk was adjudged to be in an offside position. The on field referee Michael Oliver failed to see the tackle and many failed to grasp the severity of the injury as Van Dijk was able to walk off the field. Upon closer review had this tackle happened at any other time during a match it would be warranted as a straight red card.

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Did the VAR official fail to see the tackle? There are some conflicting reports and overall the Referee association has been tight-lipped but the story is that VAR official David Coote saw the tackle, thought it was dangerous but did not think the foul counted because Van Dijk was offsides. Sounds pretty stupid to me.

No matter how good technology can get, we can have the best tools, the best camera angles. We can literally see up Mo Salah’s nostril using a drone. It does not matter when the human operating the technology makes a mistake. The same referees that have been officiating matches for years and potentially making a number of mistakes on the pitch are now in the VAR Hub monitoring matches and making the same mistakes. The use of technology can only go so far and does not ensure perfection.

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A Galaxy VAR, VAR Away…

Each time we encounter another controversial VAR decision in England, I find myself wondering why we do not hear about more VAR drama in other leagues? The truth behind the matter is actually quite simple and may provide long term hope for VAR in the Premier League.

Apparently majority of the Big Leagues in Europe have had VAR a few years longer then England. Both the Bundesliga and Serie A introduced Video Assistant Referees in 2017. La Liga and Ligue 1 in France followed suit the following year in 2018. Each league’s VAR got off to a slow start and received heavy criticism during the introduction.

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Germany were really the pioneers of the technology, setting pace for the other leagues to follow. At first, there was much confusion, and audiences were not even sure what was happening or if and when VAR checks were taking place. Eventually, they decided to announce VAR checks on stadium and television screens. Bundesliga officials met with PGMO to discuss improvements midseason. One of the key changes they brought were encouraging on-field referees to refer to pitch-side monitors.

In Spain, they initially wasted large amounts of time checking every small detail looking for potential fouls (sounds familiar). It was not uncommon for games to be given eight added minutes after a match due to time used reviewing play by referees. Since then play reviews have become much quicker. If they review something that they immediately see is not going to be clear they leave it and move on. It is a much smoother process where they have choose to focus more on things like dangerous play then offsides and handball.

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Italian crowds were turned off by VAR in the early days siting the long waits killed the enjoyment and excitement of the game. These days the general consensus among Serie A fans is that the technology works well and the process is quicker; the problem is incorrect human interpretation which pisses off fans even more then waiting. The Italian FA even opened the world’s first VAR training center, providing referees the ultimate training place to learn the use of modern technology. The referees’ chief Marcello Nicchi has even said that overall there were far fewer red cards for violent conduct during matches because the players know they would be picked up by the VAR and not be able to get away with it.

VARiable Future

It kills me to say this, but maybe over time VAR will improve. We need first hand experience to really understand what works and what does not. The other leagues can provide a sort of blueprint as to what works in their countries, but ultimately it will be up to the Premier league to cut and adjust what works for them. For now, I think we are stuck agreeing with the Italian fans: the technology works, we are just plagued by human error.

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Could the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms be the future of fair play football? I am actually from an apocalyptic future where soccer robots rule the world and I have come back in time to stop it from happening!

I am Jordan Gerrard and as always I thank you for reading!

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