What To Do About VAR?

What a wild Premier League season it has been for the Reds! In a year where the realistic goal for the club was to regain entrance to the Champions League, we found ourselves delighted, and entertained as Liverpool ended up providing a thrilling three-team title race. This year’s title run-in is officially the closest title race the League has seen in the past decade. In the 2013/14 season at the 27-game mark, the race was between Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea separated by a single point. This year feels like an even tighter affair even if there is a two-point gap between the leaders.

Unfortunately for Liverpool, the title run-in sees us sitting in third place in the table. Champions League qualification is clinched but with no possible twist of fate to better or spoil the farewell to our legendary manager. While the perfect ending to the Jurgen Klopp era unfortunately slipped through our fingers, we can look back at this year and over his tenure and celebrate the good times. Klopp has said over the last week, that if the goodbye wasn’t difficult, then the time must have been terrible, but it is goodbye and it is difficult. Amongst the things, players, and managers exiting our wonderful game this year could be Video Assisted Referee (VAR).

READ MORE: Coach’s Challenge by T. Alex Hauber
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The Committee To Shelve VAR

Wolverhampton Wanderers officially submitted a resolution earlier this month. They’ll move to bring a vote on scrapping VAR to the Premier League teams’ annual meeting on June 6th. I don’t think many supporters or teams were surprised by the move. VAR has been controversial since its implementation in the league during the 2019/20 season.

Debates have sparked in all corners of the sporting world about its implementation. Murky reasoning, underuse, and mistakes have made those debates loud. It was intended to eliminate the human errors that creep into a game that often sees results decided by small margins. Instead, we are left in the dark as officials stand in the center of the field with their fingers to their ears until they receive some answer and the unchangeable result is in. For some, these issues and more have led to a rising desire to unburden the game with the technological weight of an oblique system that does not seem to work. One could wonder if this response is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The Wrong Impact

Ultimately VAR is a piece of inanimate technology. It has no bias and currently has little to no automated parts. The VAR official draws offside lines. VAR reviews are called down to the center referee. The technology is purely a tool of assistance. Would the removal of this technology address the grievances of the clubs?

ASTV Shorts: Another Convo About VAR

It feels akin to ordering a leg amputation for a skinned knee. This is not to downplay the damage a faulty system is causing across the league. This year’s title race is the closest in a decade! ESPN keeps track of the VAR decisions across the year. They try to give a glimpse of the league results if we did not have the technology. Before the last game of the season, Liverpool and Arsenal sit at a -1. This means both clubs are one point worse off than if VAR wasn’t there. Manchester City, the current league leaders with a two-point cushion come in on the VAR table with a +3.

If you adjusted for the VAR calls the title race would see Arsenal two points clear of City. Instead, we have the current reality.

VAR Adjusted Table via ESPN
1- Arsenal 872 – Manchester City 853 – Liverpool 80
Current Premier League Table
1- Manchester City 882 – Arsenal 863 – Liverpool 79

That is a title race-defining point change. The relegation race is just as heavily impacted by the VAR-adjusted points. When the margins of title success, and financial security are this close you should expect the quality of the product to match the demand. And it hasn’t.

The Human Element

Looking across the season, each team can point to events where the system has been detrimental to their campaign. However, the blame shouldn’t be put on the technology. It has fulfilled its purpose. The error still lies with the human element. The blame for VAR’s struggles falls firmly on the hands of the operators. There are still copious amounts of human errors found in subjective rules and wording of instructions.

Let’s turn the clock back to the 30th of September 2023. Luis Diaz slipped between two Tottenham center-backs, latched onto a brilliant through pass, and fired a goal past Guglielmo Vicario. This goal had huge implications not just on the night. The Reds were already down a player through a Curtis Jones red card. It was also a tilt of two undefeated teams fighting for prime positions in the title race. Diaz’s goal was disallowed for offsides and then the fiasco of VAR struck.

THE INCIDENT IN QUESTION

The VAR official on the night, Darren England, incorrectly thought the onfield decision was “goal.” He quickly identified that Díaz was onside and told the on-field team “Check Complete” to confirm the goal. But when center referee Simon Hooper was told this, he understood the decision made by the assistant as being correct. That meant that rather than the decision being a goal, it remained disallowed. But that narrative wasn’t clear to the fans or the players. There was no drawing of lines by VAR to check Diaz’s position. Simon Hooper wasn’t called to the monitor, either. Play went on and 9-man Liverpool eventually fell to Tottenham via a cruel deflected Joel Matip own goal.

Questions were asked by pundits, players, and Jurgen Klopp. Social media exploded with still frames and home-drawn lines showing just how big that missed call was. In October, PGMOL released the damning tapes of the VAR/referee conversation. This entire mess was laid bare. It also forced the head of PGMOL Howard Webb to address the concern and issue an apology. Within the explanation of why the mistake happened, there was an insistence that this error would be quickly corrected.

Howard’s Web Of Confusion

“We know human error can happen in all walks of life and it happened here. One of the things we need to do is put things in place so that if there is a human error it doesn’t have the same impact as we saw on this occasion.

“One of those things is to reiterate some of those communication protocols that are really valuable in VAR to prevent these types of things happening. We want the on-field referee to communicate to the VAR what the on-field decision is clearly.

“Then the VAR goes back to the referee and acknowledges they have heard that clearly. We want the VAR to go through the process of checking the decision, giving clear directions to the replay operator to get the right angles, and speaking to the assistant VAR as they go through so that the AVAR can be another checking balance.

“Then going back to the on-field referee and not just saying ‘check complete’, because what are you check completing? Saying ‘check complete goal confirmed’ or in this case ‘check complete offside confirmed’. Then that’s another trigger for the on-field officials that they’re going in the wrong direction.

“So we’ve put quite a few steps in place so that this error does not happen again,” Webb added.

Putting Those Words Into Perspective

I want to draw out a couple of points here that I think will highlight what should happen with VAR instead of just scrapping the system. 

First and foremost Howard Webb states “We know human error can happen in all walks of life and it happened here. That if there is a human error it doesn’t have the same impact as we saw on this occasion.” This sums up the gravity of the situation. We aren’t talking about a low-stakes clash here. Two undefeated teams who both are eyeing glory were hurt by the referee’s mistake.

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Second, Howard Webb reiterates multiple times throughout his statement that it was a human error that PGMOL was looking to correct and not a technical glitch. This is important because if it was a technical error and the referees were also victims in it then there is a whole separate course of action needed to be taken to address this. It was a human error. A mistake from the “communication protocols.” Which brings us to point three.

Third, What are these communication protocols? Webb gives an example of clarifying the confusion created in this instance of VAR saying “Check Complete” but not having first established with the center referee what they were checking. More robust communication protocols were promised. Throughout the season we saw similar human errors appear affecting a wide range of teams. Including Wolverhampton who have taken the previously mentioned extraordinary step to call a meeting to discuss scrapping the system. So, It would be fair to ask if these issues procedures were addressed through training and the steps mentioned by Webb were taken, why did the VAR issues continue?

The issues continued because VAR itself wasn’t the issue. Neither would scrapping VAR correct these issues. The technology can’t force a referee to implement new procedures and communicate clearly and correctly. It can’t force a referee to come to the monitor to look at a call they missed. The only element in this puzzle that can correct a human mistake, is in this case, a human one.

I would be remiss to write this while crying foul without having an idea of how we could fix things. In fact, I have a few ideas. Either individually or as a package, these could help to move VAR closer to the original vision.

Coach’s Challenge

Tony Pulis in 2012 suggested a system that gave each coach two red challenge flags (one per half). They could challenge a call on the field. A manager would ask the center referee to take 30 seconds to check in with replay officials to confirm a call. At most Pulis’ plan would take a minute per half if both coaches used their flags each half. Worried about this interrupting the flow of the game? The implementation of VAR review and check has shown how an interruption that ensures accurate results has been welcomed.

This would give coaches a way to insist that referees go to the monitor to check their calls. There should be no reason to be against running to the monitor to check a call. This is especially important because as of right now, center referees can opt to view the monitor or not. This wording should be taken away and replaced with something that makes it mandatory for a center referee to check the monitor if a coach’s challenge or the VAR official tells them to.

Transparent Referee Training

Howard Webb insisted after the Diaz VAR fiasco that there were going to be additional steps followed within PGMOL to make sure similar mistakes were ironed out of the game. So far, this season has been a fail reel of questions and subjectivity that leave very few confident these issues have been adequately addressed. There needs to be more transparency into PGMOL and how it administered the new training, who attended, how well they scored on assessments, etc. It is really easy to say that you will fix something, it also is easy to say you will and then not act.

Rugby Style Refereeing

Rugby has been using VAR and mic’d referees for years now. The system doesn’t get everything 100%, but what it does provide is instant transparency to the calling of the game. Viewers and players can see the replays, hear the questions being asked, and the explanations being provided, and while you may subjectively disagree with the call, you at least understand it.

VAR doesn’t need to be taken away. The confusion and anger with the technology comes from viewers and players not knowing how exactly it is being used, and what the conversations about the foul/no foul are. And if the tapes released for the Diaz call are any indication, a little transparency and the pressure of knowing everyone can hear you could provide the added incentive for the referees to get the call right.

Consequences To Drive Accountability

Currently, if players, coaches, managers, owners, or essentially anyone from a club questions a referee or their decisions they can be hit with various fines. I understand that the referee position is a difficult one in a world where they are surrounded by passionate people from both teams. They need to ensure their unbiased and unintimidated professional calling of the game as well as their safety as an official.

I am not advocating for a major change to those safeguards. I am suggesting that referees who don’t have skin in the game may be able to blast off an apology from the locker room or across social media and feel that that action in and of itself offsets the damage done through any human error that occurred. Players, managers, and staff know that if they make a mistake there are consequences: fines, cards, loss of employment, riding the bench, losing a match, being some of the most common. Referees also need to understand that their mistakes matter.

Whether that is a fine administered by PGMOL or the FA, suspension of duty as what happened with the officials after the Diaz incident, or termination should all be on the table. This doesn’t mean that players, managers, or others can fire shots at and call into question the referee’s integrity. Those current specific fines and bans should remain in place. Instead, the clubs should have a system where they can lodge their complaints with the confidence that the issues will be addressed, and consequences enforced, all of which are reviewed to ensure that justice is meted out quickly and efficiently.

Relieve Some Pressure

There are different variants of the VAR system across the top leagues of Europe. In the 2022 World Cup FIFA introduced a version of VAR that included SAOT (Semi-Automated Offside Technology) that took away the human element of physically drawing lines. This technology appeared again in this season’s Champions League.

This would reduce some of the pressure on the referee squads because they would have a safety net to help them in the modern fast-paced game. The wording of how this system will be used will be especially important to secure it from human error. Tuchel’s Bayern Munich was refused a potential tying goal in the Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid because of an offside call. The SAOT was in place for the Champions League. But because both the assistant flagged and the referee blew the whistle to stop play, the potential offside could not be reviewed by the system. Whether or not that would have changed the outcome is one of the many “what if” questions in sports. However, it does highlight the importance of reducing human intervention in an automated system.

The Premier League announced in April of this year that SAOT would be introduced at “some point” in the 2024/2025 Premier League. But with Wolverhampton’s resolution on the table, we might not see that much-needed addition to the league.

Final Thoughts

VAR is not the problem. It is one of the symptoms of a much larger problem: human error. As the brilliant English Poet Alexander Pope wrote in an essay on criticism “To err is human.” Mistakes happen. But that doesn’t mean we can absolve ourselves from the responsibility of adapting and changing to prevent those errors.

Using technology to help mitigate problems in human society is something that has so many upsides that it would be difficult to list. The answer to the dilemma presented by VAR in the Premier League is going to need a holistic approach to the entire system of refereeing in the modern game. How do we address referee subjectivity? What happens if a mistake is made? How do we reduce, as Howard Webb put it, something “that happens in all walks of life?”

We hope the answer lies in not throwing out VAR to fix it all. We are more likely to wake up in a world where one of the most important tools in our modern arsenal will be gone. Whether Wolverhampton has the support amongst the other Premier Clubs to shelve VAR or is more likely the resolution will make waves but ultimately fail, there is a problem with VAR. It just isn’t technology.

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