VAR! What Is It Good For? Absolutely Something

Let's not rule out VAR just yet
Kristan Heneage |
Tue, November 12, 6:02 AM EST | 4 min read
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The revolution will be televised, and it will be checked in a small room near an airport.

The implementation of VAR in the Premier League this season has spawned a nigh weekly discussion, as fans unite in frustration.

“It’s hard to put into words the pressure you feel as a VAR when you’re behind the screen,” Neil Swarbrick said. “When we brought the media in for demonstrations, and we gave them clips to look at with no pressure on them to view these incidents, they said this is really hard.

While fans can empathise with the plight of officials, it does not diminish the yearning for consistency. And that’s inevitably where this system hits its first and most significant speed bump. VAR was sold as omnipotent, a sieve for officials that would collect the tough decisions and allow for a vital second look.

Those mistakes could then be corrected, and as such, we would have a fairer game overall. What has instead manifested is the dreaded offside lines, and an inconsistency of application that has left fans frustrated.

This weekend, the most controversial instance occurred at Anfield. Trent Alexander-Arnold appeared to handle the ball in his own penalty area. Nothing was given, and Liverpool raced up the other end and scored.

If you rewatch the footage, it appears to hit off Bernardo Silva’s arm first. PGMOL confirmed that handball was not taken into account for the first VAR decision. Consequently, Liverpool fans point to Silva’s handball, while City fans point to the fact it wasn’t taken into account. Given City’s own history with handball calls and VAR, the lack of clarity on the situation has once again caused confusion among supporters.

In theory, VAR was supposed to alleviate uncertainty, but it has instead clouded vital moments. Chris Wood produced a VAR inspired celebration this weekend after having a goal chalked off moments earlier. The panic and uncertainty around whether a goal will or won’t be given has created a vacuum of joy, that is only removed with the referee points to the centre circle. The celebration after the celebration.

“It went to VAR,” said DeAndre Yedlin after heading in Newcastle’s equaliser against Bournemouth. “Nobody wants to look stupid and celebrate, and have it called offside!”

There has also been frustration at just how things are checked. But, then again, you must remember this is not Robo-Cop applying the law as directed by a central processing unit. This is still a referee, a human being, interpreting the rules and applying them to the best of their knowledge.

We’ve likely all been guilty of it ourselves. A decision we’ve first called ridiculous is then shown on a replay, and before you know it, a quiet retraction falls from your mouth as you commend the referee for getting it right.

The same is true here, only those same referees can be confused by a slow replay. Slow anything down, and you can start to make it look more sinister. You begin to judge the slow-motion replay rather than what actually happened.

For the official in the middle, there is also the confusion of relying on a colleague’s interpretation. What one referee deems a yellow, another might consider a red. Think of it like the policeman that pulls you over for speeding. What one believes to be worthy of a warning the other may wish to add 3 points to your license.

Both are acting in good faith, but if you’re the driver that is fined, you will likely be frustrated by the inconsistency. It’s not all bad, however. VAR has also helped highlight the fragility of some rules, such as Son Heung-Min’s recent red card.

Son’s tackle was not what caused Andre Gomes to break his ankle, but it was reckless and showed little intent to play the ball. The ability to stop and review moments rather than operate directly on their own recall can provide a benefit to referees. Still, all of this comes with an important caveat - we must not expect perfection.

VAR will never be able to account for the mad, frantic, nature of football. It’s a game enjoyed because of its unpredictability. If we as a sport are committed to this technology, we must embrace its limitations and adapt how we implement it or go back to the way things were. Only then, by going forward or backwards, can we end this odd middle ground we currently inhabit.

“We are open to evolving with this - it’s not a case of we’re not budging. We will listen to feedback, and where we can improve things, we will do,” Swarbrick said.

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