Video Assistant Referees (VAR) are coming to the Premier League for the 2019-20 campaign as the system is finally being adopted by England’s top-flight.
But is VAR what we really want? The jury remains out. Big time.
VAR has been used in Major League Soccer for years, rolled out across Europe’s other top leagues over the past few seasons and was a revelation at the 2018 World Cup.
But, and there is always a but with VAR, its arrival is getting us all to ask a huge internal question about the beautiful game: is this what we really want? Should every minute detail be scrutinized a la the NFL? Is this the direction we want to head in?
Whether we like it or not, that is the direction we are heading in. The system is being used in the FA Cup and League Cup in England this season, and in the knockout round of the UEFA Champions League for the first time. It is something we are going to hear a lot more about in the coming weeks and months.
Like any change in system there are positives and negatives.
Positive: I attended the Southampton versus Derby County FA Cup third round replay on Wednesday. Derby had one goal which looked perfectly fine ruled out via VAR, and one goal stood which looked offside. Both calls were correct when the replays were shown and there was tension in the stadium as the referee waited to announce the decision. It was all rather smooth and, most importantly, the correct decisions were made.
Negative: The fact that Derby were denied a wonderful team goal due to the heel of their striker being offside seems totally against the spirit of the game, and so to does Jack Stephens‘ right heel playing four players onside for Derby’s first goal. When you zoom in and slow down the footage, you can see that the decisions are technically correct. But there is an argument to be made that VAR is taking things too far.
Chants of “VAR, VAR” were heard by both sets of fans as youngsters made the square hand gesture as they called for VAR to be used time and time again. It is fun now, because it is new, but in a few years time we may all look down in the pub as we swill the remnants of a pint and say something along the lines of: “I miss the old days before VAR.”
Referees and linesman will probably miss it too, because their role in the game will still be important but their responsibility is diminished.
The debates will continue about certain decisions with or without VAR. Take the Harry Kane penalty kick against Chelsea in the League Cup for example. Was that incident a “clear and obvious” error? That is what VAR is supposed to be used for and that is where the gray area still exists.
When VAR was used at St Mary’s a message was displayed on the big screens saying a goal was being checked, or a possible penalty decision was being looked at. It all worked quite well and certainly added drama to proceedings. Could replays be shown live on the big screens at stadiums in Premier League grounds to offer greater transparency to fans and players? Or would that cause riots if the VAR images were still inconclusive? It is a tricky tightrope to walk.
VAR will get the vast majority of decisions correct, but how often it is used and how heavily referees rely on it will determine if the system is going to be successful long-term.
We are about to find out if VAR is here to stay and if it is what we really want.
Right now, there is no going back.