The State of VAR in the Premier League

To say that VAR has been a point of contention would be an understatement

Photo by Vienna Reyes on Unsplash

This year, the English Premier League made an important change to the way that the league is officiated. Although it is late to the party considering all of the other leagues that already use it, the Football Association decided to introduce Video Assistant Referees to every match, increasing the total referee count from four to five. With the advent of technology in sports, it was about time that soccer decided to adopt a more high-tech approach to ensuring that the rules of the sport are being followed. American sports have had it for years with video replays being available in the NFL, NHL, and even the MLS.

Of course with any new developments with a sport, a change will be met with some degree of backlash from those who don’t wish to see the sport they’ve watched for so long change. But just as any other rule change, eventually the rule is adopted, often to some criticism. And perhaps no change in soccer has preempted as much criticism as VAR.

The most recent technological upgrade to the Premier League was goal line technology which could help to detect whether or not a ball had fully crossed the line and a goal had been scored. After a fair amount of backlash before its implementation, its integration to the game was fairly seamless. Now in any uncertain goals, the referee simply glances at his or her watch to see whether or not a goal was scored and proceeds accordingly. The result has had almost no impact on the game whatsoever except to more accurately record goals that have been scored in each game.

VAR, on the other hand, is a little more complex.

It has had its moments in other competitions like the World Cup where the technology was largely out of the way, mostly due to its implementation. But in the Premier League, it has taken center stage. With the technical ability to address any incorrect call that happens on the field, sometimes things get unwieldy. Soccer has always been known for its vague rules and their open interpretation which has been largely acceptable, but in something like VAR which can get down to pixel-precision, vagueness clashes with concrete evidence.

Due to the wide range of issues that VAR could address in a free-flowing game like soccer, the FA decided to narrow its rulings down to just a few issues: red card offenses, goals, penalties, and mistaken identity. These four subjects have large impacts on the outcome of the game and have therefore been chosen as potential things for further review. Of the four, the only rule that might confuse soccer fans is that of “mistaken identity” which refers to the system checking to make sure that the correct player is booked.

While red card offenses and penalty decisions have had their own examples put under the microscope, no VAR branch has been scrutinized more than that which decides whether or not a goal will stand. And rightfully so. Goals are the key to winning and losing soccer games and, as we’ve found out this season, they are often scored in tight margins. A bevy of imperceptible offside calls, fouls committed in the imprecisely-phrased “build-up” to the goal have called for changes in the phrasing of certain rules in soccer and, in some instances, changes to the rules themselves.

Commentators are aghast that the league would implement such rules that would retract goals that have been scored and would take away from the celebrations of the fans and the players. Moreover, they are, as well as the fans, acutely aware of the difference in the way that goals are celebrated. With so many goals being pulled back from small infractions that no single fan has seen, let alone the referees, supporters are wary of celebrating too early for fear that their celebrations may be premature. With the introduction of technology like this, leagues would be remiss to avoid using them in pulling back goals that should not stand. But when margins are tight and rules are vague, it’s best to let the game stay where it was before. If a player is half an inch offside 20 passes before a goal is scored and the goal is pulled back for it, something needs to change. Rules should be updated to be more concrete and to adjust to the new technology, but more importantly they should be updated so that so many goals aren’t disallowed. So far this season, VAR has overturned more goals than have been scored by 16 of the Premier League’s 20 teams with 37 total overturned goals. To me, this is the greatest transgression by the new technology and the transgression that prioritizes accurate rule-following over entertainment value. In sports, this needs to be in balance and right now in the Premier League, it isn’t.

Here’s to hoping that next season will include some significant rule changes to accommodate for VAR but until then, we will all have to patiently wait to celebrate until the “VAR Check Complete” message appears.

(Mostly) tech writer based in NYC. Other interests include movies, games, music, soccer, and traveling. You’ll find a little bit of all of that here.

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