19 August 2019

For the second week running, this years big new addition to the Premier League - the Video Assistant Referee - is courting controversy again. 

To understand why, TUXtra takes a look at how other sports have incorporated technology in decision making to highlight - 'The trouble with VAR'.

Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus confronts referee Michael Oliver following the 
VAR led decision to rule out his late goal against Spurs
#IT'S HAPPENED AGAIN was the immediate social media reaction following Manchester City's 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad Stadium.

Unbelievably, Manchester City had once again been denied a match defining goal by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), bringing back memories of last seasons epic Champions League Quarter-Final between these two sides last April.

On that occasion, in a moment of stunning drama Sergio Arguero's late, late, strike seemed to have decided the two-legged tie in favour of the Citizen's, only for VAR to turn the players, coaching staff and fans' collective feelings of elation into a deep despair.

This time it was Gabriel Jesus's calm and collected finish into the bottom corner of Hugo Loris' net, deep into added time, that was to be chalked off courtesy of an inadvertent 'handball' in the build up by teammate Aymeric Laporte.

"We have to accept it" was City Manager Pep Guardioa's verdict following the game, adding "It's tough because we scored a goal late on. But ask VAR people, not me."

But with this being the second week of controversial incidents, with Manchester City again at the heart of those again in the Premier League's first week of action, there is a growing concern across supporters up and down the country that VAR is having too much of a defining impact on games where it shouldn't.

In a tweet Simon Lloyd, Journalist for online news, sport and entertainment website JOE, probably best sums up fans dismay when he opined; "I preferred football when supporters were angry at officials getting decisions clearly wrong to now, where supporters are angry at technology getting it fractionally right."

Yet, it's not as if technology hasn't been successfully integrated into sport before.

So why has footballs own embracing of technology failed to get supporters on board and what could the sports governing officials potentially gain by taking a closer look on how sports like Cricket, Tennis, Rugby and American Football have incorporated technology assisted officiating to their own games?

Fans not informed or involved during the decision making process

Seemingly one of the biggest omissions the The Professional Game Match Officials (PGMOL) has made in incorporating VAR for this Premier League season is failing to ensure fans at the ground remain fully informed and part of what is going on during the decision making process.

Despite 18 of 20 Premier League grounds having big screens to inform fans that a 'VAR review' is ongoing, with inexplicably Old Trafford and Anfield being the two grounds without (where a PA announcement is used instead), real time replays showing the decision making process as it happens are not being offered to those in the ground.

This lack of information resulted in much confusion over the week one decision to allow Sergio Arguero to retake a previously saved penalty, on account of Declan Rice's encroachment prior to clearing the rebound, an incident that would have easily gone unnoticed by most at the game and left many in bemusement until they could catch up with the match highlights later in the evening.

When you compare this situation for the money rich game that is Premier League football, to the sports of Tennis, Rugby and Cricket, where not only are replays are provided, but there is direct communication from all match officials - providing direct entertainment for those present - the current lack of transparency in the former for people paying good money to attend makes even less sense.

Fans are informed of the VAR decision at Leicester City's King Power Stadium
Fans are informed of the VAR decision at Leicester City's King Power Stadium

How and when VAR is used

Power to the referee

Talking ahead of the new season, former Premier League Referee and now Managing Director of The Professional Game Match Officials (PGMOL), Mike Riley explained "VAR looks at four key areas: all goals scored; penalty kicks, whether they're awarded or not; direct red-card offences - not second yellow cards but straight reds; and any case of mistaken identity."

The reasoning behind picking these four primary scenario's is evidently to ensure the game is not inundated with stoppages whilst ensuring the most important parts of the game are covered, yet this compromise solution feels a misstep when you compare the application of technology in other sports.

In Rugby, a game of similar pace and flow to that of football, it is primarily the on-field referee who decides when to defer to the Television Match Official (TMO), where they will confirm what their original decision is and asking if there is any clear and indisputable evidence that means that decision should not be upheld.

Had this evidently preferable method been employed by the Premier League, it seems likely that both goals controversially ruled out for handball's that occurred in the build up would have stood, if it is accepted that this seasons amendment to the interpretation of handball in the situation of goals scored would not have been needed and that the on-field referee's would have seen no reason to refer these goals for VAR adjudication.

Wolverhampton Wanders Leander Dendoncker was to see his second-half goal against Leicester City ruled out by VAR due to the ball striking teammate Willy Boly's arm in the immediate build-up
Wolverhampton Wanders Leander Dendoncker was to see his second-half goal against Leicester City ruled out by VAR due to the ball striking teammate Willy Boly's arm in the immediate build-up

Power to the players

But the world of sport also show's us another option for deciding how and when an on-field referee's decision could be reviewed, with Cricket, Tennis and American Football putting this power in the hands of players and/or coaches.

This work's by giving both sides a set number of reviews or 'challenges' and has proven to be highly effectively in improving the overall standard of officiating.

Take the gripping Ashes series we are witnessing between England and Australia as a great example of this method in action.

Cricket's Decision Review System (DRS) has been a revelation, improving the standard of officiating and player behaviour towards officials, whilst adding an element of intrigue for the watching audience.

That these are outcomes that the Premier League would deem desirable, especially with the sight of players aggressively surrounding a referee's becoming all too common place, makes its choice to go with the current horrible half-way house application all the more baffling.

Umpire Joel Wilson seen overturning a decision in the current Ashes series follow a DRS review
Umpire Joel Wilson seen overturning a decision in the current Ashes series follow a DRS review

The technology is just not up to scratch

Perhaps the most startling revelation to come out of the first weekends analysis of VAR's decision making was to find that the technology used contains a vital flaw when it comes to split second decision making.

As discussed by former Aston Villa forward Andy Gray, who now works alongside Richard Keys as a pundit for Qatari channel Bein Sports and also featured in the Daily Mail, the frame-rate used by camera's when trying to decide marginal offside decisions produces a crucial margin for error.

Taking the example of Raheem Sterling's apparent offside in the build up to Gabriel Jesus's disallowed goal against West Ham on the opening weekend, calculated that the 50 frames-per-second camera that was used by VAR officials, assisted by imaging software, to make the decision contained a 13cm window of uncertainty, calling into question the verdict that judged Sterling to be offside by just 2.4cm.

Yet whilst it can be difficult to remove any margin of error, even with the introduction of technology, once again other sports that have applied technology ahead of football have shown the way in combating this by ensuring the 'on-field decision' stands as the key point of reference and that a call is only overturned a 'clear and obvious' error can be seen - and for most fans, this is what VAR should be concerned with, not trying to define the tiniest, indistinguishable by the naked eye, margins of the fastest league on earth.

VAR judged Raheem Sterling to be offside by the slimmest of margins in Manchester City's match at West Ham United
VAR judged Raheem Sterling to be offside by the slimmest of margins.

What happens now

The current situation in football represents quite a transition from the days of former FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, who had initially been insistent that football did not want or need technology on the field.

"We want to maintain the spontaneity of football — played, administered and controlled by human beings" said Blatter going into the 2010 World Cup, before incidents on the field, including Frank Lampard's 'ghost-goal' for England against Germany, prompted the President to perform an about-face.

Almost ten-years on from the point, VAR is now here in the Premier League and it's clear its introduction represents a Pandora's Box moment.

The Video Assistant Referee is here to stay.

There is no going back.

But whilst this realisation may repulse the strongest critics of VAR, quick to claim 'the games gone' whilst predicting the demise of football as a consequence, the proof of other sports successful introduction of technology to their games should show as a reassuring point of reference.

Yes, it may feel bad now, but despite identifying VAR's major flaws across this article, these are not difficult issues and it has be shown that they can be easily overcome - it is essentially a question of refining its application.

A way can be found to ensure the game we love and grew up with, with all its intricacies and nuances, is maintained whilst introducing technology to ensure that the scourge of bad officiating - something that equally frustrate fans - is eradicated.

All that is needed is for those in charge at PMGOL and IFAB to raise their head's outside of the football bubble - to learn the lessons from sports that have advanced with technology years before them.

Links: The Premier League; VAR; IFAB Laws of the Game; 

Manchester United fans are informed a VAR check has been completed at Old Trafford

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