Why Premier League VAR has Failed

Why Premier League VAR has Failed

Every week, fans and pundits around the country are talking more and more about VAR. Each week the debate turns from one of learning how to accept the video referee to questioning its existence. There’s no doubt it has failed in the Premier League. I won’t repeat the same observations from A Game too VAR but since then, the evidence against the technology has been sidelined by the application of the rules.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) under the direct authority of FIFA issues the Laws of the Game every season. This year’s (2019/20) rulebook came into effect from the start of June. It is the rulebook every governing body — including UEFA — need to comply with. This includes the application of VAR. To use it, an association or competition has to follow the IFAB VAR Protocol.

You’ll have heard terms lifted from the rulebook all season, the biggest soundbite has been “clear and obvious error”. This simple directive now faces ambiguity because of the way Premier League Assistant Referees have ignored this instruction. A heel offside isn’t clear or obvious. It’s not even correct. The two types of technology required to be that precise do not exist.

The first being the ability to measure millimetres from existing camera angles without exact datum points on opposing players. The second, is the inability to determine when the attacking player’s foot plays the ball forward using 0.25 of a second freeze frames. There is an indeterminate amount of time when the ball will receive the force, slightly absorb it, then visually propel forward.

This isn’t the Premier League accidentally overlooking the IFAB rule book, it is a conscious decision. In their definition and explanation of VAR principles it is stated: Factual decisions such as whether a player is onside or offside, or inside or outside the penalty area, will not be subject to the clear and obvious test.

It goes against the extensive set of instructions the IFAB created when authorising nations to implement VAR, as stated in Chapter 2 of the rulebook: The referee’s original decision will not be changed unless there was a ‘clear and obvious error’ (this includes any decision made by the referee based on information from another match official e.g. offside).

Another clear instruction from the IFAB rule book is that a VAR official doesn’t have the power to make a decision. They can only give recommendations. The Premier League do acknowledge this and have even given a by-the-numbers process for referees in this scenario: Where the information received from the VAR falls outside of the referee’s expectation range or where there is a serious missed incident, they should use the RRA to assist with the final decision. 

The problem is, no referee in England’s top flight ever uses the RRA (Referee Review Area). It is clear the IFAB suggest an RRA isn’t necessary if the VAR official reports back with an overwhelming oversight that is so clear and obvious it isn’t worth the jog to the halfway line. For everything else, the ref needs to be taking a look. 

Perhaps on-field reviews were killed off in this country by the Liverpool FA Cup tie against West Bromwich Albion in January 2018. That particular game saw referee Craig Pawson spend three minutes at the pitch side monitor. West Brom manager Alan Pardew claimed VAR delays caused hamstring injuries to two of his players. The RRA hasn’t been used in big English games since.

If this was the reason RRA was shelved in England, that’s a further indictment against VAR. In the trials that should have highlighted problems, we ignored another issue — to add to the growing list — and forced it in regardless.

An interesting rule about replays reads as such: The referee can request different cameras angles/replay speeds but, in general, slow motion replays should only be used for facts e.g. position of offence/player, point of contact for physical offences and handball, ball out of play (including goal/no goal); normal speed should be used for the ‘intensity’ of an offence or to decide if it was a handball offence.

It’s the final part which really stands out — “normal speed should be used”. This clearly has been ignored in the Premier League. The on field referee who should be reviewing the incidents on a pitch side monitor choose not to. We then watch endless replays of the VAR ref doing exactly what the laws of VAR tell him he shouldn’t: he watches it over-and-over again in slow motion. A non-deliberate handball then becomes a penalty.

Trent Alexander-Arnold handled against Manchester City but the Premier League’s VAR Chief, Neil Swarbrick, defended the decision saying, “It was from a short distance, his arm did not move towards the ball and it was not deliberate. His arm was in a natural position for his body position at that time and he was happy for that to go.”

The same could be said — if not more so — for Çağlar Söyüncü’s handball when Leicester played Liverpool. His arm was by his side, he made efforts to wrap it around his back, it was close range, yet it was a penalty. The replays used were slowed down rather than accept the intent — if any — in real time.

There was always going to be human error with VAR, what exacerbates the situation is when the humans involved are picking and choosing which VAR protocols the IFAB have written into law they’ll actually use, then appearing to be inconsistent with the redrawn lines.

Back to the Alexander-Arnold “handball”, another facet to this debate is how it appeared to touch Bernardo Silva’s arm before Trent’s. By the letter of the new law, any contact with the attacking player’s hand/arm, is a foul regardless of intent. Liverpool went on to score from the breakaway. Should they have been under review for giving away a penalty then redeemed by Silva’s arm but denied the chance to score?

The “phases of play” argument is now alive and well thanks to VAR. Foden’s goal for Manchester City against Everton ruled out because a “pre-assist” pass was offside. By the letter of the law: correct decision. But there’s not a clear marker for when a phase of play can be reviewed from, most weeks it changes. Sometimes even in the same game week.

Liverpool versus Wolves, Virgil van Dijk handles the ball then whips it long into Adam Lallana who assists Sadio Mané. Same principle, a “pre-assist” pass. No longer using the rule the attacking player handling — regardless of intent — is classed as a foul, supposedly because of the phase of play.

This article isn’t meant to take aim at Liverpool. Wolves are the team most affected by VAR (at a cost of -7 points). Liverpool’s lead at the top would be halved if VAR hadn’t been used but there’s no denying they have been head and shoulders above the competition. Because of that, poor VAR officiating in their games will draw more attention.

The disallowed “heel” offside in the Villa game this weekend received a fair amount of media coverage. Imagine if that had been against Liverpool? VAR would really be at risk of cancellation.

Which brings us to the ground swell of public opinion that VAR needs a review to the extreme idea it should just be scrapped altogether. Mid-season, there’s zero chance of the Premier League even modifying the application of the system. To do so would call into question the integrity of the competition. The problem is, the Premier League’s integrity falls away with every bad, incorrect or pedantic VAR call.

The Twitter account above has a 14,000 strong petition on Change.org to remove the use of VAR in the Premier League. That number will continue to rise. People in the stadia need to take action too. One fan on Twitter suggested:

Perhaps a co-ordinated walkout of the 15:00 kick offs, or the refusal to return after halftime will send a strong message. The global TV audience will see empty stadiums because of the mess VAR has become. The Premier League doesn’t care about the law (it’s not using the IFAB protocol correctly), it doesn’t care about the fans in the stadium, it does care about it’s global image.

We need to hit them where it hurts and make the product appear tarnished and in disarray. Back in August, the majority were prepared to accept VAR and grow accustomed to its effect on the game. Months later, it’s clear that acceptance would be akin to assisted suicide for domestic football.

VAR has to go, before the fans do.

A Game Too VAR

A Game Too VAR

It was supposed to remove controversy. Establish clear rights from wrongs that the human eye can’t ascertain in real time. The theory of using technology to assist referees was a sound idea, it’s the inception that has been questionable. Even as the authorities iron out teething issues and officials acclimatise to the new era, Saturday’s game between West Ham and Manchester City revealed some fatal flaws.

VAR has been responsible for some controversial decisions before this weekend. We’ve seen a World Cup final swayed by a handball that the ref initially declared wasn’t deliberate. Upon being asked to review the incident it’s only natural the alarm bells begin to ring in his head. It’s not like there was a boxing-style judging panel at work behind the scenes. It’s reasonable to assume the ref felt VAR officials disagreed with the call and were giving him a second chance.

Watching back any handball in slow motion will change the colour of the argument and lead the referee to rule against the player. Unless the incident occurs at the Etihad in a Champions League tie. Fernando Llorente’s arm made contact with the ball and gave Spurs a vital goal that saw them progress to the next round.

The problem on that night was the referee didn’t have the full range of angles to make a measured decision. Viewers at home saw the ball hit the striker’s arm while the man making the important call was set up to fail. A rule with the pitch-side monitors should be that unless all available feeds can be presented to the ref, no VAR can be used.

The Llorente incident also highlights how a change of angle can make the same incident appear entirely different. No football ground comes with console game style replays, where any moment in time can be paused and viewed from any position imaginable. The rule makers will have you believe VAR is an objective device but depending what evidence is produced, it becomes a subjective experience.

On Saturday lunchtime, Manchester City once again saw VAR do its best OJ Simpson impression and failed to wear the gloves.

This time, the snug fit was even tighter than the infamous bloody hand garments. The VAR replay showed that Raheem Sterling had been deemed to have drifted offside by a couple of millimetres by virtue of his creeping shoulder. Despite how close it was, the law now emphasises that offside is offside, regardless of how small the gap. Something that Steve McManaman was quick to accept and drive home on BT Sport’s live commentary.

This law requires the acceptance that offside is treated like a ball going out of play, as David Walker from Read But Never Red explained in a Twitter post: “the ball going out of play…it is objective and will never be judged on being ‘a clear an obvious error.’” It’s worth noting David Walker sees the law as pedantic and agrees with the objections to its interpretation.

The technology can cope with fixed lines and known objects, such as balls. That’s why tennis and snooker have seamlessly incorporated Hawk-Eye technologies for years. Football is more complicated. It’s fine for Goal Line Technology and has been a success because it can apply the same principles. Calling an offside has too many moving parts. It becomes a subjective decision.

Firstly, a VAR official has to decide when the ball is played. At what nanosecond in time does that foot move the ball forward. Unlike snooker, where it can be deemed when the cue nudges a solid ball, we’re talking about a foot – seen from a camera in the gantry – that presses into a ball which changes shape slightly upon impact. At the same moment in time, the official needs to determine the movement and exact position of the last defender and attacking player.

Here’s the next – and for the Raheem Sterling incident – most subjective call of them all. The reference point of the player is the first part of his body he can legally score with, in this case it is deemed to be the shoulder. Some online have opened the debate that a defender can score an own goal with his arm, but to avoid adding another pedantic in an issue filled with them, we’ll stick to shoulders for now.

From that same far away, grainy camera shot, an official now needs to draw a downward line starting at the player’s shoulder. The best motion capture artists in Hollywood can’t determine exact body shapes with such restrictions. Even if the players were naked, it would be difficult to draw precisely from the shoulder. With a baggy football shirt, it’s impossible.

The millimetres that called Sterling offside could easily have been redrawn – without anyone raising an eyebrow – from a slightly different point on the alleged shoulder and declared him onside. The reference angle of anything is exaggerated the further away from the source. Think of a triangle. What starts as a millimetre travels to metres apart at opposing corners.

VAR isn’t going to disappear now but it can’t stay the same when it’s ruining games with long delays, killing celebrations, and making decisions based on subjective application of reference points. Until better technology exists, goals like Sterling’s should stand if both the attacking and defending lines are so merged. The margin of error is larger than the distances involved between the two lines.

VAR should be seen as a work in progress that was poorly implemented in the first instance and still looks shaky. Until everyone is more familiar with its restrictions, it should be pegged back and relied on less. Otherwise the most exciting league in the world will become the home of disbelief and frustration.

Manchester City Take it Away

Manchester City Take it Away

It a shame that the first Football Reflective post in little over a year, and the one to start a new season, is one that’s bound to aim negativity at the defending, record breaking, title retaining Premier League champions. If the sole purpose was to kick-off the 2019/20 campaign with a moan there were far easier targets, but we can save VAR for another day. And FFP is only ever two minutes away from another (well deserved) public stoning.

Manchester City caught the attention of the searchlight by skipping across the prison yard, hoping to escape with thousands of Ticket Points. Until Wednesday afternoon, all seasoncard holders were expecting to collect additional points for every away game they attended. The season long uncertainty for many: weighing up on which day of sale the window will open for them; will it even get that far down the list; should they buy for a dead rubber European away game to collect valuable bonus points, is now a thing of the past.

The new system strips away the secondary method of obtaining points. From now on, only matches played at home generate Ticket Points. This is an attempt to kill the secondary market of ticket resales. Or if we’re to call it for what it has become, touting. Those sat atop the Ticket Point pile can never be caught. They have first dibs on tickets so they always buy them, many regardless of their intention to attend or not.

It has to be said, this isn’t the case with all those rolling around in excess Ticket Points but it’s enough to ensure the points rich stay wealthy and the rest are left scrambling to get away games under their belt. Many will sell on at face value but there are those that profit financially. The problem with City’s new set of rules, is they effectively freeze the points system. Everyone desiring away games presumably has a seasoncard. Whatever the points gap is now, will never change.

Unless a person opts out of cup schemes or avoids the Platinum reward scheme. This has been much maligned over the years. The offer of paying £50 to double Ticket Points earned. A little brown envelope to the ticket office so they can make you appear more loyal. Unfortunately, what was once a subtle bribe will now become a necessity to prevent the 1% widening the gap during a period of stasis.

On top of the away game Ticket Points deletion, the upcoming season will see randomly selected supporters chosen to collect their ticket in person from the opposition’s ticket office. They will be given notice five days before. It’ll be interesting how many are selected per game, and how many then claim they’re actually unable to attend. In principle, this is a sound idea. It prevents the secondary market, it’s the execution City need to master. It was a disaster for European away games.

It’s also an option that should have been tried alongside the traditional method of issuing Ticket Points for away games. A strict vetting procedure could have stopped the 1% buying tickets for matches they couldn’t attend and allowed those below them to slowly amass some genuine points.

Instead, City have gone for the nuclear option. Hopefully this isn’t Phase 1 of a wider operation which sees the average fan further marginalised and given less hope of securing match day tickets.

On a plus note, they have acknowledged the difficulties facing younger supporters. If old fans in the Ticket Points middle ground can’t play catch-up, spare a thought for the 18 to 25-year-olds. They never stood a chance.  The new season will see 5% of away day ticket allocation going into a ballot. That comes out at 150 of 3,000 seats. This seems a fair reduction to general sale to get those denied by nothing more than their year of a birth, a chance to see the Citizens away from home.

Again, it’s a shame they won’t be awarded points for it. The status quo will remain. Unless the club have a wild card up their sleeve. Will they be monitoring fans that regularly attend away matches who would previously been denied due to their low points and inflate their Ticket Points accordingly come the end of May?

The new proposals are bound to receive a backlash. They deal out more punishments than rewards and fail to address underlying issues. It also opens the door for more tiresome “jokes” about empty seats. Hopefully, before next season City will conduct a proper consultation with a wider audience of the fanbase and not a select few who speak without elected authority.