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.

Centurions

Centurions

Before 2017 was even over, pundits and fans started to ask: Is the current Manchester City side the best the Premier League has ever seen?

By April, the mere suggestion had morphed into serious debate. It seemed the crown was to be contested by Pep’s latest side, and this season’s Premier League champions, Arsenal’s Invincibles, and Manchester United’s treble winning team of ’99.

All had merits that were difficult to argue against. Arsenal hold one of the few records that the current City team didn’t break. It was of course, the honour of going a full 38 games without tasting defeat.

Nothing should take away from that feat – one which may never be beaten – but the table never lies (we’ll keep coming back to that cliché). This season, the Citizens won an incredible 32 games; the Invincibles drew 12 in their unbeaten campaign.

If Mayweather gets criticised for winning without being exciting, the old chants of “Boring, boring, Arsenal” can be shoehorned (if a little unfairly) into this debate. Arsenal took a great singular achievement – going undefeated – and have traded on it ever since. It kept Arsène Wenger in a job for a decade longer than necessary.

The United team from 1999 is remembered as an all-time great because of how it captured the perfect treble: league title, FA Cup, European Cup. The injury time heroics against Bayern Munich helped give the season a Hollywood ending, almost on a par with that Agüero moment.

But the table from that year paints a different picture. They edged out Arsenal by a solitary point, tying with them on most wins that year – 22. It was actually Leeds United that held the record for consecutive victories with seven.

It hardly reeks of domestic dominance.

By comparison, this season City smashed records for most away wins in a season (16); most goals scored in a season (106); best goal difference (79); and one that will stand the test of time like Arsenal’s Invincible record – breaking the 100 point barrier.

City were head and shoulders above the rest of the league during the 2017/18 campaign. Detractors can’t say the league isn’t as competitive as it was in 1999. Back then the traditional Big Four played without fear of failing to qualify for Europe. Nowadays there is a strong top six, and anyone outside it can win any given match.

The results, week-after-week, promote unpredictability. The only certainty, the season defining constant, was Pep’s men would continue to march onward.

The competitiveness and response to it was best summed up in the home game against Southampton. A team that would avoid relegation by three points managed to hold the Blues until the fifth minute of injury time.

Then along came Raheem Sterling, he linked up with Kevin De Bruyne with a quick return pass, and curled the ball into the net, and was probably this writer’s favourite goal of the 106 scored all season.

It kept the winning streak going, making it 19 on the bounce.

That defiance and determination to keep excelling propelled City to unimaginable heights. Guardiola’s style of football, which had faced doubters the season before, was now controlling the English game.

Armchair experts – whose simple solution to Pep’s possession-based attacking football was simply to press City into submission – had to sit stunned as the Blues steamrolled every team they faced. They made the Premier League look like the top-flight North of the border.

Unfortunately, the seven days of destiny became a week of despair as City lost to Liverpool in the Champions League twice and missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clinch the title at home by beating arch-rivals United.

In a way, it had to be this way. A strand of “Typical City” will always exist in the club’s DNA. If there’s a hard way to do something, that places untold strain on the hearts of supporters, City will find it.

But this time, it was a blip rather than a prolonged period of pain. It acts as a slight taint on an otherwise perfect league campaign. No one remembers the three teams that beat United in the league back in 1999, or the 12 times The Invincibles dropped two points as they went unbeaten.

City’s slight imperfections make for more dramatic stories.

But they shouldn’t be the story or cloud judgement. Remember, the table really doesn’t ever lie. After 38 games the only story that matters is told by points acquired, goals scored, goals conceded, and the gap created by these in relation to other teams.

If those damning statistics aren’t enough, remember how City achieved such a massive gulf. It was by playing the sort of football that turns drunks into poets. It’s more than just possession football; the ball isn’t kept for the sake of keeping it away from the opposition, it is kept to create dreamlike sequences.

No team’s highlight reel from any era is a such a pleasurable viewing experience.

Pep’s team are the first Centurions, this alone makes them deserving of being named best team the Premier League has ever seen. The manner in which they achieved it just underlines the point.

The scary thought: they are only going to get better.

(Photo credit: http://www.mancity.com)

Capital Gains

Capital Gains

Sunday sees a League Cup final that carries greater significance than it is usually afforded. It is Jurgen Klopp’s first chance for silverware at Anfield, for his counterpart in the opposite dugout, it is the start of his swansong. The often derided competition suddenly has the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the season.

Manuel Pellegrini has never shied away from the League Cup’s significance. He rightly points out, it was a catalyst for securing the Premier League in his first season and that it’s no coincidence that last year’s winners, Chelsea, also went on to take the title.

In a season where the pecking order has been turned on its head, a cup victory here, and the boost of confidence it provides, could be the thing that finally settles City into their stride. Despite league defeats at home to both Leicester and Tottenham in recent weeks, they are still very much in the title chase.

The importance of the League Cup was highlighted when Pellegrini relegated the FA Cup on his list of priorities. The FA’s ignorance – or perhaps arrogance – to give into the BBC’s demands for a Sunday fixture, when there were other TV slots available, meant their domestic cup was shown up as an inferior product.

Pellegrini has had to deal with months of speculation about his future, only to endure weeks of assumption since Pep Guardiola’s announcement that he’d be joining the Manchester club in the summer. It’s been easy for outsiders to imply that the dressing room is looking beyond Pellegrini now, that they have their eyes on either the next manager or a transfer.

A cup win ends that debate. It would prove the team is still focused on the here and now. Walking around Wembley with a trophy will reaffirm the unity within the squad and its senior management. It further justifies the FA Cup side after a big win in Kiev.

All that stands in Pellegrini’s way is the competition’s most successful entrant, eight time winners, Liverpool.

For them, the League Cup provides a chance to add some shine to what has turned into a difficult season for Klopp. A new manager always needs time to reshape the club in his vision. But after much fanfare the initial buzz has faded and the enormity of the task has become evident.

Any hopes for a Champions League push by finishing in the top four have disappeared. Their only chance now is through the Europa League, where they face bitter rivals Manchester United next. Even the most optimistic fan can’t be eying Europe’s secondary tournament this season; winning it will be a bonus rather than meeting expectation.

Indeed, all expectations must have shifted in recent times. Was sitting eighth in the table the goal when they fired Brendan Rodgers? It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have fared better without the overhaul but Fenway Sports Group must have been thinking long term.

Liverpool will be confident of finding an immediate antidote against City following their 4-1 league triumph at the Etihad. Klopp will go into Sunday’s showcase believing an application of gegenpressing will provide a similar outcome. He also knows, like the rest of us, that Pellegrini is stubborn. He won’t modify his approach now, he will try to outgun Liverpool and hope they collapse before his team is overrun.

Sunday could see the coronation of Klopp or the cementing of Pellegrini’s legacy. Failure could lead to the collapse both teams have flirted with all season. It’s not just a cup they fight for at Wembley, it’s precious, season-saving momentum.