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.

Why the Premier League needed Amazon Prime

Why the Premier League needed Amazon Prime

After months of behind the scenes negotiations, the final two Premier League television packages for the 2019 deal have been sold. BT Sport increases its number of matches to 52 per season for the three-year deal. The big news is Amazon securing the 20 game package which comes with the caveat of showing every game across two distinct game weeks.

One of those is the first round of midweek fixtures in December. This is Amazon’s warm-up. It’ll give Prime Video the chance to iron out any teething problems and also enable them to gather data on viewing habits. Presumably, the initial ten games will be split across two nights in order to maximise the exposure.

The jewel in the crown of this deal is how Prime will show all the Boxing Day fixtures.

Festive games are a staple of the English diet, it makes fan interaction and acknowledgment of Amazon unavoidable. Many will flock to their local pubs, so how Amazon deal with public licenses is something that will be revealed in time. Amazon’s main intention will be to drive new subscribers to their packed Prime offering. Streaming is just a small part of this but they obviously see the Premier League deal as a decently priced advertising campaign.

It’ll certainly offer better value for money than Jeremy Clarkson’s The Grand Tour. That particular show cost Amazon a neat $250m, with BT paying an extra £90m for the less lucrative 20 game package, it’s safe to assume Prime’s acquisition will exceed the £100m mark.

But it might not be by that much. The reason these deals have taken so long to conclude is because their value is a true unknown quantity for all involved. There’s a chance this style of broadcasting, showing every single match from one round of fixtures, will never work with a UK based audience. From Amazon’s point of view, will enough people stream a potential Wolves v Huddersfield clash to justify the attempted push for subscribers?

The idea of Internet channels is growing in the States. Facebook and YouTube now have subscription models and Amazon have aired sporting events already. The Premier League is right to join an emerging market. More than this: it needs to join the platform and make it a success.

When the last TV deal hit revenue of £8.8bn (once overseas rights had been added), there was a growing feeling the peak return had been hit. The £5.14bn from domestic rights didn’t go back to the fans paying at the turnstiles or into grassroots football, it went into the pockets of agents and inflated the global transfer market.

At the time, BT and Sky were locked in a battle for broadband subscribers and addons like sport packages became a premium. BT had already stolen the UEFA Champions League, they wanted a slice of Premier League pie too. Back then, a customer had to juggle multiple subscriptions, even going to the extent of having two boxes plugged into televisions, one for Sky, the other for BT.

That all changed in December 2017 when the companies announced they had come to a deal, allowing them to sell complete packages with both sets of properties merged. Not only could they sell all-in-one sports deals, BT was even able to offer Sky’s Now TV channels which includes the home for Game of Thrones, Sky Atlantic.

Any doubt the peak of what Sky and BT would pay for Premier League matches was removed. Rather than push the prices up, they could now take a more measured approach. Exclusivity wasn’t quite so exclusive. It was no longer a case of one or the other, they’d formed a necessary alliance of sorts.

They could see what was on the horizon: a new world where Amazon or Netflix or even Twitter and Facebook, could offer live games with lower running costs.

So Sky did what Sky does best and tried to bully its way to the result it wanted.

By not engaging with the Premier League over the prospect of streaming all the matches in a particular round of fixtures, it fronted them out. It risked the proposal of a seven-package system falling by the waste side. Had that occurred in 2018, the chances of a later revival would have been highly unlikely.

The Premier League continued the talks with Amazon because it understands the existing Sky monopoly runs the risk of adhering to the law of diminishing returns.

When the sponsorship model was dropped it was a step toward becoming the football equivalent of the NFL or Major League Baseball so its quite fitting they have hooked up with a company that has a foothold in the American market.

Time will tell if this marks a change in how the UK views domestic football but evidence suggests a paradigm shift is already underway.

Research by SMG Insight found that 54% of millennials have watched an illegal stream and 18 to 24-year-olds are half as likely to subscribe to a paid model. The cheap Prime versus expensive Sky offering could convert some of those into legal consumers. With all of Amazon’s 20 games falling within December, those unsure could take out a one-off monthly subscription of £7.99.

If they watch just two games, it’s still trounces BT and Sky in terms of value for money. If some of those experimenters stick around, boosting Amazon Prime’s subscription numbers, it may make the retail giant – and rivals like Netflix – take a serious look at the other packages next time bidding starts.

Which would be great news for the Premier League. At the moment Sky hold all the cards because the give all the money. If people enjoy Prime’s Boxing Day extravaganza, next time the bespoke TV deals might not be on sale at Boxing Day Sale prices, the traditional packages may climb upward again.

And Sky might not be left holding all the best gifts.