Clear and obvious: VAR is more of a hindrance than a help

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

After all the talk regarding the Premier League’s introduction of VAR, this weekend felt like a new low point

In August, after the Premier League’s opening round of fixtures to kick off the 2019-20 season, I optimistically wrote that the introduction of VAR would “cause carnage and improve decision making in equal measure.” I was wrong.

The influence of VAR has become a familiar talking point since its introduction to the Premier League for the start of the new campaign. However, on a particularly bad weekend full of controversy, the technology’s exposure as being contradictory was taken to a new level and left a sour taste in the mouth of fans nationwide.

This weekend, video replays and delayed, screen-displayed decisions were the winners. The technology was front and centre; providing more controversy than efficiency and, perhaps naturally, the biggest reaction to VAR’s poor overall weekend showing came in the weekend’s biggest game.

After his Liverpool side drew 1-1 with Manchester United, Jürgen Klopp was left puzzled by what he identified as a general problem with VAR and the way it is applied. Klopp argued that in some cases – specifically the one in which Divock Origi was seemingly fouled by Victor Lindelöf in the lead up to United’s opening goal – the relationship between on-field referee and VAR officials doesn’t make sense. In the case of a disputable foul such as this one in open play, the ref has the choice to let the game run, knowing that he has VAR to save his bluff should something game-changing follow in the immediate aftermath. In this case, it did. Daniel James latched on to the pass which directly followed United’s regaining of possession following the incident and the Welshman’s cross found Marcus Rashford who finished well.

What followed is what irked Klopp and many others. When the ‘check’ is made, the VAR can easily say it is not a ‘clear or obvious’ error. He could say it’s not a foul, therefore not overruling and disagreeing with the originally incorrect decision. Klopp also suggested that surely referee Martin Atkinson would have given this as a routine foul had he not had VAR at his disposal – such is the advice that has led referees to perhaps even subconsciously let more things go, with the technology there for them to fall back on and save them from any apparently glaring errors. But this was just that – and the contradiction is a huge slight on the way that VAR is meant to be used for clarification rather than complication.

Liverpool’s manager also went on to mention an incident regarding the technology the day before, a decision in a game contested by his side’s title contenders.

“Like the penalty yesterday Man City didn’t get,” Klopp said.

“Come on. That’s a 100% penalty and nothing else. The hands are there, he pushes him down,” the German continued, referring to Kevin de Bruyne’s claims for a penalty after he felt he was fouled by Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha.

Whereas we were previously happy to complain about refereeing mistakes because of human error in a purer form of the game, we are now left debating refereeing mishaps and shoddy application of technology which was supposed to reduce the number of obvious mistakes in the game. VAR should be scrapped – it’s influence on the game has gone too far and it doesn’t serve its purpose.

Then comes the “high bar of intervention”. With the season less than a month old, following a comparably farcical weekend full of VAR misapplication and confusion, video assistant referees came out publicly to express their contentment with the technology’s usage. This high bar, frankly, is too high and too ambiguous. Mistakes are not deemed overturnable as they don’t meet VAR’s lofty “clear and obvious” guidelines.

On top of VAR decisions impacting games involving the league’s top two, there was controversy aplenty elsewhere. At Tottenham Hotspur stadium, two incidents were incorrectly called. “No goal” confusion at Dele Alli’s equaliser was preceded by a shocking decision for VAR to not overturn a Jan Vertonghen foul on Gerard Deulofeu in the first half. It was yet another instance of a blatant – never mind clear – error. After numerous slowed-down replays of Vertonghen’s extended foul and with time to reverse the referee’s original decision (which is exactly what it is supposed to be used for) it still wasn’t overturned. If clear, obvious errors are still being made with the technology at hand, then what are we using it for?

The embarrassment of the displayal of the “no goal” message following Dele’s equaliser and the befuddlement that it led to both in and outside the stadium was later acknowledged. Hawk-Eye — the company supplying VAR to the Premier League — issued an apology for the mass confusion caused, which wasn’t the fault of VAR itself, rather the company supplying the footage to the Premier League’s officials. Regardless, it only served to further undermine VAR’s credibility and add to a shoddy weekend for the technology in its still relatively early stages.

Burnley were denied a late equaliser at Leicester after Chris Wood was pulled up for clipping Jonny Evans – the defender claiming he would’ve got to the ball and cleared it had he not been impeded. But this is speculative at best: Evans probably wouldn’t have got there but for an entirely accidental collision. It wasn’t a clear and obvious error to allow the goal to stand originally – so why was it then disallowed? The only answer is that these inconsistencies are bred by the nonsensical use of VAR.

Jonny Evans and Chris Wood compete for the ball, moments before Wood scored what he thought was a late equaliser for his side. VAR overturned the goal. (Image courtesy of Chris Vaughan – CameraSport via Getty Images).

Clarets boss Sean Dyche was furious and was adamant in his post-match interview that the referee should have used the VAR screen. This, however, goes against pre-season advice given to officials to use the screen sparingly, apparently in order to avoid slowing the game down. Additional monitor checks can take an average of around 90 seconds and the PGMOL encouraged its officials to go to the screens only when absolutely necessary.

Based on evidence so far, a lengthy delay can just as easily lead to confusion or arriving at the wrong decision as it can the right one, so the time taken is rendered irrelevant. Dean Smith’s Aston Villa side, despite eventually prevailing 2-1 over Brighton, were prevented a first-half goal after VAR overturned it. In response, Smith stated that the technology is “not working.”

If there is no decision made by a referee that, in itself, is a decision. Bad mistakes are not being punished and the game is suffering as poor refereeing is masked by VAR as a safety net to fall back on. It was introduced to improve the standard of refereeing but it has only made it worse. With VAR being called into question in the early stages of its Premier League lifespan, retired referee Neil Swarbrick admitted in August that it may take up to three years for everybody to adjust to VARs in the game.

But football cannot afford to wait three years. At this rate, the chaotic influence of video assistant referees will only grow further, with clarity and the integrity of the game diminishing as a biproduct. VAR has only served to prove one thing clear and obvious: that it was a mistake to introduce the technology in the first place.

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