The tide is turning against VAR in the Premier League. It has, so far, been a colossal failure on every front; whether slowing the game down or increasing the amount of time we collectively spend arguing over decisions, VAR has made worse everything it was supposed to make better.
Rather than control every variable or mechanise the sport, VAR has highlighted football’s fundamental subjectivity; has accentuated its glorious flaws. To err is human. VAR’s attempts to pin football and examine it are failing because sport, by nature of being played by humans, is emotional; ephemeral; abstract.
VAR gives in to our worst instincts, to the Twitter trolls and the money men, to the corporatisation of a sport that used to be about fun, about the joy of a goal (now dampened by the impending VAR check) and a collective, in-the-moment visceral experience. Yes, there were mistakes, and we’d be furious. Then we’d shrug, and we’d move on. That’s life.
Well, not anymore. VAR is most likely here to stay. So, rather than whine on about why VAR is murdering to dissect, or why losing even 1% of a 10-year-old’s ecstatic release when celebrating a goal is too high a price, here are five ways the system could be improved.
1) Change offside interventions to a naked-eye policy
How VAR interprets offside is probably the most divisive issue at the moment. For some, it is an objective decision and therefore irrefutable; we might not like it, they say, but you cannot argue with facts.
But that’s the problem. It isn’t factual. The frame rate of the video footage used to analyse offsides gives accuracy to within around a 30cm margin of error. Consequently, any freeze-frame that shows a player’s foot, or more often their armpit, less than 30cms offside is by definition invalid. Null and void.
Liverpool's Roberto Firmino was flagged offside before putting the ball in the net against Aston Villa and the decision was confirmed by VAR
The red line signifies Firmino and was aligned to his armpit, which was marginally ahead of the last Villa defender#AVLLIVpic.twitter.com/a2OnNWnz2E— Premier League (@premierleague) November 2, 2019
The solution, to bring back something of the spirit of the law and an advantage to the attacker, is to make this a naked-eye call, subject to the ‘clear and obvious’ bar after a single line has been drawn from the last defender’s position. Can’t tell within a few seconds? Then allow it; we quite literally have no way of knowing whether they are onside or offside.
We don’t even need to get into whether Roberto Firmino’s offside armpit was actually just a billowing shirt. The technology isn’t there yet. That’s it.
2) Use pitch-side monitors – or have the refs carry an iPad
The argument against using the monitors is that it will unnecessarily slow the game down. We are well past that point. Surely if a decision cannot be made within a few seconds by an assistant referee watching on a screen then it should be passed back to the on-field ref, not least because the Premier League’s insanely high bar for intervention is all about protecting the integrity of the on-field referee.
What better way to keep things simple, respect the referee, and limit post-match debate about subjective calls than to make sure almost every decision comes from the same person? If running to the halfway line is such a big issue, perhaps referees could get an iPad (with a chunky, safe, protective casing) strapped to their body like a Teletubby.
3) Introduce a time limit on VAR calls
Football is a contact sport, and the fair use of physical force has always been a grey area, subject to multiple factors. It makes sense to judge this in the moment, when the atmosphere and energy of a situation offers the ref a gut feeling.
This might sound unscientific, but it isn’t; our brains analyse thousands of variables in the moment of experience, even though the complexity of our interpretation is beyond conscious thought. That’s what a gut feeling is. It’s why the rhythm of a football match feels so different in the flesh than behind a TV screen, or why we can sense a bad atmosphere in a room but cannot explain why.
This analysis of the real, living moment is unavailable to VAR referees, which is why they should not be allowed to sink into a vortex of slow-mos. If they can’t get there within 20-30 seconds, it isn’t clear or obvious. We should not be so quick to dismiss the feeling – of speed, force, contact, and intent – felt by the referee in real-time.
4) Write clear guidelines for what constitutes a high bar
Admittedly carrying this one out will be pretty complex. Talking about a ‘high bar’ is far too vague, and while the initial idea was commendable things have gone from one extreme to the other. There were zero overturned decisions in the first nine rounds of Premier League matches and then, without warning, six calls overturned on week 10.
So VAR gives Son a red card as some sort of sympathy move for Gomes? I know it's not exactly everyone's priority in this moment but... How on Earth can you give that as a red when you watch replays.— Alex Keble (@alexkeble) November 3, 2019
Of course, finding a way to accurately transcribe when exactly the bar is being met is problematic, but the Premier League needs to try. Currently, it seems as though the decision is subject to the egos and hierarchical power dynamics between the two referees. That obviously has to end.
5) Scrap it altogether
It isn’t too late. There is a timeline in which we look back on 2019/20 as the lost season, as the year when the most popular league in the world was overshadowed by a chaotic VAR experiment that was quickly binned.
To obsess over the minutiae, from armpits offside to little toes getting stood on, is to give in to the monetisation of football and the notion our sport is too important for errors. It is a victory for those who believe results are more important than entertainment, for those who believe emotion is secondary to mathematics.
We all fell in love with football the same way: as children, giving in to pandemonium as the ball rippled the net. That feeling is sacred, but over time – as VAR is gradually internalised – something of its magic will be lost. Many of us have already had the experience of delaying our celebrations until VAR gives the all-clear.
Nothing is worth having the emotional impact of a goal stolen away. Nothing is worth the next generation missing out on the euphoria to which we all became addicts. Let’s end the madness.
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