The video assistant referee, or VAR, represents the biggest structural change to English football since the Premier League began in 1992.
To say the welcome for VAR this season has been cool would be an understatement, with the man in charge of the system himself giving it a generous 7 out of 10 this week. Fans are frustrated with the time taken to arrive at decisions, which often prove no less controversial than those made by the referee on the field.
Supposed to correct “clear and obvious” errors, the new system has led to heated philosophical debates over very fine distinctions, such as: Does hand plus ball always equal handball? And, where does an arm become an armpit?
But defenders of VAR can point to successes. We said we wanted incorrect decisions overturned. The system has enabled more correct offside calls. We said we wanted minimal disruption. Most interruptions last less than a minute. In these respects VAR is delivering. Yet almost no one is happy with it. Perhaps we ought to ask: what did we actually want, and what were we willing to pay?
Debate has often centred around the competing aims of getting decisions right and not disrupting the flow of play. People would often say they were seeking ‘consistency’, without considering whether this is something video replays can actually provide, or what this might cost in terms of fan experience.
Use of the VAR system has meant a big overhaul in how the laws are enforced, but no change in the laws themselves. Its implementation has so far suggested that the laws and nature of the game, as they are, don’t lend themselves to this kind of intervention.
Unlike rugby and cricket, football does not have discrete phases of play that provide natural opportunities to consult a replay. Most fans didn’t imagine it would diminish the joy of celebrating a goal in case it is ruled out for an unnoticed infringement, or introduce a helicopter referee intervening at seemingly arbitrary moments.
The offside rule itself is intended to reward attacking skill and improve the game as a spectacle, none of which is aided by punishing an attacker for advancing a toenail in front of the defensive line. Where contact is involved, the laws require decisions based on feel and interpretation – which an on-field referee is perhaps as well-placed to provide as someone watching a slow-motion replay.
The VAR controversy shows that you can’t expect to impose a new system without adjusting for its impact. Well thought-out IT and data systems implementation involves making an assessment of its suitability, and, if necessary, recalibrating existing frameworks to accommodate it.
Finally, do you want the level of detail the system will provide, or are you correcting that offside call just because you can? It is important to understand business requirements – what you really want – and making sure that planned systems meet these requirement, not just the specifications.
How would I improve the implementation of VAR?
Empower the referee to choose when to stop the game for a review, reducing the risk of a goal being scored before a possible infringement from a previous passage of play has been reviewed.
If no infringement is found, restart with a goal kick to the team in possession. This would also improve transparency and accountability.
Introduce an equivalent to cricket’s ‘umpire’s call’ – if an on-field offside call is correct with a margin of 6 inches, the call stands.
Make appealing for a VAR review a bookable offence!