“People go on about VAR, they (referees) clearly need help. If this is the best, most-watched league in the world, then give them all the help they need. It is a joke.” These were Southampton forward Charlie Austin’s furious words shortly after his team drew 1-1 against Watford in a Premier League game last November. Austin’s anger stemmed from a contentious decision by the match officials—a goal scored by him was incorrectly disallowed for offside.
Much to Austin’s relief, as well as to many others, Video Assistant Referee (VAR) will be used in all Premier League games this season. The English top tier follows in the footsteps of other major European Leagues—La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1.
The technology will undoubtedly boost Premier League referees’ ability to make the correct decisions. But as seen in the men’s World Cup last year and the women’s edition this summer, it is impossible to get every call right. Not only are many decisions down to the subjective interpretations of referees, new laws on handball in particular could further complicate things. Despite VAR’s assistance, contentious decisions will not disappear, and as a consequence, neither will the angry Charlie Austins.
The guiding principles for VAR use in England will roughly be the same as those for major international tournaments, or in other leagues in Europe. Decisions will be reviewed for four kinds of incidents during a game—goals, penalties, direct red cards and mistaken identity. The designated VAR for a game will review these situations immediately in the background for the possibility of ‘clear and obvious errors’ or ‘serious missed incidents’, following which the on-field referee can take a final call.
The biggest difference between Premier League and others, however, is likely to be over the quantum of its use. Mike Riley, England’s chief of referees, is keen on ensuring VAR doesn’t cause a major disruption to the flow of play. “We don’t want VAR to come in and try to re-referee the game. We actually want it to protect the referees from making serious errors, the ones everybody goes: ‘Well, actually, that’s wrong,’” he told BBC last month.
When VAR was trialled across select games in the FA Cup and League Cup last season, there were a total of just 14 VAR reviews in 69 games, which is one review every 4.93 games. In comparison, the women’s World Cup this year saw a review every 1.9 games. The men’s World Cup in Russia last year saw a review every 3.2 games. A low review rate is likely to be the case in the Premier League for now.
Another difference in Premier League’s VAR use will be the absence of reviews on a goalkeeper’s positioning during a penalty. As per the law, goalkeepers are required to have at least one foot on the goal line when a spot kick is taken. However, reviewing every penalty at the women’s World Cup led to severe criticism of technology overuse.
To maintain transparency for fans at the stadium, replays of the final incidents will be shown in case of overturned decisions. This is not the case in other domestic leagues where VAR is used. However, two stadiums in the league—Old Trafford and Anfield—do not have wide screens and will not be able to make use of this feature. Instead, stadium announcers and electronic scorecards will be used to relay the decisions to fans.
On offside calls, linesmen will follow the usual convention of not raising the flag—unless in ‘obvious’ cases—until after a goal is scored or the move ends.
So, is there a possibility of errors? With VAR only to be used in the four kinds of incidents mentioned earlier, a number of refereeing errors will undoubtedly go unchecked. VAR cannot intervene if a referee makes a decision on any other incident after witnessing it—for example, if a player is booked for a mistimed tackle. Unless VAR rules the referee missed a consequential aspect of the incident, the decision will stand and won’t go for review, even if replays show the tackle possibly warranted a red card.
Then comes the major source of VAR controversies—handball. This season, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the global rule-making authority, has made a few changes to the laws. In addition to deliberate handball, accidental handball by an attacking player in the course of his team scoring will lead to that goal being cancelled and a free-kick awarded to the other side. A defending player accidentally handling the ball will lead to a penalty if he/she is deemed to have made his/her body ‘unnaturally bigger’.
Riley recently assured that the Premier League will not be strict on the new handball rules. “You don’t expect defenders to have their arms glued to their side, so if the hand is in a natural position then it’s not an offence,” he said. But what is a ‘natural position’ of the hand is down to the referee’s interpretation. The referee’s decision after a slow-motion replay may vary from the one made in real-time. It is likely create ground for more controversies.