Much of the focus over the summer (at least in the UK) will be on the UEFA Nations League, transfers and predictions for the upcoming season. Less attention will likely to be paid to potentially, one of the most transformative changes to the Premier League product since it’s creation in 1992. Here I analyse it’s pros and cons and look at the potential impacts this technology might have in the years to come.
According to the Mike Riley, the head of the Professional Game Match Officials (PGMO), VAR will help referees to make better decisions. In justifying its introduction for the 2019/20 season, he argues that if the technology is there and available – then why not use it to make better decisions. After all, Premier League referees make on average, 245 decisions per game! Whilst this may be true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will help the quality of the product or its appeal. So let’s look at arguments for, and against, the introduction of VAR next season.
- More correct decisions. We should accept that the installation of VAR is going to, over time, ensure that more correct decisions are made. That can only be a good thing, right? In a league where the stakes are so high the effect of an incorrect decision can have huge financial ramifications and so anything that prevents a howler relegating a team or finishing outside of the top 4 is welcomed.
- Combats blatant cheating. It doesn’t totally solve the issue, but some of the league’s best known ‘actors’ might think twice before going down like they’ve suffered a sniper shot when they know the referee can review this cheating. It also helps to rectify injustices such as a player getting a second yellow card for diving in the opposition area when actually they were genuinely tripped and a penalty should have been awarded.
- Increased respect for referees. Ok, so this may be a little bit of wishful thinking on my part but with the game played at such speed, referees only have a split-second to make sometimes huge calls. Assuming (and we know what to assume means) the initial refereeing decisions are correct in the majority of cases – it might help emphasise just how skillful referees are. Remember, VAR is only meant to be used where there was a clear error so it would be a fair assumption to make that the majority of decisions will not be overturned.
- Managers can less easily deflect blame onto refereeing decisions. They will still try to do it, but it’s much more difficult to convince fans that the reason their team lost was because of a dodgy VAR system than it was previously to lambaste a referee that forgot to go to Specsavers.
- It slows the game down. This, for me, is the singular most negative impact that this technology will have. We’ve already seen where it has been used in other competitions that decisions have taken several minutes to make (think Kimpembe handball vs Man United in the Champions League round of 16 this season). According to the Premier League, the average amount of time taken to make a decision is 29 seconds, based on 68 live trial matches over the last two seasons. Each game in this trial period had on average, 8 incidents. That is a total of 4 minutes (on average) that is being used to review refereeing decisions. The speed of play is one of the main ingredients that has made the Premier League the successful product that it is, around the world. Although it has it’s merits in Rugby, It has at time bordered on the ludicrous when officials can’t make a decision after 10 or more replays and angles.
- It could be used for more than just ‘clear and obvious errors’. Advocates of VAR will point to its main purpose being to rectify incorrect decisions. As such it easy to envisage that over time, more and more ‘trivial’ decisions are referred for review, thus exacerbating the issue in point 1 above. If that were to happen, it would also undermine the role of referees and in a worst-case scenario raise the spectre of technology-lead officiating. Sound far-fetched? If we get used to the idea that making the right call is the most important aspect of the game, and we live in a world with a drive towards automation; it isn’t impossible.
- It doesn’t remove human error. It’s ironic that a technology that is there to help make correct decisions could still end up producing incorrect ones because the referee has the final call! Referees will need help from the technology’s creators to ensure that they know how to best utilise it. Ultimately though, it will still be an objective refereeing decision. Which leads me nicely onto the final point….
- We lose the emotion and drama of incorrect decisions. Football history is littered with terrible decisions or un-spotted misdemeanors and that makes the game what it is. For all of Diego Maradona’s incredible achievements throughout his career we (or maybe just us bitter Englishmen!) remember him most for his famous ‘hand of god’ goal. Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland to send them to the world cup is another one that stands out. Not only will VAR rob us of such iconic yet-to-happen moments, but it would give us an awful lot less to blog about. We lose a part of what is, quintessentially football. Sad times!
There are valid arguments both for, and against, the introduction of VAR. Whether you are in the ‘for’ or ‘against’ camp will, I think, depend on how you priorise what is most important to you as a fan/journalist/pundit. If ensuring that the correct decisions are made is the most important thing to you, you will likely be for VAR. If you love the game because howlers are occasionally made and cause talking points thereafter, you will likely be against the introduction of VAR.
For what it’s worth, overall I am against it. I think the Premier League product will lose some of what has made it so successful and so long as the technology still relies on human error, we are going to see mistakes (eg Iran penalty vs Portugal in the World Cup). I hope I am wrong, it doesn’t become a talking point next season and we look back in years to come and wonder why we had these reservations. We shall see…