No VAR, No Problem: Premier League Will Benefit From Another Year of Trials

After a largely successful debut for video assistant referees (VAR) on the world’s biggest stage this summer, Premier League fans are surely warming to the idea of using technology to aid match officials. In fact, even prior to the 2018 World Cup, a survey of 2,000 UK football fans commissioned by bookie comparison portal found 7 in 10 supporters agree that VAR will have a positive impact on the sport.  

Despite this largely positive sentiment surrounding video technology, a vote cast by Premier League officials in April 2018 means that VAR won’t be introduced in the 2018/19 season, beyond trials.

Officiating technology will surely benefit England’s top tier more than it’ll harm the league. However, the absence of VAR in the upcoming Premier League season may be for the best, in the long run.

The numbers suggest that VAR was a resounding success in Russia. The 2018 World Cup saw 455 incidents checked by the VAR in total, with 20 of those leading to an on-field review and 17 decisions being overturned as a result.

Six-time FIFA “Best Referee of the Year” winner, Pierluigi Collina, defended the use of VAR, suggesting it helped edge closer to near perfect match officiating at the World Cup.

“95 percent of the decisions taken by the referees without the VAR were correct, and this percentage increased to 99.3 percent thanks to the intervention of the VAR… Something that’s always been said – VAR does not mean perfection. But as you can see 99.3 percent is something that is very, very close.”

This success didn’t come without preparation. Over time, the technology and usage has been fine-tuned, however, the on-field referee always remains at the centre of the decision-making process, leaving a fairly large margin for error. To ensure maximum benefit from the use of video technology, World Cup match officials required adequate training and real-world VAR experience.

The selection criteria for the World Cup VARs was primarily based on the candidates experience with VAR in domestic leagues, FIFA competitions and FIFA refereeing seminars since the beginning of the VAR project in 2016.  With VAR used sparingly in English football during this time, it’s no surprise that English candidates were overlooked. Candidates from Serie A and Bundesliga were among those selected instead – the Italian and German top tiers are just two of 10 leagues to have already used VAR throughout one full season.

The FIFA Referees Committee selected 36 referees and 63 assistant referees in total for Russia 2018. In addition to the aforementioned selection criteria, FIFA required successful participation in a number of preparatory seminars, where officials enhanced their VAR knowledge and skills by using the system.

These seminars took place at the first permanent VAR training centre in Coverciano, Italy. The centre opened in January 2018 and is used to educate match officials using a simulator provided by English company Hawk-Eye, which already provides goal-line technology for the Premier League.  As well as technology, Hawk-Eye also agreed to provide a number of specialists to provide support during referee training sessions.

In this learning process, and, of course, during their live experiences of using video technology, these match officials gained invaluable experience that the Premier League’s Select Group officials—who weren’t present  at the World Cup—simply don’t possess.

According to the Italian Football Federation, the training centre in Coverciano is open to other associations and international organisations, which will leave many wondering why Premier League officials haven’t used the facility to begin educating referees in preparation for the 2018/19 Premier League season. Without this education, it’s almost impossible to foresee anything but a chaotic introduction of VAR to England’s top tier.

VAR has been used in a handful FA Cup and EFL Cup matches in England during this live trial period, but there have already been a number of high-profile controversial incidents.

The teething problems were apparent throughout January’s third round FA Cup replay between Chelsea and Norwich. Chelsea were denied appeals for penalties three times, with referee Graham Scott instead booking the players for diving. TV replays clearly showed contact in one of the three incidents, leaving Antonio Conte incensed despite his side winning the tie on penalties.

It didn’t take long for VAR to take centre stage once again, this time, in the FA Cup fourth round tie between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion. A disallowed goal, a VAR-assisted penalty decision and an offside review for West Brom’s third goal—which eventually stood—meant this entertaining tie has since been remembered mostly for VAR’s intrusive presence.

The decisions took far too long to make in the match at Anfield. Players, coaching staff and fans alike, were left in the dark during the review process. Supporters in the stadium were unable to see replays shown on television, an issue that was only rectified during the World Cup. Russia 2018 saw replays of reviewed incidents shown on big screens, but with Premier League stadiums like Old Trafford maintaining a ‘football purist’ approach, free of video screens, the confusion amongst matchday fans will likely remain an issue. This lack of communication means that fans watching at home are currently more informed than paying match attendees and season-ticket holders, making the eventual awarding of a goal seem rather anticlimactic and ruining the excitement for many.

If certain clubs aren’t willing to examine the possibility of installing screens, an alternative solution must be sought out to ensure a universal approach to communicating VAR reviews with fans. Some sort of verbal announcement would offer a ‘quick fix’. Whether delivered by the referee, as in the NFL, or stadium announcer, as seen in the NBA, this announcement can easily be implemented to avoid ruining the experience for those in attendance.   

Considering the shaky start VAR has had in English football, perhaps Premier League officials were right to hit pause on implementing video technology. In the meantime, VAR will continue to be used behind-the-scenes in some Premier League games. This, along with adequate training, faster reviews and better communication with fans in the ground, will hopefully result in a system that benefits the game when VAR contact with Premier League referees is finally permitted.