By Benjamin Harrison
When Video Assistant Technology (VAR) was implemented within the Premier League at the start of this season, nobody could have envisaged the levels of discontent that has followed. The on-pitch success stories have unfortunately been overshadowed by the technology that was supposedly meant to remove all contentious talking points from the game.
In a season where we have witnessed a dominant Liverpool crowned champions, and the David and Goliath narratives surrounding Sheffield United and Wolves’ push for European football, it is inconceivable to comprehend how we have ended up in a position where these on-pitch performances haven’t been the main talking points throughout the season.
Everyone, even the staunchest of VAR supporters, expected teething problems throughout its first season.
But to what extent?
Let’s start with the most obvious and glaring issue with the implementation of VAR: lengthy stoppages.
Since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, English football has prided itself on the brand of high-octane, exciting football - enough to make the rest of the world become accustomed to watching it. It’s no surprise that the Premier League is streets ahead of its main competitors with public popularity and commercial appeal.
The Premier League has developed exponentially as a result, and is reflected by the most recent TV rights selling for £4.46 billion in a deal through to 2022. Broadcasters have been at the forefront of the Premier League’s growth, and therefore the interruptive and lengthy nature of VAR stoppages has, as expected, come under scrutiny from both broadcasters and fans alike. VAR was viewed as a necessity for modernising and progressing the game forward. However, in its current shape, it is harming the Premier League’s most powerful and modern aspect: its attraction as an entertainment product.
Perhaps in this sense, it is time for the Premier League to look at other sports and how the use of VAR-like systems, have added to the values of sports rather than detracting from them. Rugby Union for instance, is a shining example, of how these technologies can aid the spectacle of a sport and can subsequently become a crucial component within it. Whilst the occasional stoppage is common in Rugby, the viewer experience is not harmed, due to the transparent nature in which it is operated. Fans both at home, or in the stadium can hear the conversations occurring so there is never any doubt over what is being reviewed. This is something that will undoubtedly aid VAR’s development in football, and will help preserve the Premier League brand.
A recent survey carried out by YouGov, found that two thirds of Premier League spectators feel the implementation of VAR has made the game less enjoyable. Clearly from a fan perspective, VAR this season has been an overwhelming disappointment. Regular stadium goers have been critical of VAR for tarnishing the match day experience, with continuous concerns over interventions making games less enjoyable to spectate.
Throughout the season it has been common to see both players and fans hesitant to celebrate with full gusto, over fear of the goals being subsequently ruled out. Of course VAR was brought in to maintain sporting integrity, however without doubt it has removed the spontaneous outpours of emotion that have been so widely witnessed within the Premier League throughout its history. How long will it be before commentators are fearful to ‘act in the moment’, over the fear of their comments backfiring. It would be a huge shame to see iconic sporting moments, and their attached pieces of commentary be wiped from sporting history. Think Martin Tyler’s famous “Aguueerrooo!” for example.
More recently VAR has been in the spotlight, over its reluctance to over-rule the on-field referee’s decision. Last Thursday, (9th July 2020), the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) had to publically apologise for 3 separate incidents, where the VAR refused to intervene and over-rule the referee’s initial decision. It seems like we are now in a position with VAR where the officials in Stockley Park are too afraid to correct their colleague’s mistakes, allowing blatantly obvious refereeing blunders to stand. An occasional mistake by a referee in the heat of the moment is understandable, however the backing of such errors by the figures in Stockley Park, with the benefit of having multiple slowed down replays, is unforgivable. VAR was supposed to increase the integrity of the game, however with its current application it is doing more harm then good. Not only is the Premier League’s brand being damaged, but also the reputation of the referees themselves.
However, one area of VAR that I believe has come under unfounded criticism is related to the current offside rule. Popular public figures, including the likes of Gary Linker, have been extremely outspoken throughout the season on the use of VAR, when analysing close offside decisions. Here, VAR is doing exactly what it was brought in to do: correct, incorrect decisions. The current rule is black and white, you are either offside or you aren’t. In tennis, with Hawkeye, we don’t argue that a shot should be counted as ‘in’, due to it missing the baseline by a fraction of a millimetre, so why should we with offside in football? The argument of surrounding how far you have to be offside, to gain an advantage of the defending side, is a fair one, however currently it pales to insignificance due to the rules in place. Perhaps a global change in the offside rule, so tight decisions aren’t micro-managed, could be the way forward, however currently it is not VAR’s fault for simply doing its job.
I believe everyone is in agreement that VAR’s debut season in the Premier League hasn’t been as successful and without controversy, as originally hoped. One thing is clear: the PGMOL will be working tirelessly to improve its application so ultimately the Premier League brand remains intact, and free-flowing, exciting football, a staple of English football, continues to be seen in our game. Let’s hope this season can be a learning curve for VAR, as in its current state it is undoubtedly doing more harm than good.