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The Debate: Is football better with VAR?

VAR. Love it or hate it, there’s no getting away from it.

After a weekend where Coventry City saw their winning goal controversially ruled out in the FA Cup semi-finals against Manchester United, VAR has once again been the subject of great debate.

There was further resentment at the Video Assistant Referee from Nottingham Forest, who released an incredible statement following their defeat to Everton.

And yet for the odd inaccuracy, VAR has brought a number of benefits to the Premier League and top flight leagues around Europe.

Our writers Liam Williams and Jaquob Crooke have delved into the debate that’s persisted since its inception: Is football better with VAR?

Yes - Football is better with VAR in it

Let’s start with a caveat: VAR in its current application is not fit for purpose. But it feels like 99% of football fans have written VAR off as beyond repair, even though we're still better with than without it. 

So plentiful are people’s concerns, if you ask fans how VAR could be improved and the reply is usually something along the lines of ‘bin it off’, as opposed to suggesting how it could be improved, so let’s address some of those concerns:

“Decisions take too long”

Critics will point to how long decisions take and the lack of communication with not just fans in the ground but even fans watching on TV – both of these are easily rectifiable. There’s no reason the audio can’t be played at the ground when decisions are being made.

An old interview clip recently surfaced of Sir Alex Ferguson talking about the need to introduce technology after Pedro Mendes was inexplicably denied a goal at Old Trafford, and even said that decisions could and should be made within 30 seconds, saying that’s as long as a goal kick took.

The argument that it makes the game too stop-start doesn’t really wash. Football is already extremely stop-start. Look how long goal kicks and corners take, free kicks in dangerous areas, substitutions, injuries; the ball is only in play for around 60 minutes of a 90-minute game.

But if VAR is what tips you over the edge, limit its usage and the length of time reviews take. In Australia, the NRL introduced a ‘Captain’s Challenge’ where a captain gets one appeal or challenge per match. If the decision goes in your favour, you keep the review; if not, you lose it; if it’s deemed to be a fair – albeit unsuccessful – challenge, you keep it but the decision stands.

The majority of those challenges in the NRL are used in the second half, with teams knowing the value of them. Put the onus on the players – they have the chance to challenge the referees if they feel strongly about a decision. If the decision was wrong but it wasn’t challenged, the referee is absolved of a lot of the blame.

If you have used up your challenge and any refereeing errors are made from there, tough. 

“You can’t celebrate goals any more”

You can celebrate goals. You celebrated a goal in the pre-VAR era only to realise the assistant’s flag was up and cut your celebration short; you can celebrate goals now. Nobody in the Coventry end at Wembley for their FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United said 'hang on a minute, guys, let's just make sure the goal is confirmed'.

There was actually a suggestion that Coventry should've been given the benefit of the doubt to allow their fourth goal to stand as opposed to applying the laws correctly, but had Haji Wright been onside, and the linesman flagged to rule the goal out, only for VAR to intervene and award the goal, everybody would've celebrated VAR. What a moment that would've been: Coventry cruelly and wrongly denied a place in the FA Cup final in the most dramatic fashion, only for VAR to interfere and correctly award one of the biggest goals in the club's history.

You can argue you actually celebrate more now than before. Once for the goal and again for the confirmation. Also, you now celebrate opponents’ goals being ruled out like your own team have scored. What’s not to like?

When Tottenham scored their late goals against Sheffield United or when Manchester United scored their late goals against Brentford or when Wolves scored their late goals against Tottenham, all three grounds were met with unbridled jubilation; certainly not fans unmoved waiting for confirmation that the goals did in fact, stand.

“The application of the offside law is spoiling the game”

Offsides are another area that riles fans and understandably so. Officials can pore over stills for several minutes before concluding that a clear and obvious error has indeed been made. The offside law wasn’t introduced to penalise forwards for having toenails and shirt sleeves beyond the last defender and that’s not the spirit in which the law should be applied now. 

If you need to see freeze frames and get the lines out, has a clear and obvious error been made? If you can’t see at first glance that someone is offside or not, the on-field decision stands. An assistant gets one look at full speed, while trying to keep one eye on the ball and another on the last defender and they still get the majority of those decision right. A quick look is all a VAR should be entitled to.

To speed things up further, maybe get the best angle once, play it at full speed once, and if the VAR can’t spot an error, is that clear and obvious? Forget the half-time analysis where pundits spend five minutes discussing a dubious offside: we want the game speeding up, and mistakes will be made.

Football isn’t played in slow motion or stills, so those replays, be it for fouls or offsides, can go.

Imagine if VAR only had access to full-speed replays of offsides – it would certainly water down the criticism when pundits watch still images the officials didn’t have access to.

These changes will be at the expense of accuracy, but it seems that fans have universally accepted that officials will make mistakes and they can live by that (of course, it’s worth remembering we’re only here because fans and managers couldn’t accept that referees make mistakes in the first place).

Criticism of how VAR works is absolutely fair and of course there is room for improvement. But VAR is just another assistant referee watching video replays of the game to ensure decisions are as accurate as possible. How can fans object to that? The implementation obviously has to improve, but after a decade of campaigning and complaining, you can’t just decide that actually it doesn’t work and we’re getting rid of it.

We can’t allow football to go back to an era where 60,000 fans can spot a glaring error has been made in the ground with millions watching that same error on TV and accept it as ‘mistakes happen’; the stakes are just too high for that. 

Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run was brought to an end when Wayne Rooney dived to win a penalty to give Manchester United the lead.

There was the 2009 Champions League semi-final when Chelsea had countless penalty appeals turned down only to have their hearts broken by Andres Iniesta in the dying moments.

Thierry Henry’s handball that denied Ireland a 2010 World Cup place was worldwide news long after the match. So cruel was that decision that there was talk of a replayed match – there was even a brief suggestion that Ireland could be awarded a 33rd place in the 2010 World Cup.

VAR would’ve taken seconds to rectify that decision. Can anybody really say that it’s better that a game of football is decided by such a flagrant breach of the rules than the laws being correctly applied?

No fan has ever enjoyed the walk away from a ground with a feeling of immense injustice, and absolutely no Ireland fan left the Stade de France that night saying ‘well, at least the game wasn’t too stop-start.’

No - Football is not benefiting from VAR

I was in attendance for a Bundesliga fixture between Mainz and Freiburg in April 2018.

It was VARs debut campaign in Germany’s top flight - a season before the Premier League introduced the system – and it was understandably experiencing some teething issues.

In this instance, the referee had dismissed a penalty appeal before blowing the half-time whistle, with both sides headed down the tunnel.

What happened next was a scene of utter confusion and bewilderment.

The referee, who was also on his way to the tunnel, ordered the players to return so that Mainz's Pablo De Blasis could take a penalty for a handball that VAR noticed after the half-time whistle had been blown. De Blasis scored the penalty and Mainz, who were level at the half-time whistle, were then ahead during the half-time interval.

Five years on from that incident and the fact that VAR is still demonstrating similar flaws is particularly telling.

Inconsistency has undermined it and indecision has weakened its credibility. What should have been a force for good has become a farce that continues to ruin our great game.

Overcomplicating matters

Decisions that had previously been straightforward are now consistently overlooked, overplayed and excessively analysed.

And just when you feel they’re reaching a stage of using VAR more efficiently and effectively, up crops Victor Torp's disallowed goal for Coventry to spark greater controversy and further disillusion.

Has the player committed a foul? Is the player offside? There’s nothing wrong with thoroughness and while we all expect the utmost degree of accuracy, you don’t need to replay the same incident eight times and observe it in ultra-slow motion to assess whether a player has been fouled or not.

There are situations that are more complex. But with all of the technology at their disposal, should it really take four minutes to assess whether the ball had gone out of play, whether a foul had been committed and if the player was offside?

VAR in the Premier League will benefit significantly from the introduction of semi-automated technology for offside. Handballs and tackles are a subjective call but offside is most definitely not. 

But then you look at the Champions League. Using semi-automated technology, we're seeing success in their offside calls and yet VAR remains the subject of controversy following a series of contentious decisions. Rewind to November, Marcus Rashford’s red card against FC Copenhagen is yet more evidence of officials overanalysing a situation and producing a verdict that defies logic.

The lawmakers want the game to be flawless but perfection is quite frankly unattainable.

Yes, you can still celebrate a goal and yes, there is the added bonus of being able to celebrate it again upon review. But the raw, unbridled emotion of watching the ball ripple the back of the net has been diminished. You’re always conscious of a striker being a nose hair offside or a foul being committed in the build-up 30 seconds prior. 

Can you imagine the chaos that would have surrounded Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal for Manchester City in 2012 had VAR been present?

So many pivotal moments in football history would have the gloss wiped away while everyone impatiently waits for a decision on whether the goal will stand.

Officiating standards

It feels as though there is an increasing level of dependency from referees and their assistants on VAR. Whether it’s the comfort blanket of knowing that every major decision in the game can be reviewed and reversed, standards have arguably deteriorated.

When the referee doesn’t take an authoritative stance on an incident, the Premier League’s ‘clear and obvious’ ruling renders VAR ineffective as they don’t have the grounds to overturn a subjective decision.

Has the overall level downgraded? Football League clubs, who are obviously without VAR, have been accustomed to contentious refereeing decisions. The Premier League has a responsibility with its officiating to ensure that high standards are maintained and this should stem down the pyramid.

Ultimately we want our referees to be imposing. If they’re not making the key decisions, what’s the point in having them? Yes, they will make mistakes, as will everyone; it’s the beauty of human nature.

VAR should be there to complement their officiating and instead it feels a hindrance. The frequency of such VAR disputes has detracted from the product that supporters pay their hard-earned money to see.

Until it starts to yield more consistent results without overly interfering in the game, it's not bettering football in any shape or form.

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