Wolves manager Gary O’Neil proclaimed: “What’s the point of VAR?” His side were left saddened after further decisions proved crucial in the defeat at Fulham. Newcastle boss Eddie Howe described an injury-time penalty against his own club against Paris Saint-Germain as “a bad decision” that “looked completely different” in a slowed replay that the referees watched on the monitors.
The current situations are a consequence of the increasing use of technology in football in recent years, but none seem to be generating as many heated debates and questions as that of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).
Broadly speaking, smaller and more visible decisions are expected to improve over the course of the season as on-field referees receive additional help. However, there have been several high-profile incidents recently that have resulted in clubs or their employees complaining about the final decision or decision-making process. Another incident recently occurred in the Champions League.
Manchester United coach Erik ten Hag was saddened that several decisions went against him in the 3-4 defeat against FC Copenhagen, including the decision to send off Marcus Rashford for a serious challenge.
But the other side of the debate is that the benchmark for where VAR intervenes and decides is the benchmark for where VAR intervenes and decides, without being absolute, concrete lines about what is a foul and what not where a decision should or should not be made etc. The disallowance of incidents (or not) seems to be far higher in the Premier League than in European competition.
It is widely believed in this country that PSG’s penalty against Newcastle would not have been awarded in England, and that Jarrell Quansah’s late goal for Liverpool against Toulouse much earlier in the build-up would not have been ruled for a handball against Alexis Mac Allister. But none of these incidents occurred in the Premier League, and referees in Europe – under the UEFA banner – have different views and different levels of intervention.
Here’s everything you need to know about VAR, including the latest grounds for appeal against it.
What went wrong?
Newcastle were deeply saddened to have a penalty awarded for handball in the final minute of stoppage time in their 1-1 draw with PSG after a VAR review was not carried out in open play.
At the start of the competition, Man United complained about Rashford’s red card, given to him for stepping on an opponent’s foot and shin. Ten Hag insisted his side had three “very controversial” penalties against them in four games and described his striker’s sending off as “very harsh”.
In domestic football, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta complained about “unacceptable” errors from on-field officials and VAR as his team lost to Newcastle, while Wolves manager O’Neil continues to feel unfairly treated by the use of technology.
At the beginning of the season he described a penalty decision against his team, which was confirmed by VAR, as “scandalous” – including against Newcastle. VAR sent referee Michael Salisbury on screen to award a penalty after Joao Gomes brought down Harry Wilson in the penalty area and Willian scored his second penalty of the game to secure all three points for Fulham. O’Neil highlighted the decisions surrounding the late penalty, Carlos Vinicius’ alleged headbutt on Max Kilman and why Tim Ream did not receive a second yellow for a foul on Hwang Hee-Chan while the Whites’ first penalty was awarded for a foul by Nelson Semedo over Tom Cairney was also controversial. It should be noted that the VAR would never have intervened with Ream, as they only get involved in direct red card violations, not yellow-red.
Ange Postecoglou recently pointed out that clubs must take some of the blame for the long VAR disruptions: “Some of it is self-inflicted because if we complain about decisions every week, this is what will happen, every decision will be forensically checked and “We’re going to sit around for a long time every game and try to figure out what’s going on.”
However, it must be noted that the vast majority of these are subjective opinions and if Arteta sees a mistake, another manager, supporter or even an official may see justification in the decision.
An incident that was not subjective but a very clear error occurred when Luis Diaz’s goal for Liverpool against Tottenham was ruled out for offside and then disallowed, even though the VAR officials went through their processes and showed that the striker was offside. The “significant human error” was due to referee Darren England apparently forgetting that it was actually an offside position and not a goal.
At another extreme, Millie Bright criticized the fact that this was the case NO VAR in the first edition of the Women’s Nations League after a clear offside goal was allowed against England that would have been easily ruled out.
Other clear VAR errors that PGMOL have had to apologize for include Wolves not being awarded a penalty against Man United after Andre Onana knocked down Sasa Kalajdzic, a Brentford goal against Arsenal not being properly reviewed, as no offside lines were drawn and West Ham’s late equalizer was ruled due to a foul for which nothing was evident.
What went right?
In fact, a lot.
It will be overlooked when three or four calls are just right, when one raises a serious complaint, or at least it is a subjective call that the majority apparently disagrees with.
For example, in the eventful Tottenham v Chelsea game, several goals were correctly ruled out for offside by the use or review of VAR, and the penalty that led to Cristian Romero’s dismissal was also the result of VAR intervention.
In general, these calls that are generally considered correct are not highlighted, in part because the technology exists for exactly that reason: to help officers make the right calls at second glance.
However, that doesn’t mean they don’t occur. The Premier League reported that 82 percent of the decisions in the season before the introduction of VAR were correct, and in 2019/20 it was even 94 percent.
How does the VAR test work?
From the Premier League website: VAR is only used for “clear and obvious errors” or “serious missed incidents” in four game-winning situations: goals; criminal decisions; direct red card incidents; and mistaken identity.
If any of these match situations occur or are likely to occur, VAR will continually re-view and monitor the match footage from the turnstile at Stockley Park.
If a decision must be made, the VAR or Assistant VAR (AVAR) will advise the referee that play should be stopped during reviews before recommending either a throw-over, a review of the pitchside monitor for the referee, or a continuation of the Play with the original decision on the field.
Until the ball is dead, the video officials have time to inform the referee that a review is in progress if the game is already in progress.
The referee can then either check the monitor or accept the VAR recommendation. After reviewing the pitchside monitor, they can then stick with their own initial assessment or discard the original assessment before communicating their new decision to the audience.
What did PGMOL say?
Professional Game Match Officials Limited head of refereeing Howard Webb took on the role last year to improve refereeing standards in the English game and ensure smoother use of technology.
PGMOL confirmed to the League Managers’ Association: “They are actively exploring how best to integrate VARs into matchday refereeing teams to ensure the dynamic between on-field referees and VAR produces positive outcomes.”
After the Diaz incident, the organization “acknowledged that a significant human error occurred” and implemented additional processes to ensure a recurrence did not occur. They also released the audio of that incident, an “unusual step” according to Webb, “to show everyone what we very quickly realized: a human error and loss of concentration.”
Webb has suggested increasing the pool of VAR-specific officials, but Lee Mason presents a cautionary tale. The former referee was appointed full-time VAR for the 2022/23 season, but left that role last season following the aforementioned error in Brentford’s goal against Arsenal. Mason, who was previously struck off the referee list this campaign for mistakenly disallowing a Newcastle goal, was described as a “serial offender” by ex-PGMOL boss Keith Hackett – but Mason was sacked at the start of the current campaign -Employed as a referee coach for the lower leagues. That hasn’t stopped questions about why his qualifications are suitable for guiding less experienced officials even though he has already been removed from his post.
Update: PGMOL confirmed to The Independent that Lee Mason is no longer working for VAR.