When the English Premier League began implementing its version of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in August, the goal was to assist the on-field referees and improve the accuracy of major decisions during a match. All EPL games were to have VAR constantly monitoring the match for “clear and obvious” errors, conveying that information to the on-field referees with the goal of improving the accuracy of the calls while minimizing the delays of the match. To that end, the English FA decided upon four areas to review: goals, penalty decisions, red card incidents and mistaken identity.
Some of the areas subject to review work without much discord. Given a caution or red card to the wrong player is never a good look, so those VAR calls go well overall. Generally, red card incidents that are reviewed are welcome, going either from yellow to red or red to yellow. With the speed and intensity of the modern game, VAR review in this area can be a godsend so that the proper disciplinary action is given. Even a VAR review of whether to award a penalty kick (or to reverse one) has been met with muted approval, given that the goal is to get an accurate call.
It should come as no surprise, however, that an uprising has begun with the final VAR review, that of goals scored. And within that category is whether or not the run of play that produced the goal also had a player in an offside position, thus nullifying that goal. This VAR review seems to contradict the original intent of VAR, that of a clear and obvious error. It seems that a slew of goals that were disallowed by VAR not because an attacking player was a step or two in front of the last defender, but rather his body was leaning forward while his foot and the ball was still onside. While VAR has taking the brunt of the complaints here, is it the fault of the VAR or the Laws of the Game (LOTG), which do not make allowances to such a negligible transgression. While Spain’s La Liga or Germany’s Bundesliga allows for such a “shadow” of an attacker to continue play, the stricter EPL FA supports more of a purist view in keeping with the LOTG.
Most managers in the EPL have voiced their displeasure with VAR, from Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola to Wolverhampton Wonderers manager Nuno Espirito Santo. In fact, Santo lost two matches in four days due to such reviews. Yet the beneficiary in one such match, Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp, was himself critical of the VAR process, claiming it took too long to review the plays and was too strict with its calls.
The English FA reviewed the VAR process last month, and somehow graded it an overwhelming success. But for the fans and teams alike, the FA might have to issue guidelines on how to enforce the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. With so much at stake in each match, one would think that the LOTG are guidelines and that the actual rules can enhance the games themselves and make the fan experience that much better while still enforcing the rules.