I fell in to my role as talkSPORT’s unofficial VAR ambassador. I wasn’t really an advocate, in truth I hadn’t thought about it much until I was asked to commentate for television on a French international friendly against Italy in 2016.
I have worked with it in various stages of development, in international friendlies, the Confederations Cup, the Carabao and FA Cups, the World Cup for both men and women, and now the Premier League.
Trust me, it is miles better than that day in 2016 when I didn’t know if the referee had sent a player off or not. It’s also clearer than in the Audi Cup of 2017 when we had no idea a goal had been disallowed and the scoreboard, which had changed from 1-0 to 2-0, took five minutes to role back. Awkward.
It is much faster and there are less interventions than the perennially delayed cup-tie between Spurs and Rochdale. That famous bone chilling January evening after which Danny Rose let rip and Mark Saggers labelled me “Dr VAR”.
But this weekend? I found even my positivity to understand the methods and reasons behind the now constant controversy, waning.
It feels to me as if the PGMOL and the group of hardworking referees that desperately want to officiate the game in good faith, are trying too hard to please too many people.
They don’t want to interfere too much as everyone, rightly, wants the game to flow. They don’t want to encourage the referee to trot to the sideline to look at the monitor because the reviews take too long and players and fans moan. They want to back up the referee and underscore that he (or one day hopefully ‘she’) is THE decision maker. They want to improve the ratio of correct decisions. But you will never make everyone happy.
If you have the technology, you’ve got to use it. Otherwise you might as well pack it up and stop wasting the electricity.
The problems are easy to list, but the solutions are harder to find because the PGMOL, the body that runs the Premier League officials, is bound by the laws of the game and the IFAB protocol on VAR.
You can’t alter the universally derided handball law, the precise nature of the offside law or any of the others. You can’t provide the audio of the VAR and on field referee communications because it is not permitted by the IFAB protocol.
My main issue with the Premier League application of VAR is this ‘high bar’ of intervention and the idea that only ‘clear and obvious’ errors are penalised. Why? If you have the technology, use it.
This directive is being implemented only if errors ‘seriously clear and totally obvious’, resulting this weekend in David Silva, who clearly had his foot trodden on in the penalty area at Dean Court, not receiving a penalty.
It also meant that Jamal Lascelles’ swan dive across Harry Kane at Spurs, which is a penalty for me (and for the referees and ex referees I’ve spoken to), was not given. The kick on the shins on Cesar Azpilicueta by Moritz Leitner at Carrow Road is another that did not result in a penalty award, but that should have. I’m sure there are more.
The authorities are quick to point out that VAR has only overturned six decisions in the 30 matches we have had so far, underscoring their preference for a ‘light touch’ approach. The problem with that: no one is satisfied.
Not the naysayers and technophobes, because they will say the system is missing clear penalties. Not the fans who understand the law and can see plain as you like that a foot has been stamped on and can’t work out why the technology hasn’t kicked in. Not the managers who backed VAR, and who were hoping for some safety net that if a match changing decision was missed then technology would provide justice.
It also means referees don’t have to give the hard decisions, because they know if they really have missed a howler someone will scream in their ear and come to their rescue. I started to worry this was happening at the weekend.
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It is often said “it works in cricket, so why doesn’t it work in football?”. It took time to settle in cricket, and we are only three weeks in, but right now my enthusiasm for the whole project is ebbing away. The laws have been made too complicated at a time when the game is going under its most fundamental change. Unlike cricket, the law is too subjective.
I sent my friend the handball law this morning. He had to press the ‘read more…’ button on WhatsApp. It’s so convoluted. How is the average, matchday going fan going to process all that and do they want to? How does a referee put it all into practice at the breakneck speed of the Premier League?
Right now it feels like we are heading towards a crossroads. No one is standing up for VAR anymore – not even me. Even though as I write this blog I’m messaging officials in an attempt to understand the ‘whys and wherefores’.
I don’t have the all the solutions, and nor do they, but I think it’s clear and obvious that VAR doesn’t either.