Video Assistant Referee technology disrupts the English Premier League

Manchester United's Christian Eriksen was fouled by Arsenal's Martin Odegaard during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford.

Manchester United’s Christian Eriksen was fouled by Martin ODegaard during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford.
picture: Getty Images

Someone smarter than me (that is, everyone) one day will write a book about how VAR technology is the perfect dual-track distillation of technology, whether it’s progress or the hindrance it can have on society. Although, unlike most technological developments, VAR technology has already provided another function for a person, as the referee has to monitor it in every match. But it also made an ancient task more complicated, while essentially irritating others. Which sounds very familiar, as the internet has engaged Comcast to me for the third time trying to write this.

VAR technology has been around for long enough now that you’d think it’s just become a piece of furniture, and in some countries and leagues, maybe even in most of them, it kind of has. While no one likes to watch play continue through what we all suspect is an obvious offside, most of us understand that this is how the game is going to work now. Except for aggrieved advocates and commentators who would like to file a complaint (hello Lee Dixon).

But the problem with VAR, especially in England, is that it is still managed by people. It didn’t replace people, and when it was used to try and do that, the real problems lie. The problem with people, of course, is that they are human. They are flawed, and each individual can see one event different from the next. So when the threshold for VAR inversions is a “clear and obvious” error, each person will have a different definition of it.

The Premier League saw the biggest hype from VAR technology this weekend, it has spread across the league, and has many people wondering if it is still necessary to use VAR technology in the game. It’s not going to happen anywhere, but how to calm it down is going to be a really tough road to travel. While the sneaky reviews can be annoying and petty, at least there’s a definite rule in place. Either you are a hacker or you are not. When it comes to reviewing bugs…there is a gray area, and everyone’s perception of the gray area varies.

Let’s start with Chelsea first:

West Ham had apparently equalized Chelsea at 2 right after this collision between Jarrod Bowen and Eduoard Mendy. The ref initially didn’t think it was a foul, waving off Mendy’s rolling around on the ground as West Ham progressed the ball into the net. But VAR called the ref over afterward and then he decided it was a foul.

Maybe it is, but does this rise to the threshold of a “clear and obvious” mistake to you? All six of you who read this will probably not be unanimous either way. Worse yet, the review took forever, which it isn’t supposed to.

Next up is Newcastle, who had a winning goal ruled out when VAR pulled the ref over to look at a foul on Crystal Palace’s goalkeeper, even though Newcastle’s Joe Willock was pushed into the keeper which Lee Mason, the VAR ref for the match, somehow missed. Again, this system of VAR doesn’t work when the guy running it is a complete pillock, which most soccer fans would tell you Mason is. The “clear and obvious” here is on the VAR official, and yet it seems like his word rules all. Michael Salisbury, the ref on the field, took the VAR word as gospel, which seems to be how it always works out even though the ref goes to a screen himself.

Oh, we’re not finished. The Man United-Arsenal match may have gone very differently had Arsenal’s opening goal been allowed, which it was at first, but then wasn’t:

Does Martin Odegaard foul Christian Eriksen before Arsenal’s move for their goal that wasn’t? Likely, but it wasn’t called. Does it rise to clear and obvious? Maybe? But what’s the definition of that really?

The weekend wouldn’t be complete without an offside controversy, which possibly saw a winner for Aston Villa against Man City:

This is why Philippe Coutinho was ruled offside, and thus his ensuing goal was ruled out, except it was the rare time the referee’s assistant didn’t wait to raise their flag until after the play was completed. There will be no better argument for why assistants are letting things play out before flagging than this. Every complaint about that phenomenon should have this decision cited as the winning counterargument. VAR couldn’t even look at it thanks to the play being flagged dead, though you could argue that City’s defenders and keeper had stopped playing at the sight of the flag so we don’t know how it would have gone. Still, this isn’t how it’s supposed to work.

But what of the rest? It would seem the answer is to limit any VAR review to no more than 15-20 seconds. If something is clear and obvious it’ll become apparent in that amount of time, which is still more than enough for three or four angles of any call. But that still depends on the opinion of someone watching the monitor, and that will always differ. But at least the game will keep moving even if controversially instead of all of us standing around for four minutes and ending controversially. Still, it feels like if after 20 seconds a VAR ref says, “I can’t tell” then we can stick with the original decision and VAR isn’t re-reffing the game, as it feels like it is now. Will it end the controversy? No, but that might be an unreachable goal. It’s sports after all, and controversy is part of it. And as long as it’s the decisions of humans about calls and rules that aren’t clearly defined, this is just going to be part of the game.