Officials hope lighter touch will help stop VAR controversies

Too much of everyone’s reputation has already been invested to turn back now

During last season’s Premier League Lewis Dunk found the net with a quick free kick that caught West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone off guard, but after a long delay in which referee Lee Mason disallowed and then allowed the goal, the Brighton skipper’s effort was chalked off by the VAR. One of many VAR controversies last season. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

During last season’s Premier League Lewis Dunk found the net with a quick free kick that caught West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone off guard, but after a long delay in which referee Lee Mason disallowed and then allowed the goal, the Brighton skipper’s effort was chalked off by the VAR. One of many VAR controversies last season. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

 

No one likes VAR. In fact, that’s probably understating it. A survey by the English football supporters’ association revealed that 95 per cent of fans – be they at home or in the stands – found video refereeing technology made their experience of watching a game less enjoyable in 2021. Only 26 per cent were in favour of keeping VAR.

Evidence for the disenchantment can be found online, where Sky Sports has three YouTube compilations featuring the worst “VAR controversies” from last season. Patrick Bamford’s offside arm, Sadio Mané’s pixel-wide offside in the Merseyside derby, Lee Mason disallowing a Brighton goal against West Brom, allowing it again, then having the decision overturned, and a ton of stuff involving Harry Maguire. It’s all there. This is the background against which the new season begins.

Professional game match officials board limited (PGMOL), the refereeing body that controls officials in the top flight and is responsible for the application of VAR, was not about to drop the technology whatever anyone said. Too much time and effort, too much of everyone’s reputation has already been invested to turn back now.

Contact sport

The head of PGMOL, Mike Riley, has always argued it would be a five-year process to get things right (though he didn’t mention things getting worse before they got better).

Fortunately for the authorities, they now have the Euros to point to. VAR and the refereeing more broadly were hailed for being light touch, common sense and for allowing a contact sport to have contact. No one has ever called for the opposite, of course, but following meetings with clubs and players after the tournament, that’s the line PGMOL says it will be following, too.

To that end, the decision has been taken to allow referees to assess the context around a challenge in the box (namely whether the attacker made the most of it) before giving a penalty.

Small niggly fouls are, it is promised, more likely to be ignored elsewhere, too. There will also be changes on offside decisions – with attackers given the benefit of the doubt in tight calls thanks to the application of fatter “broadcast” lines – and a more forgiving interpretation of handball when it comes to “natural” body shapes and whatnot.

We may even see assistant referees raise their flag when a player is offside, rather than wait, providing it is clear the player does not have an opportunity to score.

VAR is only as good as the laws (or guidance) it is seeking to apply and the people seeking to apply them. It is possible to look at the handball law, for example, and still spot instances where an “unnatural” position is unavoidable, such as when sliding in to block a cross or shot.

On the penalty guidance we could easily go from a situation where a player falls without much of a touch and gets a spot-kick to one where they stay up under heavy contact and don’t get one, especially if the VAR is practising their light touch that day.

On the people front, PGMOL has ruled out using offside-only VARs, as at the Euros, owing to a lack of resources. It has, however, confirmed a desire to move retired referees into specialist VAR roles, with Mason the first to make the move this season.

Often forgotten in all the (social) media debates and controversies are the match-going fans. For them it’s not so much the issue of interference or inconsistency as the time taken out of matches for VAR to do its work, the throttling of spontaneity.

As supporters make a long-awaited and hopefully permanent return to grounds, there will be hope that a lighter touch means a more traditional experience, only improved by the greater number of correct decisions that VAR guarantees. It would be the best of both worlds. Until someone 30 seconds back in the buildup to a goal is found offside by a pixel outside their new, fat line that is. – Guardian

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