VAR in the Premier League

Image courtesy of Sky Sports

In what’s sure to be a major talking point of the 2019-20 season, VAR will grace the Premier League for the first time ever this year. Becoming the last of the big (and even some of the small) European leagues to adopt the technology, there is nowhere to hide, either: it will receive unprecedented attention in the most-watched domestic league in the world. Here are a few of my thoughts on VAR in England before the season kicks off.

“We don’t want to slow the game down”

I don’t have a source for this quote, but I can assure you that countless high-ups in the FA have probably said this phrase word-for-word at times over the past couple of years. Of course, there’s no escaping that for VAR to work properly, the game sometimes needs to stop so that the refs in the video booth can assess decisions that may need to be changed. However, this is a big worry in England compared to the rest of Europe. Why? Because the PL is known being The Most Exciting League In The World™ thanks in large part to, you guessed it, the high-intensity and back-and-forth style of attacking football it features. This is in relative contrast to other leagues, namely Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga, which tend to feature players who are far more skilled technically but whose physical attributes pale in comparison to many in the PL.

Now, with all the bitching you see on social media regarding the refereeing after literally any given Premier League match, you’d think that most people would probably accept a ‘slower’ game if it meant more correct refereeing decisions were made. However, the PL’s top executives don’t, and I can tell you why.

One word: money

As part of the whole Most Exciting League distinction, the Premier League tends to do a lot better financially than other countries’ top-flight divisions too. With multi-billion-pound TV deals in place, and being easily the most-watched domestic league in the world, you can see why there’s such an emphasis on retaining the ‘speed of the English game.’

The game clock doesn’t stop for VAR, so it becomes part of stoppage time at the end of each half. The problem here, and this was evident in the Women’s World Cup due to the sheer frequency of VAR reviews, is that it becomes commonplace to see 7, 8, or 9 minutes of injury time at the end of a second half.

Why is this a problem? Well, when you’ve got broadcasters paying you billions of pounds, and each minute of pre- and post-match TV content is meticulously accounted for, an extra-long block of injury time may cut into the pre-match programming of the next game scheduled, perhaps even delaying the kickoff of the second game of a back-to-back TV fixture list.

Is it a little far-fetched to consider? Perhaps. But the Premier League is a business, after all – and much of the reason the league is so entertaining is because of the money that gets pumped into it. VAR may improve referees’ decisions on the pitch, but it does not come without risk off the field.

So, what does this all mean?

In theory, VAR is supposed to be used the same way in the Premier League as it is everywhere else. Goals, straight red cards, penalty kicks, and mistaken identity are the four pillars of VAR the world over, and that won’t change. However, considering what I wrote above, I can’t see referees interpreting these four pillars as judiciously as they do elsewhere.

My opinion is that we’ll have a lot of cases of “why didn’t the VAR call the ref over?” in the PL this season. I think the league’s general directive with regards to the technology is “minimum use, maximum benefit,” so I highly doubt we’ll be seeing a lot of the trifling VAR interventions that were so common in the Women’s World Cup in particular.

In particular, PGMOL head Mike Riley has gone on record saying that VARs will not rule on goalkeeper’s feet on penalty kicks, which I think is a mistake. These are black-or-white decisions – if the technology is there, why not use it? This isn’t an interpretive call we’re talking about. I eagerly await the day when Man United have a potentially game-winning penalty saved in the 94th minute and replays end up showing that the goalkeeper had both feet off the line. Can you imagine the uproar?

How will referees react?

Anyways, I digress.

One big question mark I do still have is if the technology will change the way referees go about their job. We saw glaring evidence of that in the Women’s World Cup, where well over a third of penalty kicks awarded at the tournament—11 out of 26—were only done so after a VAR intervention. I’m not talking about understandable mistakes made by the referees – there were a few crystal-clear fouls that were ignored almost unfathomably.

To maximize the impact of VAR, referees will need to see it as a safety net rather than a shiny new toy. This is a system that, if the refereeing is good, really shouldn’t need to be used – the Champions League semifinals and final earlier this year passed with ZERO video reviews. That’s the level of officiating that should be aspired to.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Mike Dean pretends to miss a super obvious penalty just so he can go to the monitor and make an ultra-dramatic VAR signal before pointing to the spot. To be fair, I think that would make for some grand entertainment, as long as it’s not against Chelsea of course. But you just know that Mr. Hollywood is going to steal the show eventually…

Closing thoughts

VAR is a big deal in the Premier League, make no mistake about it. As one of the last European domestic leagues to institute the technology, there is simply no room to fail. We’ve seen it been used quite poorly in the FA Cup and League Cup at times up until this point (a certain incorrect Harry Kane offside decision springs to mind), so there will be a lot of scrutiny on the system.

Say what you want about it, but VAR has been used successfully all across the world, and the PL has had more than enough time to prepare for its arrival.

It’s here. And it needs to hit the ground running.

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