Robin Sainty: Evidence doesn’t stack up for VAR

PUBLISHED: 13:23 18 April 2020

VAR - has it really been doing what it said on the tin? Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

VAR - has it really been doing what it said on the tin? Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Paul Chesterton

About the only positive aspect of the absence of football has been the fact that my blood pressure hasn’t been raised by VAR for a few weeks now.

Referee Michael Oliver has been at the centre of VAR controversy this season 
Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images LtdReferee Michael Oliver has been at the centre of VAR controversy this season Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

However, that nasty little acronym raised its ugly head in my inbox last week in the form of a piece of research on its use in several major European leagues, produced by Bet O’Clock.

I should preface the results by saying that I normally tend to side with Mark Twain’s theory that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics” but this was a pretty comprehensive analysis, taking into account every VAR decision this season in the top five European leagues.

The research studied the use of VAR in the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 as well as the Premier League and threw up some interesting results about the application of the system in different countries.

Two particular figures are eye catching. The first of these is the percentage of on-field decisions overturned by the video officials. In Europe, these are pretty uniform, with 91pc in Spain, 90pc in Germany, 89pc in Italy and 85pc in France. However, in England the figure is just 32pc.

Now there could be various reasons why this huge discrepancy exists. One is that the exact criteria for referral differ between countries, so this is not an absolute like-for-like comparison, and another could be that English referees are significantly more competent than their foreign counterparts.

Of course, another interpretation would be that expressed by a spokesperson for Bet O’Clock: “This implies a strong ‘referees union’ where the officials are simply too scared to overturn their colleagues, but this could be getting in the way of coming to the correct decision.”

There is, in fact, some evidence for this theory, for example the stamp by Tottenham’s Lo Celso against Chelsea which saw Michael Oliver’s decision not to award a red card upheld by Stockley Park at the time, only for the VAR officials to admit even before the game had finished that they had erred and that it should in fact have been a sending off.

Oliver and VAR were again at the centre of controversy in the pivotal game between Liverpool and Manchester City when an apparent handball in his own box by Trent Alexander-Arnold wasn’t given by Oliver and was then supposedly checked and dismissed by VAR in the 22 seconds that it took for Liverpool to break away and score at the other end.

Compare that to how long the review process has taken in many other games, for example the forensic examination of Chris Kanavagh’s decision to award what was in the eyes of most people in the ground a nailed-on penalty in City’s league game at Spurs and it does make you wonder if certain big name refs are considered beyond reproach while lesser mortals are subject to greater scrutiny.

By the way, it’s also worth noting is than all four of the other leagues analysed, the norm is for the VAR official to refer back to the referee who makes the final decision after going to the pitch side monitor, yet that didn’t happen once in England until after Christmas, despite a Premier League bulletin issued in July clearly stating that: “The final decision will always be taken by the on-field referee.”

The second interesting figure is the number of decisions checked by VAR in the course of this season in each country, which is 82 in France, 84 in Germany, 101 in Spain, 111 in Italy and an incredible 275 in England.

At this point it’s worth reminding ourselves that when VAR was introduced in England, the Premier League line was that it was there to establish whether the on-field match official team had made a clear and obvious error and that reviews would barely interrupt the flow of the game. In fact, re-reading the original articles about the introduction of VAR on the Premier League website it is hard to match the expectation with the reality of what was to transpire in the course of the season.

One refers to the 68 live trial matches over the previous two seasons that had taken place in the FA Cup and EFL Cup, and says that reviews during the trial took 29 seconds on average, while another makes the statement that: “In the Premier League, there will be a high bar for VAR intervention on subjective decisions to maintain the pace and intensity of the matches.”

That now seems positively utopian given the interminable delays that we have had to endure while someone in an office was busy playing with lines on a screen before deciding that a player was either off or onside by a fraction of an inch.

The fact is that VAR may well have corrected a handful of glaring errors, but it has done little to endear itself to the vast majority of fans. As Neil Dady of the Wolves Fan Parliament puts it: “Facts and figures are fine, but ask supporters that attend matches and you will get a consistent response – VAR is ruining the game.”

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