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VAR is tearing the Premier League apart


Man United’s Christian Eriksen is fouled by Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal FC at Old Trafford.

Man United’s Christian Eriksen is fouled by Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal FC at Old Trafford.
Image: Getty Images

Someone much smarter (i.e. everyone) than me one day will write a book about how VAR is the perfect distillation of the dual track of technology, both the advancement and the hindrance on society that it can be. Although, unlike most technological advances, VAR has actually provided another job for someone, as a referee has to monitor it for every game. But it’s also made an old job even more complicated, while basically pissing everyone else off. Which sounds pretty damn familiar, as Comcast’s internet bows out on me for a third time as I try to write this.

VAR has been around long enough now that you would think it’s just become part of the furniture, and in some countries and leagues, and maybe even most, it kind of has. While no one likes watching play continue through what we all suspect is an obvious offside, most of us understand that’s how the game is going to work now. Except for aggrieved defenders and commentators who like to complain (hi there, Lee Dixon).

But the problem with VAR, especially in England, is that it’s still run by people. It hasn’t replaced people, and when it has been used to try and do so is where the real problems lie. The problem with people, of course, is that they’re people. They’re flawed, and every single one can see an event differently than the next. So when the threshold for VAR overturns is a “clear and obvious” mistake, everyone is going to have a different definition of that.

The Premier League had its biggest VAR brouhaha this weekend, spread throughout the league, and it has a lot of people wondering whether VAR should still have a place in the game. It’s not going anywhere, but how to smooth it out is going to be a really hard road to travel. While the offside reviews can be annoying and minuscule, at least there’s a definite rule in place. You’re either offside or you’re not. When it comes to reviewing fouls…that’s where there’s gray area, and everyone’s perception of gray area is different.

Let’s start at 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. 


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