Certainly a fan’s guide to VAR, but perhaps more accurately what the Premier League WANT you to know.
Yesterday a number of club reps were invited to VAR HQ at Stockley Park for a conflab about how it’s going to work in the league this season, what it will involve and how they will approach issues. Along with two typically humourless lower tier journalists. But one of those was Sp*rs, so he’s arguably got nothing to smile about anyway. Ostensibly we all turned up because they promised to let us play with the system ourselves at the end.
There was a slight concern that I was being lured into a trap, that PGMOL had seen everything I’ve ever written about their match officials and that I’d end up being guarded in a dungeon under Stockley Park by Ade Edmundson doing a slightly historically inaccurate impression of the Red Baron. Or Hugh Laurie in the role of Prince Ludwig the Indestructible.
Let me say this now. If they can convince me, they can convince anyone.
What is VAR so far as the league is concerned?
The principle of VAR is laid down by IFAB, the International Football Association Board, who set the rules of the game worldwide. That said, despite this international authority, there is wiggle room, subjective interpretation within their framework that has been invoked.
So to begin with, it was up to the Premier League to decide how they were going to bring in VAR and what standards they were going to set. And after two and a half years of testing and investigation, they were ready to tell us in very polished and well-rehearsed format where they are at on the eve of it being implemented at every game in the league this season.
What you are about to read has apparently been preached ad nauseam to clubs and their players. They say that they have had a revolving procession of fans, journalists, officials, and “stakeholders” (this is why I quit working in an office, terms like this) coming in in an attempt to make the move to VAR as transparent as possible. In other words there is a massive drive on education. Although the biggest flaw I foresee is that Alan Shearer is the star of the video. Mr. Charisma. I’d be chewing my own wrists open after five minutes.
I asked who the VAR officials are. The 18 Select Group One referees, they say. And five Select Group Two. So a pool of 23 highly functioning officials. Not to mention all of the Assistant Referees who will carry out the roll of AVAR (Assistant VAR) alongside them. They like acronyms. “Assistant” is literally one more syllable and it’s an actual word, but go figure. I have a slight concern with this. Presumably the massive increase in referee workload on any given set of fixtures is costing them a fortune if you have to call in the likes of Michael Oliver the day after a fixture he has overseen to sit and watch another on TV. More importantly, though, Select Group Two was only introduced a few years ago. They are Championship referees. Who will now have a large stake in how your team’s day is panning out on a much higher level. “The games are usually spread out” was the response to my query on this, which was given as a reassurance as to the standard of the available referees in control of the VAR console, which I’m not sure I was entirely appeased by. My worry is they are diluting the pool to make the numbers up, but I suppose time will tell.
When will it be invoked during a game?
The Premier League were insistent that in the implementation of VAR they have been at pains to make it as minimally invasive as possible, with the maintenance of the speed and intensity of the PL a distinct and primary objective. They claim that their match incident accuracy is at present 82%, and that expect this to go up with VAR. However, They have no expectation that they will reach 100% accuracy.
Their tagline is MINIMUM INTERVENTION, MAXIMUM BENEFIT. In an ideal world, you wont even know it is there, they say. “Minimising inconsistency” was the bullet point given to us by the delightful PGMOL rep. It is only for “TOP LINE INTERVENTION:” that is for CLEAR AND OBVIOUS transgressions on the part of the match officials at the ground with respect of certain important events in a game, and AT ALL TIMES THE FINAL DECISION IS TO REST WITH THE REFEREE ON THE PITCH.
If there is doubt in his mind about what he is being told, the referee can enter the RRA. The Referee Review Area with the screen and sh*t on the side of the pitch. There were contradictions straight away. They have been told they can use it whenever they want.
For example for things they categorically did not see or for if they think they disagree with the review coming in via their headset. They can go and have a look to shut up the competing benches too, if they deem it necessary. But conversely the league want it used sparingly. More potential additional subjective opinion. One referee’s justified quick look is another’s panic stricken conviction that it’s all dragging on too long.
This next one was an important one for me, and I like the answer: THERE IS NO SCOPE FOR THE REFEREE TO STOP AND PHONE A FRIEND. As always, the referee must make a decision in the midst of the game. Only if that decision falls under clear and obvious, will it will be pulled by the VAR official at Stockley. If it does not, the game moves on.
So what are the important things that a VAR official in the plush match centre at Stockley Park can interfere with? (Forget the spectre of that awful trailer last season with ten people crammed in it, that was a one off and the Premier League is minted)
The Premier League refers to them as KMIs (yay, more acronyms) or KEY MATCH INCIDENTS.
There are four:
EVERY SINGLE GOAL IN THE PREMIER LEAGUE IS GOING TO BE CHECKED. Last season the officials cocked up 41 on/offside calls. 31 of those occurred when the score was level or one goal difference. This they want to fix. Primarily, I expect, to shut Sean Dyche up after Burnley had that goal disallowed against Watford.
This was my biggest bone of contention in the course of these sessions so far as the match-going fan is concerned. The Premier League claim that is takes an average of sixty seconds for a group of fans to celebrate a goal. During those sixty seconds, without fail, the match centre is going to select the “phase of play,” (we’ll get to that later) rewatch it and decide if there was anything wrong with it. “95% of the goals are fine.” I was not appeased by that. These checks will not come up on the screen. Unless you know this is the case, you will not know the check is going on, because it will not be advertised. You will get all the way to the end of the hypothetical and precise sixty second celebration, the ball will be back in the centre circle, and then in one in twenty instances now, which is what? A couple of times a season for each team? You will then be told the goal doesn’t stand. Their response? Tough. “You will probably know there was something wrong with the goal in the first place.” I know myself, that nagging doubt is going to be at the back of my mind now, every time.
The giving and not giving of. VAR will check these and advise the referee. I asked about fouling in the box and how much people get away with it, especially defenders, and asked if there was a directive on quashing this as part of the implementation of VAR. The answer was a flippant anti-Chelsea jibe declared “off the record." We’ll take that as a no then. We’ll also take that as an admission that Premier League Relations makes no distinction between “blocking” and Peter Crouch spending seven years trying to mate with Gary Cahill in the box.
VAR will also monitor every penalty taken, looking for things like Vertonghen encroaching, missing the goalkeeper doing anything naughty, double touch and feigning. So once again, whenever a penalty goes in, its not going to be quite definitive until it has been reviewed. But you can kill the time by celebrating on the off chance.
Direct Red Cards (Not second yellows)
Obvious one. And yes, THE APPEALS PROCESS WILL STILL EXIST OF A RED CARD IS GIVEN VIA VAR. However, because it will have been utilised, the Premier League thinks that going forward the bar will be much higher for getting a decision overturned.
And then there is Mistaken identity, which is pretty self explanatory.
Offsides are an oddity that is going to at least take a while to evolve. Not because you cant tell if they are on or not, but because you are fundamentally asking referees and assistants to complete rethink the way they approach them.
WHEN IT IS A CLEAR AND IMMEDIATE GOALSCORING CHANCE the assistant is now being told to HOLD HIS FLAG. The referee is being told NOT TO BLOW HIS WHISTLE. VAR will sort it out. First couple of match days that will go tits up, guarantee you. It goes against all of their training. On a positive note, after the whole Harry F*cking Kane debacle in the cup semi final, from which the Sp*rs journalist clearly still hasn’t recovered, they will be employing 3D lines to ascertain the decision at all times.
Now this is where VAR is going to really make the sh*t hit the fan:
There will be no faffing with throw ins, corners, yellow cards. THERE WILL BE NO INTERVENTION FOR SIMULATION UNLESS IT INVOLVES A PENALTY BEING AWARDED OR A RED CARD. Salah will be pleased. And, if this is to be taken literally, VAR WILL NOT INTERVENE IN OFF THE BALL SPITTING, SCRAPPING, STAMPING, MELEES ETC. UNLESS THE VAR OFFICIAL THINKS SOMEONE SHOULD BE SENT OFF AND WASN’T or vice versa. Which considering how many players warrant a yellow in these circumstances that may latterly effect the game, I think they are missing a trick. What I am trying to say is, that although in principle minimal intervention is laudable, there are going to be untold scenarios throughout the season when you will be screaming for the common sense of a review, and it wont be happening because it cant be pigeonholed into your four categories.
VAR is categorically NOT to be used in the Premier League for the re-refereeing of games. Unless the referee has cocked it up in fine style, there will be NO AMENDING OF SUBJECTIVE DECISIONS on his part. So far as the “CLEAR AND OBVIOUS” is concerned, they claim that their benchmark is higher than you will have seen before, namely handballs in the Champions League, but once again, that is going to be a subjective decision on the part of the second referee sitting at Stockley as to whether it qualifies.
The Premier League have no expectation that VAR will solve all subjective decisions. Kompany against the Scouse last season was a case study with his tackle on Salah. The referee gave a yellow, and there was not enough video evidence to imply that the referee had made a “clear and obvious” error by not sending him off. Therefore with VAR, the decision was subjective, and the referees call is what stands, even if the VAR official personally disagrees with it.
More layers of subjectivity equal more opportunities for people to disagree and scream at each other, and this kind of thing is undoubtedly where the main controversy will come from with VAR.
Which incidentally, is not a dignified procedure. We heard a few checks throughout the afternoon. It constitutes four, perhaps five people all shouting over the top of each other at the same time. Remember that one of them will still be trying to officiate a live football match while they hash out a check. Will he be able to concentrate in the midst of all this? It all comes down to whether he can hear it all, in other words, to what extent the VAR official is leaning on the red button whilst its all going on. Not entirely reassuring.
PGMOL do not think VAR will hugely increase the amount of time added on, especially as the process becomes more streamlined. Once again, they are determined to avoid faffery. However, the most controversial point of the afternoon, which turned into an existential and highly confusing physical debate, is the issue of whether or not you will get all the time back spent on it.
Now, ostensibly the referee will do what he has always done, and record the time lost on the pitch to substitutions, celebrations, time-wasting etc. The AVAR will record the time spent actually checking VAR decisions. The two will be added together and will go up on the board, as if it is ever quite that simple.
However. Consider this:
Azpilicueta is hacked down two footed by someone horrible, let’s say Herrera, on the edge of our box on 50:00
The referee didn’t see it.
The game continues to 50:15 before the VAR official has the chance to watch delayed footage and decides that a review is in order.
The mandate says that the window for the check is the next restart of play, or if the ball is out of play, the second restart.
On the pitch, the ball pings around substantially before Lukaku air kicks it and it goes out of play.
Michael Oliver finally invokes this on 51:30 and the AVAR starts his clock because the game has stopped.
What has happened to that minute and thirty seconds? It wasn’t recorded as lost because it could have simply ended up being part of the game if we play on.
But if Herrera gets sent off as a result of the check, then it is a minute and thirty seconds that has effectively been wiped out. Because we should have been back there sending him off and all the pinging about was irrelevant.
They don’t go back in time to 50:00 after it has been established that a transgression has occurred and account for it. It is a is a big grey area, that cannot be regulated with any consistency and in complete honesty, we were told by PGMOL that you can’t guarantee you’re going to get back all that time. The stat is that in any given game, the ball is in play, the game is on, for about 55 minutes. This could go down with VAR. They just hope it will be a rarity.
How are the players to be moderated with the influx of VAR?
They are not allowed to:
Enter the RRA (apparently they’ve been told, so that’s that. I give it till October before there is ruck in front of one of the screens)
They are not allowed to interfere with the referee’s communications either.
Crowding the referee is not allowed anyway, so that will not be a problem. (Cue fan laughter)
And then there are the two hilarious ones:
Excessive use of the “VAR symbol” (drawing a box with your fingers) is not allowed. Now, the referees have been told not to book absolutely everyone that does it and to be lenient. Apparently there is a line somewhere, probably all to do with the wrist action, that turns it from inquisitive to dissent and then they will get booked. So that’s nicely clear then. Which brings us on to players and managers not being allowed to question the integrity of VAR. Just where the line is between disagreeing with it and doing that is, nobody at the Premier League knows. Ask the FA, they said. So presumably it maintains enough vaguery so that everyone will get penalised apart from the Red Scouse, United and Arsenal. Nothing has changed there then.
MOST IMPORTANTLY - WHAT WILL THE EXPERIENCE OF THE MATCH-GOING FAN BE?
Apparently this is what the clubs have said they want, and so it will be:
VAR logo comes up on the screen and it tells you that a check is occurring and why.
Then the decision comes up.
They are also planning to show a definitive clip, that shows you the best angle of how the VAR official has come to the decision. This will be accompanied by a “definitive” PA announcement. Remember those one in twenty goals that will be suddenly disallowed? I asked if we’d get clips of them too. We were told yes, we will.
You might think it would be nice to get the same view as the people at home? Who will be getting multiple angles as the decision is made and can form their own opinions and feel included.
Not allowed. IFAB apparently. Nonsense.
And at no point have any cheapskates like the Red Scouse, or the Mancs, who don’t have a screen, been compelled to get one. You’ll get the graphics on the scoreboard telling you that there is a review and that’s it. So your experience of VAR and just how inclusive it is to the match-going fan all depend on where you are too.
So how are PGMOL approaching all of this?
Then we got technical, with an excellent Q&A with the poor chap whose job it is to manage all of the Premier League referees on a weekly basis which explained how they have approached this innovation. Key is the fact that they are determined to faff less than we’ve seen across the globe with other implementations. The biggest surprise is that it seems the referees actually do work for a living beyond match day. Therapeutic windows and calibrating decisions and all kinds of scientific sh*t. Who knew! Michael Oliver sounds nothing like you’d expect, and apparently Jon Moss is actually nice. Our referees are a pleasure to work with so far as the technicians are concerned, who spend a lot of time out with FIFA and the Champions League too.
My first question - this handball sh*t we saw in the Champions League. Where if your thumb so much as twitched the other side got a penalty. Not happening, so far as the Premier League is concerned, they promise.
Then we got to have a go
So we got to pretend to be a VAR official in the suite. This is broadly what happens:
You have a top screen showing you the game in real time. Always.
And there is a bottom screen. Everything on that is running on a three second delay to give the official time to clock something in real time, then look down to watch it again from multiple angles.
Those angles are determined by Hawk-Eye technicians sitting next to them, who have access to between 12 and 20-odd cameras depending on whether or not a game is being televised. If it's the latter end, there are two of them. They’re incredibly switched on, and mostly know what a VAR man is going to want pulled as they watch the game too, but the official has a green button that he can punch to bookmark a point that they can immediately jump back to for him. He also has a red button which sadly does not power a comedy ejector seat, but patches him through to the match referee’s headset.
If he punches green, the first thing the technicians give the VAR official is the clip at normal speed so that he can gauge the intensity. Then come the slow-mos. There’s a joke about men and multitasking in here somewhere, but while all of this is going on, the AVAR man is still watching real time in case any MORE incidents take place.
I had numerous shots at working with David, a Blue technician, in pulling out incidents and running them. Including this 3D offside thing, which he pulled off in nine seconds and definitely (unfortunately) placed Mane onside in one of the Scouse games last season. Note. David will never be allowed to work on a Chelsea game. Just like the officials, the technicians are not allowed to work on their own clubs. Life in the hub is fast paced, it’s a team effort, and it requires a phenomenal level of concentration. Sometimes David gets to the end of a game and he’s been so focused on the technical process of monitoring for discrepancies and running them for the VAR official, that he doesn’t know what the score is.
One thing that became apparent is that you are not going to remove the spontaneous, subjective human aspect from the football. In fact, you are adding multiple layers of subjectivity to the fray. Up to four more people. Because in the heat of the moment you have the VAR official, one, or two technicians depending on the number of cameras at a game, as well as the AVAR all ascertaining in their own opinion, as a team, whether or not, for sentence, the referee’s actions constitute “clear and obvious” errors. Not only that, but quickly and without time for second thought, at the console I had to declare where I thought the passage of play started that led to my chosen incident. To be nice and vague, phase of play determinations include any combination or instance of: gaining possession, ability of the defence to re-set, immediacy, and the defence gaining possession. This is another thing I predict controversy on. Just how far back do you go?
VAR, to my mind, is basically a new way of doing things that utilises technology, but it isn’t going to fix football’s issues. In my opinion, at least at the beginning it is just going to create new ones. We don’t have the lackadaisical luxury of cricket, and the Premier League simply aren’t willing to operate matches at the speed of the egg-chasers. It is going to be an immense learning curve for absolutely every “stakeholder” in the game. That said, PGMOL and the Premier League are as ready as they will ever be. You can’t say that a monumental amount of thought, investigation, training, not to mention money has gone into it. One thing is for sure, the next few weeks are going to be bumpy while it beds in, and they know that. I expect I’ll hate it when it goes against us, and love it when it doesn’t. Just like every fan out there. Either way, I don’t think we’ll be able to judge VAR’s worth on a week in, week out basis in the league before Christmas. For me, still concerned about a number of things that threaten to impact my enjoyment at the stadium.