Can the Premier League Embrace Soft-Touch VAR?
The massive mark left by the Euros is expected to last for many, many years to come. It was, in many ways, a tournament characterised by the unexpected – by the thrilling consequences of a chance meeting between two players – as much as it was by the skill of all involved.
It was also, for the most part, an exemplar of the positives that VAR technology can bring to the pitch – even for those who have, thus far, resisted its growing influence over matches. Aside from a couple of questionable decisions – most notably, the decision to hand Raheem Sterling a pretty controversial penalty against Denmark, which ultimately led to Denmark’s departure from the semi-finals.
Still, between some exemplary on-pitch refs to what was, for the most part, a pretty benign influence from VAR, the Euros represented an opportunity for fans and players to experience the very best of refereeing over the course of four highly anticipated weeks this summer.
And, of course, as the dust has begun to settle on those stadiums spread between Rome, Baku, London, Munich, St Petersburg, Bucharest, Budapest, and Sevilla, many of us have begun to look ahead to the new Premier League season, now less than a month away.
More specifically, we are projecting those lingering feelings of pride, excitement and respect for the game – stemming not only from the players but, of course, from the refereeing too – onto our expectations for this upcoming season.
Those old qualms with VAR seem far away – but could they be waiting just around the corner, in the upcoming 2021 – 2022 premier league season? Read more below.
Learning from the Euros
It shouldn’t be overlooked that England, despite their dominance and intent on scoring a winner before penalties, did benefit from the decision to label the challenge on Raheem Sterling as a foul. They won the game and went on to the Euro 2020 final. When we look at the favourites before the tournament, England were expected to make it to the semi-final stage, minimum. The bookies tell us that talent will be favoured despite adversity. However, going through via a marginal penalty call suggests that they were lucky. (Of course, though, all champions need luck.) The Euros, despite and because of all the positive discourse surrounding the refereeing at the tournament, showed the world how important it is to ensure on-field referees are given the correct support to help manage the sport’s fairness.
It’s Got to Be Quicker
One of the key takeaways from the Euros for Premier League fans was how the domestic referees may implement similar practices, namely how to use it less. Complaints over recent years focus on two main things: a) the frequency with which its used and b) the time it takes to resolve a situation.
Both of these issues had been discussed by the transcendental refereeing icon Pierluigi Collina in April of 2021, when he argued that if a decision is marginal and the evidence isn’t clearly confirming or denying a decision – those moments when VAR assistants and the on-field referee are judging if someone’s elbow makes them offside, for instance, or if camera angles makes it very, very difficult to get a clear view of foul contact in the penalty area – then the initial decision should be followed. This kind of approach was adopted for the 2020 Euros, it seems.
Marginal decisions by-and-large, though, were few and far between. Hairline offside decisions weren’t common, and Sterling’s penalty was the most controversial decision of the tournament. However, the speed with which checks happened and were completed was astounding to many fans. It was seamless within the flow of matches. Brief blips when the ball was held up for mere seconds when the goalkeeper was taking a goal-kick, or a player prepared for a throw-in.
A significant contributor to the tournament’s successful use of VAR was the number of people in the VAR studio, observing the games. There were three key referees in the room: the VAR, who is the leader of the team and the one conversing with the on-field referee who helps focus on the game’s incidents; the AVAR, who is the assistant VAR, who follows the match and offers support to the VAR; and, finally, the offside VAR, whose entire purpose is to evaluate offside moments. Three operators are present too who help coordinate footage and general technical ongoings as well as one extra personnel who supports the operates and coordinates between those inside and those outside.
There is only one extra person in the Euros VAR suite as opposed to the Premier League one: the offside VAR. This is a pivotal role missing in the English league’s game. It’s a specialist role which will help cut down the time it takes for a VAR and an AVAR to judge offsides. The offside VAR will be ready to view these incidents as they happen, whereas the other two VARs are looking at multiple applications of the technology.
Offsides are one of the most contentious areas of the game. Arsene Wenger’s suggestions to automate offsides will no doubt help cut-down this time too. The issue with rule changes is that it could result in playstyle adjustments which make the sport more defensive. If the rule was that there had to be clear ‘daylight’ between the offensive player and the last defensive player then teams will defend deeper and deeper, as they would be afforded less margin for error and impetus is with the attacker to routinely hit the space.
Don’t Forget Our Other Gripes
Other areas for discussion revolve around handballs and fouls. This is harder to manage. Football fans know that fouls are only given as fouls outside of the penalty, for instance, because they’d be ‘soft’ penalties. There’s an active discrepancy between what is and isn’t a foul when it comes to giving a team a golden opportunity to score. Could this be an opportunity for FIFA to alter the sport somewhat fundamentally?
As things stand, those that government the world’s most popular sport do want to affect how the sport is played: trial tournaments are held that experiment with short matches, sin bins, and kick-ins. Are penalties, then, one area which should receive new focus? Are they too powerful? If the rules are inconsistent because the frequency with which penalties are given, occur, and change games, then should FIFA and IFAB look at curbing their power by introducing a different penalty, so to speak?
Football is always in a state of evolution and revolution. Clubs rise and fall. Players arrive and disappear. One guarantee is that goals will always be scored, and it’s just a case of whether we like it or not.