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How We Can Make VAR Work – Inspiration From European Neighbours

The words ‘Video Assistant Referee’ in the 2023/24 Premier League season are seemingly synonymous with feelings of resentment, exasperation, and confusion. Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) and the Premier League implemented the system back in 2019, leaving fans bewildered as to why we continue to have teething problems nearly five years later.

Despite scrutiny of VAR being at its highest in recent memory, it is a concept which can enrich footballing integrity if applied correctly.

We cannot forget calamities such as the robbery of Luiz Diaz’s opening goal against Tottenham or Wolves being denied a decisive stoppage-time penalty after Onana clattered Sasa Kalajdzic on the opening day of the season.

However, the warranted criticism around VAR should not be targeted at the use of video replays to enhance decisions but the system these videos are used in. Their current application to Premier League games is where inaccuracies are exposed.

VAR is not a lost cause and through comparing the haphazard Premier League approach to the more succinct administration in La Liga, Seria A, and the Bundesliga, we can find inspiration to improve VAR decisions closer to home.

La Liga upgrading their offside technology

VAR’s introduction was meant to quash any uncertainty over objective footballing decisions, such as offside calls, which are firmly based in facts. Nonetheless, the aforementioned Diaz goal versus Tottenham and Akanji’s offside involvement in Nathan Ake’s goal against Fulham both highlight the PGMOL’s inefficiency to decide a factually accurate outcome using VAR.

The Premier League’s archaic offside system of cumbersomely deciphering the moment of the ‘kick point’ or when the ball left the assisting players foot, to superimposing offside lines from skewed camera angles (which also vary depending on the stadium) has allowed subjectivity and inconsistency to creep into what should be a straightforward decision.

1,230 miles south of the UK, La Liga has taken the leap to upgrade its offside decision in the 2024/25 season by introducing a game changing tool – semi-automatic offside technology.

Following the lead of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, which saw the first use of this offside system which became a glowing success. The system is both quicker and provides more accurate offside outcomes by using AI and ball tracking technology to aid in decision making.

The Adidas Al Rihla Pro Football, introduced to help offside tecnology at the FIFA 2022 World Cup

For example, all offside lines are now constructed virtually using 29 data points from a player’s physical body. By closely tracking player’s movements and outstretched limbs to this high level, the most accurate offside lines possible can be drawn and offending players can be tracked to the millimetre to see if they encroach this line.

Moreover, La Liga will have the pleasure of using similar tecnology to the Adidas Al Rihla Pro football which provides even more data for offside calls. Using sensors within the football which can send data 500 times per second will aid in establishing the exact ‘kick-point’ for offside calls in a far superior way than the naked human eye used in the Premier League.

Whilst being more efficient the soon to be introduced technology will make offside decisions a matter of seconds over time. Luis Diaz’s opener against Tottenham crucially suffered from a lack of immediacy which would be remedied with the semi-automated technology.  

Despite some calling La Liga’s choice a gamble, it is a decision which will provide more stability and certainty to VAR offside calls. The Premier League and PGMOL should take note and investigate the implementation of this offside tool which can help restore VAR’s objective nature.

Serie A training VAR specialists

The PGMOL has started to release the audio recordings of particular VAR decisions in an effort to achive greater transparency. Nevertheless, this move has also highlighted the complete lack of cohesion and proficiency of many decision makers.

A review of the incident involving Onana potentially conceding a penalty to Wolves and the accompanying audio for this decision shows a clear lack of VAR understanding to direct referee Simon Hooper to the pitch side monitor.

The VAR system again proved faulty shown in the audio released regarding Luis Diaz’s wrongly disallowed goal. There was a complete disregard for communication between the VAR officials and the on-field referee to delay the game so that an adequate goal check could be completed before the game restarted.

Michael Sailsbury, the Video Assistant Referee in the Onana incident, is no stranger to VAR controversy having been dropped previously for an error in the Brighton vs Tottenham game of April 2023.

There seems to be a growing trend in the Premier League of temporarily dropping referees for shocking VAR decisions only to welcome them back several weeks later, such as the cases of Anthony Taylor and Darren England. As displayed in the case of Michael Sailsbury, this is only going to create repeated mistakes as referees face a tame punishment for a detrimental lack of VAR proficiency.

Anthony Taylor was dropped to the Championship for a VAR mistake only to return a week later for Luton v Liverpool

Seria A has been much more responsive facing a similar issue. The Italian Referees Association decided to launch a specialist course in VAR for new referees in 2022.

This essentially changes the trajectory of many refereeing models. Instead of simply placing former matchday referees into VAR studios, Serie A recognises the speciality and key differences between a pitchside referee compared to remote refereeing such as VAR.

Whilst the Premier League is facing a shortage of referees with Referees’ chief, Howard Web, trying to recruit ex-players to bolster refereeing options, recycling referees and ex-players is not a sustainable solution. Rather than remoulding from the past Serie A is crafting something innovative and special for future VAR personnel.

Building consistency and fan trust in the Bundesliga

Since VAR’s introduction, no other league has used it more frequently than the Premier League. On top of this Howard Web has also urged officials to call on VAR further, investigating even more contentious calls.

Yet, through all of this, the Premier League refereeing system is becoming ever more dependent on VAR rather than using the video tool as an aid to supplement referees.  

By interrogating every degree of contentiousness in Premier League fixtures VAR has destabilised the consistency provided by a referee’s sole on-field decision, producing volatility in football outcomes.

This same lack of consistency has brewed distrust between fans and officials as 63.3% of fans in 2023 oppose VAR as the situation comes to a boiling point.

In comparison, the Bundesliga has reached a far more harmonious balance. Firstly, VAR is used less and in a more supplementary way, hence why it is just called ‘Video Assist’ in Germany.

A look at how ‘Video Assist’ is set up at the Bundesliga VAR Centre in Cologne

This means on-field refereeing decisions stand more strongly for themselves, creating more consistency and only being corrected when they are clearly and objectively wrong.

Tom Janicot, Director of the video supplier for the Bundesliga VAR centre in Cologne, stressed how the technological set up of the Bundesliga VAR system does not pressure officials to use VAR simply because it is available.

Instead, a more holistic approach is encouraged which aims to envision VAR as a part of a much larger refereeing framework, something which the Premier League could learn from with its VAR dependent approach.

The less frequent but calculated use of VAR has also pleased fans. Disruptions to the flow of the game have been minimised and the Bundesliga have also set up an app (set to launch in 2024) which looks to inform fans instantly of the reasoning behind decisions.

The technical level of the app will have to be analysed after it is effective, but connecting fans and officials in real time will hopefully instil greater tolerance for VAR decisions rather than the fierce resentment fostered in the UK.

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