Can the Video Assistant Referee be improved?
The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is fast becoming the most controversial issue in the footballing world. In stark contrast to the seamless introduction of Goal Line Technology, VAR has proved divisive with many influential figures within the game already pushing for it to be banned.
So what actually does VAR mean at the moment?
VAR has already been trialled in a number of domestic cup games in England and involves an extra official stationed off site with access to stadium cameras and existing goal-line technology views. The VAR is the one to intervene when a ‘clear and obvious error is made’, crucially not when the referee requires clarification. Such an intervention can occur in the following 4 instances; goals, red cards, penalties and mistaken identities. There are two scenarios, first a factual error such as an offside call where the VAR recommends a decision change and second where the VAR recommends the on-field referee re-watches the footage of an incident and makes his own independent decision.
It is worth noting here that there is nothing flawed about the technology itself. The problems arise from the way in which the footage is interpreted and utilised by the team of officials. There have clearly been some serious teething issues.
Mata’s disallowed goal
Juan Mata’s disallowed goal has now become infamous, ruled out for a reviewed offside call in Manchester United’s 2-0 5th Round FA Cup victory over Huddersfield this season. Viewers on BT Sport were presented with a series of lines, one of which looking particularly wavy and far from parallel to the penalty box (this was confirmed as an error, the VAR was provided with the correct images).
Despite this confusion, Mata was still shown to be a few inches of his knee-cap offside and the decision of a goal was subsequently overruled. Tweaks to FIFA advice on the offside law has led referees and those running the line to err on giving the benefit of the doubt to the attacker, almost farcically in this instance the opposite occurred.
A potential VAR tweak
Football would do well to learn from the implementation of technology in other sports, in this case cricket. In the case of leg before wicket dismissals, a multiple stage review occurs with the final portion being the ball tracking technology to determine whether the ball would have hit the stumps. Crucially, the evidence must be conclusive to overturn the decision, i.e the ball completely missing the stumps or hitting them with more than half the ball.
The technology is there primarily to prevent a horror decision rather than to overturn close or debatable calls. In the case of an offside, VAR should be adapted to focus on the instance where a player is clearly on or offside, not where it is a matter of inches (this should remain with the onfield referee). A system where the attacker’s whole body is ahead or behind the last defender is where decisions should be overturned, not in the case of the marginal.
This would certainly remove the possibility of another Mata debacle, but the most pressing need in this trial period is greater clarity. What is required is a clear communication to fans attending the game, and for those watching in the comfort of their homes. Only then can we give a truly fair assessment of whether VAR and technology of any kind can be beneficial to the modern football game.