VAR has been called a lot of things over the course of the first 27 match weeks of the Premier League campaign, with most of the terms used being, shall we say, less than endearing. It was inevitable that there would be some bumps along the road. I am sure most anticipated that just by the basic nature of one side benefiting and one not, and every decision made by the invisible man at Stockley Park, that VAR would be an emotional roller coaster. However, one thing that almost every fan will agree on, regardless of whether VAR has helped or hurt their favorite team during the previous weekend, is that the first season of VAR in the Premier League has been, at the very least, controversial.
But it did not have to be.
The Premier League was one of the last major European Leagues to implement VAR technology. This meant that they had a plethora of available information from those who had gone before them regarding the issues they faced, and thus how to review and learn for future use.
But they didn’t.
In fact, some who have knowledge of the PGMOL and their adoption and implementation of VAR, have suggested that sheer arrogance essentially prevented them from having the slightest inclination to learn from their predecessors, believing that their way would be the best way.
They were wrong.
Week after week, controversy after controversy, VAR’s reputation in the Premier League has plummeted. Despite meetings during pre-season with teams, coaches, and media members to explain their system and processes- as well as follow-up meetings to discuss the progression throughout the season- the PGMOL, and specifically PGMOL GM Mike Riley (the man in charge), have been unable to recognize and correct any of its innumerable issues. Now the discussions about the ramifications of this unmitigated disaster for Mike Riley and the PGMOL are discussions that can be had another day. The question we have to answer is twofold. What is wrong? And how do we fix it?
There are some who have suggested that VAR is broken beyond repair and should just be completely scrapped, never to see the light of day again. Am I someone who agrees with this opinion? No, not at all. In fact, the basic concept of VAR is one that should be embraced globally. With the game growing, more and more higher-caliber athletes are arriving on the scene, which in turn leads to the game being played faster. This means officials will have more decisions to make in less time- this leads me to believe that with the growth of the game and increase in the speed of the players, another set of eyes is a good thing. But what Mike Riley and the PGMOL cannot seem to figure out, is just how to use those eyes correctly. So I figured I would try to give them some assistance.
Step 1…Recognize and Admit the Problem
Now, I have been fortunate enough to not only coach this beautiful game for 12, going on 13 years, but I have also been able to officiate for about 10 years. In the large scheme of things, this does not mean a whole lot, but it has allowed me to work on both sides of the touchline, and afforded me the ability to view the game from multiple perspectives- as a former player, as a coach, and as an official. As I explained in the last paragraph, I am pro-VAR and I believe, whether you view the game as a player, coach, or official, getting things correct should be something everyone is on board with. So how exactly did the PGMOL take something that should be nothing but a positive for the game, and turn it into the dysfunctional disaster it has become?
In order to fully understand where the PGMOL have gone array, you first have to understand the basic structure and roles of officiating. Every Premier League game is staffed by four on-site officials, one Center Referree, two AR’s (assistant referees) and one Fourth official. These four individuals make up the team assigned to each specific match. Yes, I said team, and just like every other team, each has their specific roles and responsibilities.
The Fourth Official
The job of the Fourth official is not quite as simple as some may think it is, and the term “Fourth official” may actually work against them. Fourth officials are probably most recognizable whilst holding up substitution boards, but their responsibilities are much greater than that.
The Fourth official serves as a reserve, and in the event of something preventing either the Center, or one of the AR’s from continuing the match, the Fourth official would step into the vacant role. The Fourth official is also responsible for handling substitutions and communicating added time. The Fourth is also responsible for the technical areas, benches, players, and coaches on both teams. They also serve as the contact point for both coaches when issues or questions arise about any refereeing decisions.
The Assistant Referee (AR)
The two Assistant Referee’s (AR’s) in a Premier League setting have a relatively small, but very important, scope of responsibilities. The AR’s are positioned on the opposite sideline, and in the opposite half of their counterpart. This is by design to ensure the entire field is covered by a second set of eyes at all times (there is a whole theory behind the Diagonal System of Control that you can look into if you are into those things). Although they are often referred to as “linesman”, this somewhat undersells their jobs. First, look at their areas of control, each of the AR’s are responsible for: 1) The entire touchline they are standing on 2) the half of the field they are positioned in, and 3) the goal line on their half of the field. (See image below)
Now the majority of their responsibility with these areas does have to do with the touchline and goal lines (determining when the ball goes out of play and who it is off of/who gets possession), but they are also responsible for offside decisions on their half of the field, and foul calls in their half- but with a very important caveat that I will get to momentarily.
The Center Referee is (supposed to be) the person in charge of the game, plain and simple. They are given the responsibility of managing the entire game and ensuring all laws of the game are kept and enforced by all parties, players, coaches, staff members, and fans. There are the obviously well-known aspects of assessing fouls and discipline to the players during the game, keeping the official time and deciding on the amount of additional time needed, and ensuring all players and qualified to be on the field by both equipment and medical standards.
Now given that Premier League pitches are normally somewhere between 90-110 meters long (100-120 yards for the non-metric audience) and 70-95 meters wide (75-105 yards) with 20 players scattered about, expecting one person to be able to cover the entire area and spot any and all infractions is simply not realistic. This is where the AR’s responsibility kicks in. In the event of the referee being out of position, or just simply blocked or unable to see infractions, the AR is able to recognize fouls and other infractions. The key piece to this relationship however, is the understanding that the AR’s decisions are only meant to be suggestions to the Center, and the ultimate decision still lies in the hands of the Center. Now, a very large majority of the time, the Center will go along with the recommendation of the AR, but there are occasional instances when they will not. Typically these come in scenarios where the Center will allow an advantage to play on after an offside decision where the defending team recovers the ball, or a foul where a teammate of the fouled player continues on with the advantage. In these instances, a good Center will show advantage, and acknowledge the raised flag of the AR so that it is known what the Center is doing. What this does is allow the AR’s decision to be recognized, but keeps the final decision in the hands of the Center.
The importance of teamwork and accountability cannot be understated. All of the officials must work together as a unit, with the AR’s and Fourth doing their jobs to assist the Center in the successful officiating of the match.
The Premise of VAR
As I stated earlier, I am a fan of VAR at the rudimentary level. Having technology available to see things that even the most trained human eye cannot, is beneficial to the game and to the officiating team- theoretically turning a team of four, into a team of five.
The question is and always has been, in regards to it’s use and implementation. How do you modify a structure (the four man team) that has existed for so long and keep the same continuity?
The verdict on how to do this reached by Mike Riley and the PGMOL, was to have what equates to a second separate, officiating team, watching over the match in a video room at Stockley Park. This, in itself, is not an issue. They then implemented a set of “criteria” that would need to be met for the second team to interject into the match. Again, not the worst idea, slightly flawed, but not the worst idea. They then made the decision to turn over the decision-making power to the second team when the specific criteria were met. This is where they went wrong.
What’s In a Name? …Everything
Go back with me to the roles within an officiating team; the Center, AR, and Fourth. Now add in the VAR team, as a unit, to be the fifth member of the team. That would make the team look like:
- 1 Center
- 1 VAR
- 2 AR’s
- 1 Fourth
Do you see the connection yet? If you don’t, just read out the full term for VAR a few times, Video Assistant Referee, Video Assistant Referee, Video ASSISTANT REFEREE.
Things starting to click now?
What was the most important thing about the relationship within the team between the Center, and the 2 touchline AR’s?
“The key piece to this relationship however, is the understanding that the AR’s decisions are only meant to be suggestions to the Center, and the ultimate decision still lies in the hands of the Center”.
Somewhere along the line, Mike Riley and the PGMOL forgot the key component of the officiating team dynamic: AR’s and Fourth officials are there to fill their roles in support of the Center, not in place of, and the final decision is always in the hands of the Center official.
I have seen this dynamic broken first hand on several occasions, even without VAR. Here in the U.S., and specifically Florida where I live, a decision was made to allow AR’s, at certain levels, to have whistles and cards. Given what we know about referees, I am sure most of you can figure out how this went wrong. Fortunately, it has not happened to me, but I have been at matches as a coach and spectator where friends of mine were given charge of the match as the Center official, with AR’s carrying cards and whistles. On too many occasions, I have seen the effect when they are undermined by egotistical assistants stopping play unnecessarily and issuing cards (including a red in a very important match) that were completely unwarranted. Now what happens immediately after this? Coaches begin complaining, or just straight up lose it, and their vitriol is directed at who? Not the AR who made the decision, but the Center who now has to defend a decision that they do not agree with, simply because it cannot be undone. The dynamic of the officiating team, and the dynamic of the respect between coach/players and the official, is broken.
Want a more relatable example? Go back a few weeks to Wolves v. Leicester at Molineux on Valentines night, where Wolves first half goal by Wily Boly was ruled out due to a marginal offside prior to the cross. As the players walked off at the half, Wolves captain Connor Coady confronted referee Mike Dean in a heated exchange that was caught on camera, at least on the US feed. Coady was asking for an explanation of the decision to rule out the Boly goal, but since the decision was made by VAR, Mike Dean did not have an answer for Coady, and simply had to defend the decision made by VAR without having seen it himself. Coady was understandably incensed and left Dean with a few more expletive-laced remarks as he walked down the tunnel, and concluded his tirade with a scathing post-match interview after the game finished 0-0.
Coady had a right to be angry, but the thing to understand here is that Coady’s anger was not fueled by the decision, but by the fact that it had been made by someone other than Mike Dean. Add to that that Mike Dean could not even give Coady an explanation of the reasoning behind the decision, but still had to defend it, without having seen it himself. At that moment, Mike Dean’s position in control of the match was gone in the eyes of every Wolves player. Or put another way, what good is the Referee if he cannot even explain the biggest decision of the game?
Step 2…Fix the Problem
Now that we have identified, in about 15 minutes, what the PGMOL have not been able to identify through 540 Premier League matches this season, how do we fix it?
For me, the solution is amazingly simple. Treat the VAR as the Assistant Referee its own name suggests, and stop re-refereeing the game from a video room at Stockley Park.
How? Simple. Go back to the now infamous Lo Celso no-call in the Chelsea/Spurs game. In a world where VAR were used properly, I imagine the situation would have gone something like this:
(Michael Oliver was the Center for this match, David Coote was the lead VAR)
After the Lo Celso Foul…
Coote: (into Oliver’s ear) “Hey Michael, hang on a second”
Coote: “That Lo Celso tackle did not look good on our end, you may want to take a look at it”
Oliver: “Okay no problem”
Coote: “Okay we will que up the monitor for you”
(Oliver jogs the 10 yards over to the monitor)
Oliver: “Okay what are we looking at here?”
Coote: “Lo Celso comes in pretty hard and high on the leg there, do you see it?”
Oliver: “Yeah, I do see that. Looks pretty bad. Definitely did not see that in real time”
Coote: “Took us a second but we caught it. Might be Serious Foul Play? What do you think?”
Oliver: “Yeah that is bad. I agree, looks like Serious Foul Play to me”
Coote: “Okay so then Lo Celso is off for Serious Foul Play”
Oliver: “Yep, straight red for Serious Foul Play”
Coote: “Okay, we have it on our end”
Oliver: “Okay, I will let Frank and Jose know, Thanks guys”
(Since Michael Oliver is already on the touchline between the benches, as he walks back toward the field he summons Frank Lampard and Jose Mourinho to him, along with the Fourth Official)
Oliver: “Okay so we have a stamp on the shin of Azpilicueta from Lo Celso. Missed it in real time but VAR caught it and I just saw it again. It’s going to be a straight Red for Serious Foul Play.”
(The Fourth official communicates the decision to the stadium officials for display or announcement to the crowd. Oliver returns to the field, summons Lo Celso, and shows him the Red, and if he feels the necessity, summons both team captains to explain the decision to them)
The total time for the scenario above to play out? Likely somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-4 minutes with a long estimate. But what does this change? Everything! The Center official remains in charge of the game and has made the decision himself. Both Coaches have been told the decision and the reasoning behind it from the person who made it. The VAR has served its purpose as an assistant referee and helped the Center make the correct decision. The crowd in the stadium and broadcasters are relayed the information from the Fourth official who received the decision directly from the Center, along with both coaches. And if the Center feels it is necessary, both captains on the field have been told the decision to relay to the rest of the players.
Can there still be controversy from the scenario above? Yes, of course. The decisions are all made by humans who can, and do make mistakes. However, by the simple act of viewing the incident on the pitch side monitor and conferring with the VAR official about what they believed to be the issue, the Center can take ownership of his decision, and at the very least, be able to explain his decision, if not significantly reduce the potential of making the wrong call.
Now, as I hinted at earlier, there is still the question of what justifies VAR interjection and what the bar for interjection is. There will always be some grey area, but it is pretty much a consensus opinion, at least in the Premier League, that current standards are flawed and need to be addressed and changed. There have been many suggestions thrown about regarding just how to do this, changing the mindset of VAR officials from that of an all-seeing, all-knowing refereeing god to that of a technologically-enhanced AR. Along with adding a healthy dose of training and common sense, this would be a step in the right direction. However, the bottom line is, until Mike Riley and the PGMOL come up with a system that restores the control of the match back to the on-site Center official, VAR controversies are going nowhere.