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Premier League Rules Review: Let’s Talk About VAR

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It’s all we have. But is it any good?

Leicester City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
Ironically, this image is of Leicester’s goal being chalked off. This ruling was not especially controversial as half the team were offisde.
Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Since the Spurs match, I’ve been asked by literally several people about the use of VAR on offside calls in Premier League matches. Well, perhaps “asked” is the wrong word. Most of the conversations have started with the phrase “VAR is ruining the game!” which isn’t a question by even the most generous definition, but it’s often followed by several questions.

There’s no doubt that VAR had a massive impact on the match against Spurs and it feels appropriate to try to answer some of the questions regarding the how VAR has been implemented, both in general and specifically relating to that match. Let’s do this as a dialog. If it’s good enough for Socrates, it’s good enough for me!

Arsenal FC v Aston Villa - Premier League
“I drank what?”
Photo by Mark Leech/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

VAR is ruining the game!

That’s not a question.

Fair enough. Is VAR ruining the game?

No. VAR is not a rule or even an interpretation of a rule; it’s a tool to try to more accurately enforce the rules. You might as well ask “Are telescopes ruining astronomy?”

But it’s awful! Look at the call that ruled out the Spurs goal. That was too close to call, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it was really close, but then, so is goal-line technology. Goals are given or chalked off for distances of just millimeters. Everyone seems to be OK with that.

But it wasn’t a clear and obvious error! Shouldn’t the goal have been allowed to stand?

No. That’s not the standard for offside calls in the age of VAR. Here’s the Premier League guideline for offside:

Where there is a clear and obvious goalscoring opportunity and the assistant referee is not certain whether the attacker actively involved is in an offside position, the assistant should delay indicating the offence until the phase of play has concluded.

But shouldn’t the attacker be given the benefit of the doubt?

They are! Read the guideline again. If there’s an attack on and the call is close, the assistant referee is to keep their flag down and let the attack play out. Prior to VAR, they may well have raised their flag incorrectly and, once that happens, the attack is over. The way the Premier League uses VAR for offside gives the attacker the benefit of the doubt and, if they score, only then is the potential offside call checked with VAR.

This broke my heart because there is no one on the planet happier when they score a goal than Wilfred Ndidi.

So VAR got the call right on Saturday?

Yes*.

Is see you used an asterisk there. You have a caveat or two?

There are limits to the accuracy of VAR. Here’s the article in case anyone else is interested. The gist is that the cameras used for VAR take images at a rate of 50 per second. That’s fast, but it’s slow enough that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint exactly where the players are when the pass is played.

The author reaches the conclusion that this means that using VAR to rule on tight offside calls is nonsense.

That makes sense. Is it right?

Nah. The author makes a few clear and obvious errors.

The VAR cameras operate at a rate of 50 frames per second. In most situations, that is at least as good and generally better than what human eyeballs can perceive. We could talk about extreme amounts of light and Bloch’s Law, but let’s not go there right now.

In addition to capturing images at a higher rate than the human eye, VAR allows the referee to freeze the images, something an assistant referee cannot do in real time. The point is that, while it is certainly flawed, VAR is unquestionably more accurate than an assistant referee watching the match unfold in real time.

So, while their math is correct, they fail to take into account the fact that VAR is still vastly better than the human eye when it comes to making these calls and that seems really important, doesn’t it?

So we’re good with how VAR used on Saturday?

Well, obviously I’m happy with the result. I don’t think there’s any question that VAR was used correctly as per the Premier League guidelines and it produced the most accurate result possible.

But to be honest? I still hate the way it’s implemented. I love the fact that attacks are allowed to proceed rather than seeing them stopped prematurely with incorrect calls. But, in those cases, at least the attacking team knew immediately that the flag was up.

Now a team gets the ball in the back of the net, celebrations are had, tweets are sent and then, several minutes later, they find out that it wasn’t a goal. That’s terrible. It sure looked as if it took the wind out of Tottenham’s sails. While there are few teams I’d rather see with wind-free sails, I’d complain up a storm if it happened to us.

How can it be fixed?

I don’t know. I’m on the periphery of technology and sports, so I can speculate, but I don’t really know what can or should be done. I know it needs to be faster. Perhaps machine learning can be employed to identify where player are and draw lines on the screen quickly rather than asking the poor video ref to try to line things up.

Certainly 50 fps is by no means the highest frame rate possible for a camera. Should the league see the need to do so, better cameras can be deployed. Looking to the future, it is possible to use software to interpolate images between the frames based on the acceleration of the objects in the image.

Too much tech, not enough football!

Again, that’s not a question, but you’re right. Maybe we go back to letting the assistant referee make the call and use VAR to overrule it if there’s a “clear and obvious error”. We’d see more attacks stopped incorrectly, but maybe it would be a better fan experience?

You’re not convinced, are you?

No, I’m not. In addition to dealing with additional errors up front when the assistant flags for offside incorrectly, you now have added the judgement component of what constitutes a “clear and obvious error”. What is that? An inch offside? Six inches? You’ve created a standard based on a description rather than a metric, so if you think what we have now is arbitrary, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

So in the end, what’s the verdict on VAR?

It’s terrible, but it’s the best system currently possible. At the end of the day, aren’t we moaning about a call that was very close but ultimately correct? Isn’t that better than moaning about dropping points due to an incorrect call? Speed it up, improve the resolution, and I don’t think anyone will have any problem with it.


As this is a controversial subject, I don’t expect my fellow Fosse Posse-ites to agree, so let me make it plain that my opinions are my own. What about you?

Poll

What do you think about how VAR is currently implemented in the Premier League?

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    It’s great! Getting the call right is worth the extra time and uncertainty on the pitch!
    (5 votes)
  • 46%
    They should let the assistant make the call and only overrule it in the case of a "clear and obvious error."
    (7 votes)
  • 20%
    It’s awful. Just let the assistant flag it as they see it and get on the with match.
    (3 votes)
15 votes total Vote Now