It has been presented as a panacea and it is the cornerstone policy of FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s attempts to modernise his organisation, but Video Assistant Referees continue to split the crowd.
After an FA Cup weekend, where the controversial initiative was trialled in anger for the first time in England’s premier cup competition, the effect has been broadly counterproductive. No-one is talking about the football. Everyone is talking about technology and its implementation.
For fans of onfield controversy VAR is the gift that keeps on giving. Like a masterclass in the illustration of the law of unintended consequences, every time a VAR experiment is trialled a new problem either arises. Or an old one re-emerges. Or both.
The issues that predate Liverpool’s 3-2 defeat to West Brom on Saturday were once more out in force.
The flow of the game at Anfield was broken up constantly, and there was confusion in the stadium as referee Craig Pawson conducted his investigations into three controversial moments within the game.
But the biggest takeaway from the recent experiment is the potential for VAR to mess with the fundamental character of the game due to stoppages and their impact on injuries, disputes around implementing added time, and VAR’s impact on time-wasting and therefore the tempo of matches.
For Liverpool’s eventually awarded penalty there was a delay of just shy of four minutes from the initial foul on Mohamed Salah to Roberto Firmino actually hitting his spot kick.
I know, some delay is inevitable with every big decision, but the fact that it took two minutes for the referee to even get to his pitch-side monitor and another 30 seconds to watch assorted replays, simply underlined VAR’s potential for facilitating mayhem and misdeeds.
Then we had two subsequent VAR referrals, both to check West Brom goals (one disallowed, one not). Those stoppages ate up nearly three minutes.
Add in two injuries estimated at about a minute’s duration apiece, and you can see that the first 45 minutes alone should have been extended to somewhere around 52 minutes with the addition of seven and eight minutes of lost time. Nevermind those skipping out early to catch public transport, full-time now could be anyone’s guess.
Real stoppages not withstanding, referee Pawson blew his whistle for the break after only five minutes of added time. You can see, I am sure that if games are deemed to be of increasingly extended or indeed arbitrary length then there will be an impact on results. And we’ll surely see the same tendency towards sour grapes that wrong calls engender – albeit from a different source.
I can already hear losing managers moan: “We were five minutes short on added time. The way we were playing I am sure we’d have got an equaliser if the ref had added it on.” Alternatively you’ll get: “We were done there by the officials. Had they been more efficient with the VAR calls we’d never have conceded that added time goal.”
A few minutes here or there might seem like a very small amount of time, but in a game in which the ball is only in play for about two thirds of the 90 minutes in the first place, where the best players are reliant on the sustained tempo of the play to impose their skills on the game, the effect may be subtle but it is nonetheless profound. VAR will definitely create a different kind of football and with it, a whole new range of problems for managers, players, officials and administrators. I am sure it will have an impact on entertainment because entertainment in football is a function of momentum.
And despite coming out on top on Saturday, West Brom boss Alan Pardew was in no mood to proclaim the VAR experiment a success in his post-match comments.
Pardew is of the opinion that the stoppages at Anfield were at least a contributory factor in hamstring injuries sustained by Kieran Gibbs and Hal Robson-Kanu. His players’ hamstring tweaks occurred not long after the first VAR referral.
Pardew said: “The bigger worry for me was I think it was four or five minutes for the Salah decision. You’re going from high tempo to nothing and we had a hamstring just after that. We’re going to have to change our methods to get our players to mentally do a warm up in that situation or keep ticking over.”
And managing the impact of lengthy stoppages on players’ legs is just one of a number of red flags for Pardew.
He said: “It’s hard to know where to start, you guys are all here and are all experienced reporters and have seen many, many games. I don’t think that’s what you’d want to see going forward.
“Whether you’re a Liverpool fan or a West Brom fan, firstly there’s no communication from the referee to us, like in the NFL, where they tell you they’re going to look at something.
“We didn’t know what the decision was, why it was stopped. Okay, then he reverses the Dawson goal, I think if it wasn’t for the system it would never have been disallowed in any league game, for offside, the fourth official told me.
“Are we going to take away goals, the entertainment of the game, on those slight margins and I think that’s a worry.
“The second one (the penalty), you could argue that Jay has lifted his arm to stop him. you could argue would Salah have got it?”
“It’s just bizarre. There was a lot of Scouse wit from the sideline which I enjoyed, there was wit from our fans as it went on with “VAR, VAR” shouts for every decision. It was a bit strange.
“As a football person on the sideline I wasn’t comfortable with that first half, it was kind of mysterious at times.”
There is now no doubt that despite whatever boons it brings, the introduction of video assistance will have an impact on the game over and beyond the pros and cons of individual decisions.
It definitely has the potential for undermining officials’ authority on the field with players, fans and benches weakening referees’ resolve in the face of intimidatory pleas that they review each and every contentious outcome via a screen.
I can only imagine this facility being put to bad uses by grandmasters of gamesmanship such as Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone – and there is no doubt that the Special One will have been more than an interested observer in the FA Cup experiment with VAR.
Players and coaches alike will see video assistance as a time-wasters’ charter for teams protecting a fragile lead. And also as an opportunity to ‘get inside’ officials’ heads and sow their insidious seeds of doubt.
And what impact will it have on historic home advantage?
Former Liverpool and England midfielder Danny Murphy said on BBC’s Match of the Day: “It helped West Brom, the one thing you want away from home is you want to stop the game, make it stop-start.”
There is also no doubt that in extending the potential length of flashpoints’ duration and the amount of standing around, that the tricky dynamic between players, both sides’ benches and the fans will also be radically altered.
With intense and protracted scrutiny on the field of play, the character and calibre of referees will potentially be diminished. And I suspect we’ll see an impact there in the matter of referees maintaining their general decisiveness, authority and control. Will they duck out of tricky decisions knowing that the safety net of a man in a van or in the stands can make that final, definitive call? And will this drip, drip of doubt seep into other aspects of the officials’ general performance?
There is one thing we know for sure. We won’t know the upshot of all this until video evidence is truly live and we have a decent sized sample of real decisions with real consequences for results.
Surprisingly, one of the most vehement opponents of the proposals as they stand is a man that knows a thing or two about video replays, the veteran BBC and ITV broadcaster Gerald Sinstadt. He has previously used his column in The Stoke Sentinel to condemn what he calls a ‘half-cooked experiment’.
He says: “If a referee awards a penalty which replays prove to be incorrect, a free-kick can be awarded to the defending team. Justice will have been seen to have been done.
“But suppose he has waved away the penalty claim and allowed play to continue? How soon does the video assistant “flag up” an error he believes he has seen? Hopefully, in less than the 10 seconds it might take for a goal to be scored at the other end.
He says: “Here’s another question. Once the video assistant has caused play to be halted, what happens if the slo-mo replay doesn’t confirm what he thought he saw at full speed at the time? And here’s another question. How confident is anybody that replays will always provide a definitive answer within a few seconds? Have we forgotten the half-time pundits reviewing an incident without being able to agree?”
And of course we are all blithely assuming that video assistance will be a panacea but that need not necessarily be true. As the voice of many famous big match commentaries, Gerald Sinstadt says: “Suppose, in the calm of half-time “analysis,” an error is identified that the video assistant did not “flag up”? Where does that leave the system’s credibility?”
With so many questions still up in the air VAR remains a curious work in progress, an experiment that appears to be generating far more potential questions than answers. VAR definitely has the potential to resolve some problems but not without the addition of some new ones all of its own making.
Based on Saturday’s game alone, any suggestion that Video Assistant Referees will see an end to onfield controversy has already been discredited. As it stands the game is looking for a ‘best fit’ solution, a compromise that leads to both to fair outcomes and matches that retain the character of the game as we know and love it. Based on the evidence so far, I genuinely worry that such a compromise does not exist.