• Marc Luther Thomas

Is VAR ruining football?

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

In today's blog, Marc shares his thoughts on one of football's biggest talking points currently - VAR.

Who could've thought three letters could get in people's heads so much?

The introduction of VAR into football was always going to be controversial. It has divided football fans in this country ever since it was introduced into Premier League football at the beginning of the 2019/20 season, and the debate only seems to grow with each passing fixture.

This especially seems to be the case this season, as top-level footballers have begun to voice their VAR grievances publicly. Andy Robertson and James Milner were quick to air their displeasure after Liverpool's star man Mo Salah was denied a potentially winning goal against Brighton recently, thanks to a marginal offside call.

This followed Leeds United's Patrick Bamford, who also had a goal ruled out for offside when pointing to where he wanted the ball to be played in their recent defeat to Crystal Palace. This was an apparent result of the updated handball 'T Shirt' rule, deeming his upper arm as a part of the body which is legally able to play the ball. A ridiculous offside decision, I think we can all agree.

While high profile players adding to the debate will help to bring the issue to the attention of the football authorities, their arguments will only gain credence if they make their points irrespective of whether it has been detrimental to them.

Jack Grealish is another star to recently come out in protest against VAR, saying that it's 'ruining the game' after Ollie Watkins was denied a late equaliser for Aston Villa against West Ham with another tight offside call. Villa weren't quite so vocal when VAR went a long way towards helping their Premier League survival against Sheffield United last season - likewise for Liverpool, who raised no issue throughout their title-winning campaign.

You may have noticed a common theme across the examples I have listed above - offside decisions. Much of the aggro surrounding VAR centres on offside decisions, with the tedious drawing of lines to measure whether someone's toe (or arm, apparently) is millimetres offside. Perhaps, then, it's the offside rule that needs sorting, as opposed to VAR?

There have been calls by some fans to bring in a 'linesman's call' protocol, reminiscent of umpire's call in Cricket, whereby if a decision is so marginal, the decision lies with the on-field official. This is often countered by the 'offside is offside' argument - an argument which majorly grinds my gears.

Offside has been a part of the game for so long now that many fans seem to overlook the reason why it was introduced in the first place - to prevent goal-hanging. The very existence of the rule does just that, so it's important to remember the spirit of the offside rule when engaging in this debate.

I return you to Bamford's offside call a couple of weeks ago - what advantage is he gaining against the defender by pointing for the ball? If we're going to stick with 'offside is offside' and we're going to continue with those VAR lines, the lines should only take into account the players' feet. For most offsides, it's a case of the attacker trying to run in behind, effectively in a foot-race with the defender, so what relevance is the arm, head or torso in this situation?

With the way VAR is currently used in the domestic game, it's hard to disagree with fans who say that it is ruining their enjoyment of the game. The instant elation that we're so used to when our team scores a goal is now always tempered by the worry in the backs of our minds: 'Is there going to be a VAR review?'

However, I firmly believe that the emotive response of simply scrapping VAR is not the answer. The debates around VAR every weekend will simply return to the referee-bashing of before.

I get the impression that when people refer to VAR in this case, they simply see it as a piece of technology. It's important to remember that is still a human - the Video Assistant Referee - who is making these calls. Broadcasters will have the technology to continue to micro-analyse all these contentious incidents, but without always arriving at the correct decision. Fans are a crucial part of the game, but it's important to balance them with the needs of the players. Footballers train all their lives to get to the very top - the cruelty of a player missing out on a trophy, for example, as a result of an incorrect decision, far outweighs the frustration of having to wait a few extra seconds to celebrate a goal in my view.

I look to European leagues and competitions, in which there seems to be far less controversy surrounding VAR, in hope that we can soon replicate their implementation here.

I remain optimistic about VAR in domestic football and believe that with some tweaks to the rules, it can be a consistent success. Such a radical change to the game was always going to take some teething, and we are still only in the second season of its use in the Premier League. I think officials will be somewhat relieved that these recent VAR incidents have taken place without fans in the ground - the issue will likely have been a lot more heated otherwise.

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