Now that the FA and English football in general have finally followed a host of other sports, albeit several years later, and are finally starting to trial the use of video replays to support on-field decision-making, it seems like a relevant juncture to examine how this has been working in its initial series of matches.
The FA, EFL and Premier League agreed to trial Video Assistant Referees (VAR), in selected cup matches this January and while the intention seems sensible and logical, the initial implementation, even at this early testing stage, has thrown up some major issues that will need to be ironed out if the supportive technology is to be rolled out in coming seasons.
The stated intention of the use of VAR is that it is only to be used “to correct clear errors and for missed serious incidents” in “match-changing” situations; this is then specified further to cover: goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identities.
The first run of matches in which VAR has been trialed has already stirred up plenty of controversy and generated a number of talking points, leading BBC pundit Alan Shearer to label the system in its current format “a shambles”.
The first couple of matches which used VAR in a live environment passed off relatively incident free. However, in the Carabao Cup Semi-Final First Leg between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge there was a feeling that referee Martin Atkinson had used it too frequently; referring a total of four incidents for review when perhaps at most two merited further consideration, and even in those instances it was merely to confirm the correct decision had been made. There was also confusion amongst fans both at the ground and watching on television as they weren’t aware of what was happening.
VAR did have its first major success in the FA Cup Third Round Replay at the King Power Stadium when Kelechi Iheanacho’s second half goal was correctly awarded after replays demonstrated he was in an onside position that may not have been correctly seen by the linesman. Just 24 hours later, however, matters became farcical, when in Chelsea’s replay against Norwich, referee Graham Scott incurred the ire of Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, BBC pundit Shearer and just about anyone else commenting on the game, when perhaps mindful of the criticism levelled at his colleague at the same venue just a week previously, failed to err on the side of caution and opted not to use the system in situations where it was clearly merited.
Despite Chelsea having two players sent off, the real issue of contention centred on a penalty appeal after Willian went down in the box, which referee Scott opted to wave away preferring to rely on his own judgement in isolation and subsequently booked the Brazilian for simulation. It was later revealed that there was contact and a clear case for a penalty. Without VAR it would have been accepted, reluctantly, as an error but because the technology was available, it screams the question as to why he opted not to use it?
In essence the situations in which both referees Atkinson and Scott found themselves reflects the inherent difficulty in the use of video replay technology in sport, specifically the tricky issue of when to use it and when to allow the referee’s judgement to stand?
While the powers that be have clearly specified what types of incident can be reviewed, does this necessitate that every goal, penalty appeal or potential red card needs to be reviewed? (Note- I am leaving out the thankfully rare incidences of mistaken identity that occur during the normal run of things). If we were to review each one of these as and when they happen, this could potentially result in too many breaks in the game, killing the momentum and flow of the match, something that football prides itself on over and above comparable sports.
If we are not going to review every incident then how do we decide which ones merit further attention? Some sports such as tennis and some of the American sports have an appeals system whereby the player or coach has a finite number of challenges to calls that are made during the events of the game. This is certainly one potential solution but not only raises the issue of what happens if a clear error is made and the manager has used up his allocation of challenges? It also potentially lays the process open to abuse by unscrupulous managers who might add it to their armoury of dark arts alongside time-wasting and tactical fouling as a further means to intentionally disrupt the game. Mentioning no names of course!
Perhaps the most sensible proposal has been that the fourth official or someone else watching in the stands alerts the referee as to when a review is necessary; that way the referee carries on as normal unless alerted otherwise.
The other key issue that needs to be addressed is to how to engage supporters in the review process? So far, we have been ‘treated’ to the sight of the official standing with his hand to his earpiece to hint that a decision has been referred upstairs. Other sports show the actual footage being reviewed to both those watching in the stadium and on TV, which actually adds an air of drama to the proceedings, as fans consider and debate the incident themselves. Although in the sterile modern football world, where clubs refuse to show any potentially controversial incident on the big screens for fear it might lead to a riot, we still feel like we are a fair distance away from being able to do likewise.
It has taken years for football to catch up with other sports in the use of technology and the introduction of VAR should be welcomed. If anything though the trial so far has shown that some more thinking is needed as to when it is used and how this is communicated to those watching.