VAR technology has already had a monumental impact on football at the highest level, including the World Cup Final. PDP Technical Advisor, Dan Wright examines the impact of VAR, the potential risks and some of the subsequent trends emerging in the beautiful game.
Since its inception football has had many innovations that have shaped the way we play and view the modern game. These changes have come in various forms. There have been large fundamental changes such as the introduction of offsides, the use of substitutes or removing the option to pass back to the goalkeeper. There have also been subtle tweaks of the existing laws and, more recently, the utilisation of technology such as the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). All with the ultimate aim of improving the beautiful game. A recent success story has been the introduction of goal line technology, helping the referee make the right shout and making moments like Frank Lampard’s ghost goal against Germany in 2010, a thing of the past.
The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was used at the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 2018. After 8 years’ worth of trials and learning from the MLS, A League, Bundesliga and Eredivise it was deemed by FIFA that the technology was ready and fit for use. In fact, this tournament became the first competition to use VAR in full: at all matches and in all venues. Interestingly, in April 2018 the English Premier League clubs voted against using VAR in the following season’s competition, requesting more stringent testing through the FA and Carabao Cup.
The concept of VAR seems a logical progression. Most would argue we want the correct decision to be made and for the referee to get the best information possible to get the big decisions correct. When sitting down to watch this year’s World Cup it didn’t take long for VAR to hit the headlines in a group game between Australia and France. French forward Griezmann was through on goal when he went down under a challenge from Joshua Risdon. The referee on the field, Andres Cunha, decided there was no foul as the ball ran through to Australia goalkeeper Maty Ryan. However, the VAR in this instance advised the referee to take another look, which he did before awarding a penalty. Although the contact was slight, the technology appeared to help the official get the right decision. All was well in the world of VAR and it was a welcome addition to the party.
Then the inconsistencies started to creep in. VAR was explained to players, coaches and fans as a tool that would be used to help the referee when a “clear and obvious error” had been made. On the same day, Argentina’s Christian Pavon went down in the box under a challenge from Iceland’s Birkir Saevarsson. Despite the appeal there was no review and no penalty… but there was more contact than in the Griezmann incident just hours earlier. Confusion became more frequent. Harry Kane was wrestled to the floor numerous times against Tunisia, Ronaldo was fortunate to avoid a red card against Iran and Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus seemed to be brought down by Kompany in the quarter finals.
There were successes too. In Brazil’s game versus Costa Rica, the ever-dramatic Neymar was awarded a penalty in the 78th minute. Referee Bjorn Kuiper took another look and overruled his first decision, deciding, correctly, that Neymar was too eager to hit the turf and minimal contact had been made. Another VAR review found that Aspas was level with the defender in Spain’s game versus Morocco, a call that meant Spain topped their group. A correct call was also made in Group F, where American Referee Mark Geiger changed his mind after replays showed Toni Kroos got the last touch before the ball fell to Kim Young-gwon to put South Korea 1-0 up against Germany. It was a big call as the holders were knocked out at the group stage for the first time in 80 years.
So does VAR work and do we need it? Well you’d have to say it hasn’t been a complete success. The penalty in the Final, where Nestor Pitana, the Argentinian referee ruled that Ivan Persic deliberately handled the ball, was quite simply ridiculous. However, it’s a good example of one of the major flaws of VAR.
If the referee is asked to review an incident by the VAR panel, it creates doubt that he might have made an incorrect call. He then has to run over to the screen and review replays whilst 90,000 fans and millions around the world await his decision. Not many people would stick to the original decision, like Bjorn Kuiper did in the Neymar situation, under such pressure from their peers, players and the supporters.
It has been suggested by many ex-players and pundits that the super slow motion makes decisions look more clear cut. Persic in my opinion can’t move his hand out of the way in time, but it looks that way on the replay. Gary Neville made the point that perhaps the VAR needs assistance from producers and cameraman to get the correct angles, to create more clarity. Do the officials have the skill set to get the best view?
Do we even need VAR? This is something I’m torn on. I don’t like cheats, and some performances from some individuals at this World Cup demonstrated that diving and simulation has got worse. But is it part of the game? Is the controversy and error part of why we love the game? The fact that it is imperfect, the swings of emotion and blaming the referee are all common on a Saturday at most grounds across the country. Radio call-ins and social media would be pretty quiet without the injustice and drama sport creates.
This brings me to my final flaw at the moment with VAR. Technology works when the decision is black and white, for example goal line technology and the use of VAR for offsides. The ball is either in the goal or it isn’t; it’s either offside or it’s not. There’s no interpretation of the law or subjective views. Penalties are different. Penalties are subjective. There’s a fine line between a forward capitalising on a defender’s outstretched leg and completely manufacturing or diving. Arguments will continue around “there’s contact” or “there’s not enough contact”. We need greater clarity and descriptors on what is and what isn’t a penalty, but even then I fear its just opinion. There were a few decisions I watched over and over and still couldn’t decide!
All though it’s only a small sample size (64 games) there were some tactical and technical implications from implementing VAR in this tournament. 73 of the 169 goals scored in Russia came from set-pieces: that’s 43%. For comparison, in the 2017/18 Premier League season 27% of the goals scored came from set-pieces.
There were more penalties too; the record for most converted kicks in one World Cup was 17, in France ’98. There were 22 scored this time around and 29 awarded.
As you zoom in these trends continue. England’s most used path to create chances was Trippier to Maguire, which led to 7 efforts at goal. As defenders tried to adjust to less contact in the box it led to more mistakes, 12 own goals were scored during the tournament, doubling the record of six set in 1998. Where in the past the ‘dark arts’ of blocking or shirt pulling helped keep clean sheets, players who are genuinely strong in the air became even more of an asset – Raphael Varane and Harry Maguire were obvious examples.
In 1866, Law 6 was introduced to enforce offsides. It took several alterations and lots of trial and error to get to clarity, phrases like ‘active’, ‘inactive’ and ‘second phase’ became normal, but we got there. In 1992, Law 12 was amended to remove the ‘backpass’, which resulted in more attractive and attacking football with a greater technical demand on the goalkeeper. The VAR is a step in the right direction, but there might be a long way to go before everyone is happy.
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