VAR only intervenes in the course of a match when the officials have made a ‘clear and obvious error’ in one of four key areas.
A close offside decision is the most common reason for VAR being consulted after a goal has been scored, but shirt-pulling and other infringements can cause goals to be chalked off.
NB. The concept of ‘clear and obvious’ errors does not apply to offsides. A player is either onside or offside – you cannot be a little bit pregnant. So even if a player is offside by a matter of inches, the goal will be ruled out, which is exactly what VAR is doing.
The most subjective and potentially problematic area. Penalties can be awarded or rescinded using VAR if there has been a ‘clear and obvious error’ in the original decision.
Straight red cards
Violent conduct and dangerous tackles can be penalised using VAR. Second-yellow cards cannot. This was exactly what happened at the FA Cup 2019/2020 final Arsenal vs Chelsea when Kovacic got a second yellow card that was not reviewed.
If the referee sends off the wrong player, such as the famous incident with Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in Arsenal’s 6-0 drubbing at Chelsea in 2014, that injustice can be repaired.
The system is restricted to these four areas in order to minimise disruption to the flow of the game.
How does this work in practice?
- The VAR speaks to the on-field referee through an earpiece, or vica versa, and the referee will put his hand up to pause play and inform the players a decision is being reviewed.
- VAR reviews the video footage of the incident and advises whether or not action should be taken. If there has been an error, the referee will draw a rectangle with his arms to replicate a TV a screen to change his original decision.
- In the case of more subjective incidents, the VAR will instruct the referee to watch a replay on a pitchside screen. This is known as an on-pitch review.
Where are the video referees?
VAR HQ is at Stockley Park in south West London, and every Premier League manager was invited there during the summer to be briefed on how the system will work.
What has the FA and Premier League done to help VAR succeed?
So far we have covered the VAR rules that have been in place since the system’s inception, and were used at the World Cup last summer.
However, the Premier League have enforced some of their own criteria with a view to minimising disruption to the flow of the game.
Firstly, referees have been told to avoid on-pitch reviews at the pitch-side screen whenever possible. These types of review are known to cause the longest delays. Instead, on-pitch referees have been told to trust the advice they are given by VAR.
There has also been a pledge from former referee Neil Swarbrick, the man leading VAR’s implementation in the Premier League, to stick to a‘higher threshold’ for reviewing decisions and only intervene in the case of ‘clear and obvious’ errors (does not apply to offsides, remember).
“It’s different interpretations of the IFAB laws. The different variations we’ve got we hope will stop the long stoppages and the long reviews with the screen,” Swarbrick told the Mirror.
The IFAB laws – set by the International Football Association Board – are interpreted literally in the Champions League for example. This has led to penalties being given for handballs such as Moussa Sissoko’s in the Champions League final against Liverpool, or Presnel Kimpembe’s against Manchester United for PSG in the last-16. IFAB state that penalties can be given if the hand or arm extends beyonds the ‘natural silhouette’ of the body, regardless of intent.
Mike Riley, head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, has said Premier league officials will follow a softer interpretation of the handball rule.
On the example of Sissoko’s conceded penalty Riley told The Times: “In real time it (Sissoko’s handball) looks a clear penalty.
“With VAR you can actually see what he’s doing, and he’s not interested in trying to block the cross, he’s saying to the covering defender, ‘Get over there and fill the space.’
“That’s not a deliberate act of extending the arm away from the body.”
However, Premier League referees will disallow any goal in which the ball strikes the hand of an attacking player in the build-up, deliberate or otherwise. This rule saw Wolves have a goal chalked off in their opening weekend draw at Leicester last season.
What are some of the criticisms of VAR?
There have been several controversies and teething problems during VAR’s trial stages, and the system has many opponents. Their criticisms have included:
- Fans in the stadium not being aware of when a decision is being reviewed, particularly in venues with no big screen. The Premier League have done their best to ensure big screens are used to relay decisions to fans, although Anfield and Old Trafford do not have this facility. You may have noted the loud tannoy announcements Man Utd use instead.
- The subjective nature of football’s laws. Despite the availability of replays, there remain debates and disagreements about penalty incidents. Decisions still come down to human interpretation.
- The time it takes for decisions to be reached disrupts the flow of the match. Some games with VAR in use have produced five or six minutes of first-half stoppage time.
- The spontaneous joy of goal celebrations being lost due to the possibility of a review, detrimental to the atmosphere in stadiums.
- Not a criticism of VAR per se – the unsuitability of football’s laws in the age of the high definition, slow motion replay. For instance, some have argued the offside should be redrafted to try and avoid goals being disallowed over matters of inches, claiming that microscopic analysis of offsides goes against the original spirit of the law.