Is VAR fixable?

This piece was published in the matchday programme for the game against Huddersfield Town on 6 April 2021. The Norwich City programme is really great and it is worth subscribing imho. You can do that here.

If you believe that stating the clear and obvious can somehow jinx things, stop reading now. Norwich City will be in the premier league next season, and it’s time to start thinking about all the ways in which they will affect us as supporters.

You probably have your own stand out low moment from the 2019/20 season. There are plenty to choose from in a disappointing season that ended in one of the grimmest runs of form that we’ve ever seen. My lowest moment of the season didn’t come in that final lap slump. It was Pukki’s disallowed goal against Spurs, and as we dare to believe that we will be back in the Prem next year, attention has to turn once again to the presence of VAR at Carrow Road.

We had some VAR stinkers during our forlorn season in the Premier League. None quite as egregious as the Pukki goal being disallowed. But time and time again, the game was interrupted or disrupted, and often for seemingly random moments.

I was in the ground for a long stoppage away at Leicester as VAR checked on whether Todd Cantwell should receive a red card. There was a bored, eerie quiet in the stadium as the minutes tick by. Three minutes. What is even happening? Four minutes. This is getting annoying now. Five Minutes. You can natter with friends as the clock ticks, none the wiser for what is happening. Then, without explanation, the game restarted as if it had never been stopped, without any explanation.

Peak VAR was the Bournemouth game. Cherries’ defender Steve Cook made a spectacular save which stopped Ondrej Duda’s shot from hitting the net, and was given an instant red card by the referee. Of course he was given his marching orders, it was the most blatant of handballs. Carrow Road was then subjected to a stoppage as the video was carefully reviewed to ensure that it was, in fact, a clear and obvious handball.

I’ll be upfront — I have a problem with VAR in principle. Football is a game played by the people on the field, and anything that gets in the way of that is wrong. Stopping and starting the game is incredibly frustrating, spoils things for people in the ground, and panders to angry managers who can’t keep their emotions in check. And anyway, we love to argue on the way home, and in the office on a Monday morning. The controversy is part of the game just as much as the goals and saves and fouls.

But I am in a minority on that — and the people in charge of the game don’t listen to fans even if I weren’t. So if it is here to stay, what needs to improve?

The big change must be a return to the original idea of only using VAR to catch “clear and obvious” mistakes on the field. The Premier League said at the start of the season there would be a “high bar” for interventions. The balance has tilted too far towards the panicked fear of any decision being slightly off, away from the enjoyment of the game for the fans in the stadium. There is a cost to a VAR intervention — by interrupting the game, you’re damaging the game. The benefit of correcting a clearly incorrect decision — a decision that will materially impact the outcome of the game — needs to be clear.

The other change that is needed is an end to the lines on screen. There are too many infamous examples to mention. Pukki’s goal against Spurs is the one that hurt us the most, but every club’s fans have their own. And every instance of these ludicrous decisions of an armpit being offside hurts the credibility of referees.

If you can’t decide within 20 seconds if someone is offside, then it is not clear and obvious, and the decision on the field should stand. The cost to people’s enjoyment of the game is not worth the minute analysis, which is then disputed anyway. The League claims that “correct decisions” have gone up, from 82% to 94% apparently, but correct decisions is not the only metric of success in the game.

Finally, we need judgement back. Many of the controversies sparked by VAR are, on paper, a straightforward policing of the rules. There is a line between offside and onside, it is a single atom thick, and you can only be onside or offside. The spirit of the rules — as used over the generations — allow for interpretation, like intent. The rules were designed to be governed by a referee and two people running the line. The laws of the game are tools in the hands of those officials. Reducing the rules to black and white, out of the context of the flow of the game, has been incredibly damaging.

VAR is trying to fix something that isn’t achievable through technology — the whinging and complaining of people who feel wronged. Decisions are no less controversial, while the process has damaged the game, and hurt the enjoyment of fans in the ground. VAR has moved the people being wrong from the pitch to the video room and impacted integrity of the game in the stadium.

I hope they make some simple changes before next season, because once we’re back in Carrow Road, we’ve got some catching up to do on watching great football, without needless interruption.