‘I was wrong about VAR, but on review I might be partly wrong’

We've seen the good, the bad and the ugly this year but the need for it remains

David Moyes (West Ham manager) at the EPL match West Ham United v Burnley, at the London Stadium, London, UK on 16th January, 2021. English Premier League matches are still being played behind closed doors because of the current COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, and government social distancing/lockdown restrictions.

Last season, I wrote passionately about how I believed that the introduction of VAR to the Premier League was a big step forward for football.

I’m happy to admit I was wrong. Well, partly wrong anyway.

I still believe that VAR is a good thing, and that it shouldn’t be scrapped (not that it will). However, if in its first season it could be given the benefit of the doubt because of the newness of the laws, its second season needs a VAR check on itself.

Let’s talk about three incidents, the good, the bad and the ugly.

First, the good (although not so much for us) — Craig Dawson’s penalty that never was against Sheffield United. 

In the early stages of the match, Rice had a shot which was saved by Ramsdale, but the referee gave a penalty as Dawson was tripped as he looked to chase the loose ball. Stonewall penalty.

Except that Dawson was offside when Rice struck the free-kick, and after a referral to VAR, the penalty was not given. 

It’s probably the right decision, but only if VAR was able to determine when Rice touched the ball. 

Watching it again, I think it’s really hard to tell, but let’s assume that they can see something that is hard to notice with the naked eye and we’ll say it’s a good decision — even if it took a while to achieve. 

Here’s the bad — Tomas Soucek’s sending-off against Fulham. If you’re the sole Hammers fan who is not aware of what happened in the last minute, Soucek was sent off for ‘elbowing’ Aleksandar Mitrovic (although if it was an elbow, let’s consider whether accidentally falling on another player constitutes an act of GBH).

VAR checks the incident — all good so far. Except that Lee Mason then tells Mike Dean to look at Soucek’s ‘clenched fist’. 

Fast forward a few minutes, and having watched the incident about a million times on a pitchside monitor, Dean then decides to send Soucek off for violent conduct.

Wrong approach, wrong decision: the bare fact of the matter is that it isn’t a sending off and VAR, which should get it right and clear it up in an instant, got it wrong.

Everyone (except Chris Sutton, apparently, who said: ‘Soucek caught him fairly strongly’) could see there was no malice or intent involved whatsoever, and the incident was made to look worse by Mitrovic’s play-acting. 

Two days later, the red card is overturned (of course), but only after we have lost an important player who could have made something of the free kick to give us an important win.

VAR didn’t do its job properly.

So, one flawed decision, and one that is correct, even if we don’t like it. Now the ugly, which Jeff Stelling described as a ‘shameful, disgraceful piece of nonsense’. Bear with me, because this is hard to explain.

It’s West Brom v Brighton, and West Brom are a goal up. Brighton have a free kick in a dangerous position. Lewis Dunk takes the free kick quickly and it goes in, whilst the West Brom keeper Sam Johnstone is still lining up his wall. Goal, right? 

Well not according to Lee Mason, the referee, who ruled the goal out having blown his whistle a second time, before the ball hit the back of the net.

Cue Brighton protests and, inexplicably, Mason then giving the goal, before then talking to his assistants and going to VAR to check the replays.

VAR’s decision? No goal, so Mason gives the decision to take the free kick again, before deciding to look at the incident again on the touchline monitor, and then allowing the free kick to be taken.

This is presumably because he’d forgotten whether he’d blown his whistle, and to remind him that this is a game of football and that he might think about concentrating a bit. 

Of course, this free kick came to nothing, and West Brom went on to win the match 1-0. 

Shambolic isn’t the word — the combination of the referee and VAR perfectly demonstrating what happens when the two aren’t in sync. 

In this case, VAR awarded no goal because the ball went into the net after the second whistle, but there was so much confusion, not least on the part of the referee. 

Why, in this era of technology, was this allowed to be the case? Not to mention the time taken to clear the issue up. What utter nonsense.

When VAR works, VAR works. FIFA are apparently happy with the percentage of correct decisions that are occurring as a result of VAR. Wonderful. But the system isn’t being used properly and consistently.

Are referees not confident enough in their decisions, knowing that there is backup in a van at Stockley Park? 

Is VAR being implemented sub-optimally? Is it still taking too long to make key decisions? 

Do I think that VAR should stay, but the powers that be should take a long look at the way it is being implemented and how decisions are being reached? 

I say yes to all four questions, but while we continue to see headlines including the words “VAR” and “controversy”, if you’re in the group of people who think it should go, I don’t blame you. 

It’s still not working as it should, and those in charge need to fix it.

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