Ensuring the seamless integration of VAR into English football

The 2019/20 football season will see the introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) to the English Premier League. UEFA’s Champions League competition will also be using VAR from 2019/20 with the Europa League bringing VAR in from the 2020/21 campaign.

On the international front, VAR has already been used at the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia and it will be present again for the 2020 European Championships. It’s fair to say, fans need to get used to VAR because it’s not going away.

The main obstacle for organisations to now overcome is managing to smoothly integrate the system into their national leagues without too many problems.

Speaking at last month’s Betting on Football Conference, Warren Llambias the Managing Director of RedZone.bet, revealed that in NFL there is almost an integration process for new video referee rules.

“They tweak the rules almost every year and the first three or four weeks of the season teams are learning how they’re going to be instructed by the on-field officials and I think you’ll see the same in soccer certainly.

“These rules will change and the coaches that are very good at set-pieces and are very good at managing those set-pieces and exploiting the rule changes and being disciplined in the box, you will see an uplift for those teams.

“The best coaches, in theory will make it work to their advantage.”

VAR is already used in the Italian, Spanish and German leagues so the Premier League (PL) has the benefit of being able to draw on the experiences of those leagues to iron out any rookie errors before they can happen.

Also speaking at betting on Football, Rory Campbell CEO of C&N Sporting Risk emphasised the lessons that can be learnt from the Bundesliga: “The reason the Bundesliga doesn’t come up as much in conversation, is because there’s less contentious decisions.”

Moderating the discussion, Lee Richardson the CEO of Gaming Economics agreed: “If there’s less contentious decisions coming out of the Bundesliga, then surely they’re doing something right. And, perhaps, they’re showing the way for other leagues to follow.”

After a vote in November where PL clubs agreed in principle to VAR’s introduction in 2019/20, the PL released a statement saying:

“The League will now formally make a request to the International Football Association Board and FIFA to use VAR next season. The Premier League’s non-live testing programme will remain in place for the rest of this season, with a continued emphasis on those Saturday afternoons which have several matches being played concurrently.”

Just four months previous to that vote, Shaun Harvey, chief executive of the English Football League (EFL), highlighted the main issues preventing a nationwide implementation of the VAR system throughout the Championship, League One and League Two.

“It has its attractions,” Harvey said.

“But we don’t have the TV cameras in place that are standard fare now at Premier League clubs.”

The FA Cup and League Cup have been using VAR in certain matches throughout the tournaments. However, this raises an integrity issue regarding the use of the system in some stadiums which can facilitate it while other venues, generally those belonging to lower league teams, have to do without. Is it right for a system to be in place for some matches when it can’t be used in others? Does this make it not a level playing field for all teams involved?

Of course, there won’t be such an issue in the PL. All teams will have the capacity to host VAR equipment at their grounds from this season onwards. For smaller teams coming up to the PL, it will now be a pre-requisite to have the facilities available before their stint in English football’s top tier gets underway.

Shaun Harvey again spoke about some of the more practical concerns he has if VAR was to filter down into the EFL.

“One of our bigger concerns, ultimately, is around match officials and the staffing of it,” he said.

“We need the best officials we have got out live on a Saturday afternoon with a whistle or a flag. We need to keep as many of them active in those roles for as long as possible. The primary focus has got to be getting them out into the middle.”

What the PL needs to ensure is that the fans are not forgotten about during this quest for professional perfection. Every stadium must find a way to keep the supporters up-to-date with exactly what is going on. Will referees by ‘miked up’ like the officials are in the NFL? It might seem extreme but it works well and keeps everyone in the stadium in the loop with what’s going on. Thankfully, one line of the PL’s November statement regarding VAR stated that one of their first priorities was to develop “a clear protocol for communicating VAR decisions to fans.”

The other main problem is to not interfere with the flow of the game. VAR works well in the NFL because American Football is very much a stop-start game that rarely has a play lasting more than five or six seconds.

Football, the UK’s kind, is a sport where, though there are many mini-stoppages, fans are used to consuming the action in less than two hours. How much extra time will be added to games full of VAR queries? Like Tennis, could teams be allowed a certain amount of ‘VAR challenges’ per half? It might be something worth considering. Such a rule would reduce the amount of time used on VAR in each game plus it would also make teams think twice before demanding a VAR review.

What was noticed most of all at Russia 2018 is the time it took from the start of the VAR query until the end when the referee makes the final call. In England, the PL will need to cut the time down significantly. One way to do this is to pre-empt all VAR queries. If there is a team of four VAR officials in the VAR room, should they be paired up so that two of them can be immediately reviewing a challenge or an offside call if they feel it might be challenged by one of the teams? The other two would continue watching the live footage of the game. At least this would mean that a decision is a few seconds closer to being made by the time the referee does request VAR’s input.

The good news is that, as mentioned in the PL’s statement above, they have carried out extensive non-live testing over PL games this season so hopefully many of the delaying issues we witnessed at the World Cup finals in 2018 could be a thing of the past.

VAR has divided opinion for years. If it can be executed without taking the energy and flow away from the beautiful game it will be worth it. That is a big “if”, though.