Roundtable: Is VAR working? Why does the Premier League have so many blown calls?

Roundtable: Is VAR working? Why does the Premier League have so many blown calls?
  • PublishedOctober 4, 2023


VAR, or video assistant referee: how do you feel about it? Do you think it’s a technological boost to the game that reduces the impact of human errors by reviewing and “fixing” bad calls? Or do you think they remain as imperfect as the pre-VAR days because they are, ultimately, human beings as well?

Whatever your opinions, this weekend’s Premier League clash between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool certainly offered the strongest debate yet on the topic. After a dramatic 2-1 Spurs win over the nine-man Reds, thanks to a 96th-minute Joël Matip own goal, PGMOL admitted they had mistakenly disallowed a legitimate Luis Díaz goal for offside, when the score was 0-0, due to “significant human error.”

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The explanation and admission of an error caused a critical mass of scalding hot opinions all around the world, and, as such, we’re taking a moment to ask our writers about VAR, how far it has come and how far it still has to go to live up to expectations.

First, the big question: how do you really think VAR is working? Do you like it?

Mark Ogden: I don’t like it, but it is working in the sense that decisions that would previously have been missed, or given incorrectly in pre-VAR times, are now being dealt with correctly the vast majority of the time. The Díaz goal is an example of the system suffering a catastrophic failure, but the failure is a human one rather that of the VAR technology.

My issue with VAR is that it has created an unrealistic pursuit of perfection. Every decision must be correct, and there is absolutely no margin for error. But football isn’t like that. Nothing is perfect.

Referees and their assistants can make mistakes too, but the technology has taken that human element away — until the VAR referee misses a flag being shown and gets it wrong, as happened with Liverpool. I don’t want to see offsides scrutinised to decide whether a forward was a millimetre offside, but that’s what we have with VAR.

Dale Johnson: What Mark says is correct about the pursuit for perfection in one sense, but the real issue is that everyone’s perception of perfection is different. Take the penalty Arsenal had overturned against Manchester United last month. I ran a social media poll on that decision and 73% of the responders felt it wasn’t a penalty, yet opinion was exactly 50-50 on the VAR intervening to overturn it. So where does the VAR really get involved?

As the vast majority of decisions in this sport are subjective, referees aren’t going to agree on many of them, let alone fans with a bias towards their team. And that means the desire for the game to achieve ultimate consistency is a pipe dream, because every incident is based upon an individual’s opinion.

Julien Laurens: Let me start with the subjective/objective part of the game. Offside calls are not subjective: either a player is off or he is on. VAR is helping them in that sense, although many other decisions are down to interpretation.

Which takes me to my point: VAR is good for the game. I like it. And it works unless it is done by incompetent people, like it was at Tottenham. What were Darren England and Dan Cook doing to not see that the linesman had flagged offside? Playing Uno? Having tea? Scrolling on social media? Had they fallen asleep? It’s unbelievable to think that they made such a terrible, embarrassing, shameful mistake because they thought the goal had been given!

Until VAR is operated by competent people, mistakes like this will happen again.



The ‘remarkable’ mistake that led to VAR error in Spurs vs. Liverpool

Dale Johnson explains the sequence of events that led to Luis Díaz’s goal being incorrectly disallowed vs. Tottenham.

James Olley: Well, Juls, apparently the VARs involved in this case had been officiating in the United Arab Emirates 48 hours earlier and only arrived back in London on Friday morning. It is impossible to conclusively determine whether fatigue led to such a big mistake, but this is a particularly awkward look for the Premier League, especially given they pay top officials around half what they earn in LaLiga, for example.

VAR will always be controversial to an extent because, as everyone has essentially said, it is trying to apply a definitive verdict in a subjective game. Football is nothing without its imperfections. Trying to reduce officiating mistakes is still the correct target, so getting rid of the technology altogether would be a backward step. But either an “umpire’s call” element has to be introduced — e.g., the bar for overturning the referee’s decision is very high — or we accept that the days of the on-field officials having the final say is over. The whole exercise of going to the monitor is farcical.

VAR’s wildest moments, from Díaz no-goal to Griezmann offside

The only thing I would add to anyone claiming a conspiracy theory: what undermines VAR is incompetence, not some sort of secret cabal trying to ensure one team suffers or another gains an unfair advantage.

Rob Dawson: I don’t like it, but now it’s here, I think — for the most part — it does its job. Obviously, that might be hard to understand just a couple of days after probably the worst VAR mistake since it was introduced!

My issue is that it was brought in without a clear idea of what it was trying to achieve. Is the technology there to reduce obvious errors, or is the ultimate goal to get rid of all mistakes? The first one is doable but, as Mark and Dale say, the second is impossible.

It would be interesting to know, if we could go back, how many football fans would vote for the introduction of technology knowing what they do now. Many supporters say celebrating a goal isn’t the same now because you never really know whether it’s going to stand, while match-going fans are still being kept in the dark about what’s being looked at when decisions are being reviewed. Both of those are bad things overall.

Let’s focus for a moment on Tottenham vs. Liverpool. What (if anything) can be done about the damage after the fact? And it’s worth noting that while Liverpool were wronged in this instance, it can happen to any club. And it does happen to plenty of clubs.

Ogden: Let’s be realistic — this is all about one mistake in the heat of the moment. And yes, it has happened to other clubs and will continue to happen to other clubs.

There is nothing that can be done after the event. Let’s just say that the VAR team realised their mistake five seconds after the restart and decided to tell the referee to halt the game to rectify it. Great idea, but then that would open the door for every team to demand the same if, or when, they are on the wrong end of an incorrect decision.

In terms of what happened at Spurs vs. Liverpool, what was the assistant VAR doing? Why didn’t he say: “Hang on, you’ve got that wrong?” Are officials prepared to contradict each other, or are they just all so terrified of speaking out that they say nothing?



Johnson: Díaz disallowed goal, one of the biggest VAR errors in Premier League

Dale Johnson explains why Luis Díaz’s disallowed goal for Liverpool vs. Tottenham is one of the biggest VAR errors we have ever seen in the Premier League.

Johnson: The real issue here is the damage to any lingering trust and confidence in VAR in the Premier League. The independent stats say decisions are getting better, but howlers like this — along with the failure to award the penalty to Wolves at Man United — completely undermine that and take a sledgehammer to any progress.

Referees are fighting a losing battle as it is, because everyone hates them and thinks there’s an agenda against their team. But Liverpool’s complaint about “sporting integrity” cannot go anywhere. As Mark says, you cannot set a precedent with this. Should Wolves ask for a replay? What about Arsenal with the “offside” goal Brentford scored last season? The list of challenges over errors would be endless.

Laurens: Nothing will happen. Liverpool can say that “they are exploring all options” as much as they want, but nothing will happen. The game won’t be replayed, they won’t get a point given to them retrospectively. You just suck it up and move on. When refs’ chief Howard Webb calls you to apologise, you make your feelings known, then hope that at some point later in the season, karma gives you a generous penalty to make up for Saturday’s blunder!

By the way, since Webb took over PGMOL — and I like Howard a lot (full disclosure, we used to do a show together) — it feels as if there are VAR issues, apologies and statements all the time now. It might be just because Webb wants transparency so he feels the need to say sorry every time his team makes a mess. But the level of refereeing and of VAR so far this season is low. He needs to sort it out quickly, otherwise we will start thinking he is part of the problem.

Olley: Jurgen Klopp was unusually calm in his postmatch interview, so the statement Liverpool put out 24 hours later was even more surprising given the time to reflect. Calling the game’s sporting integrity into question is something they might come to regret in time, as wronged as they were at Tottenham.

This was a catastrophic procedural error that should join the rich and varied annals of hard-luck stories all clubs have. Nothing more. But two points arise from this for me: firstly, the Premier League opposed VAR initially on the grounds of the length of time it took to make decisions. They might still be rushing things as a consequence. The idea that nothing can be revisited once play restarts should be scrapped. (Admittedly, it would be a difficult conversation with the IFAB.) A grace period of a further minute, in order to get to the right decision, might be enough.

And secondly, it makes the case for semi-automated offsides even stronger. The World Cup used it effectively. So does the Champions League. The Premier League has resisted it. If consistency is the primary concern, that needs to change.

Dawson: It was a howler and should be treated as such. You can’t rip up VAR because of one horrific mistake; it’s just one of those things. You just have to accept it and move on. That, obviously, won’t be much comfort to Liverpool fans who are rightly fuming, but unfortunately that’s life.

Whatever happens with refereeing in the Premier League, or anywhere across the world, you’re never going to cut out mistakes completely and there will always be awful, indefensible outliers like we saw at Tottenham. You can only pray it doesn’t hurt your team.

Ogden: It’s a good thing because it shows, most importantly, that this was a genuine mistake and an example of poor communication. From hearing the audio, it is obvious there are plenty of areas where the process can be improved: clearer communication, a need for speed — but not haste — and better terminology. Forget “check complete” and robot-speak; just say, “the goal was onside / offside” to suit. And praise is due to the unnamed video operator who spotted the error and made the officials aware of it. He did his best to halt the mistake, but alas, it was too late.

Johnson: If this helps to speed up the process whereby we hear the audio of incidents, then it will be a good development. We get it once a month at the moment (the next show is next week), but once a month is often weeks after a controversial incident.

In Serie A they are doing slightly better as of this month, with a weekly show. But even that comes on the Sunday of the following weekend, after the next round of games has been played. The gap needs to keep coming down so fans can understand what is happening, with the ultimate goal of an audio option so fans can hear it live.

This audio has come days later, but that’s still faster than we’ve ever seen before. Webb was determined that this would be released, and he wanted it done much sooner than those higher up the food chain would allow. Under the previous regime, we’d have had no chance of hearing what went wrong.

Olley: Since taking over from Mike Riley as referees’ chief, Webb has been proactive in trying to be more transparent with the VAR process, but releasing the audio in this manner will inevitably accelerate that change.

Any disgruntled club or manager will push for the same response now, as a precedent has been set. The audio is painful listening for all involved, but it should at least quieten the conspiracy theorists; it also underlines my earlier point that the Liverpool incident is down to incompetence rather than corruption. And it will ultimately ensure they improve, as this level of exposure will refine procedures and sharpen focus.

Laurens: The more we can hear what went wrong, the better. I’m all for releasing the audio because it makes you realise how bad a job they did at the time. By releasing these embarrassing recordings, Webb is kind of throwing his team under the bus, but that’s what they deserve. Now it’s there for all to see (and hear).

Dawson: Transparency can never be a bad thing, and it’s good the audio is out there so fans can hear exactly what happened. Beyond that, though, I’m not sure there’s much value. Releasing the audio isn’t going to stop mistakes from happening. It’s a system run by humans, who make mistakes.

This exact situation will probably never happen again, but next time it will be something else and we’ll go through the whole process again.



‘Who does that help now?!’ – Klopp fumes at PGMOL statement after VAR mistake

Jurgen Klopp reacts to the VAR mistake that meant Luis Díaz’s goal was incorrectly disallowed vs. Tottenham.

Why do we hear more about this stuff in the Premier League than anywhere else?

Ogden: It’s the biggest league in the world, with the biggest profile, so it will always create more noise, good and bad. No league is under greater scrutiny.

There have been some pretty bad VAR mistakes in Scotland since its introduction last season, but the Scottish Premiership doesn’t have the same profile, so you won’t know too much about those errors. In the Premier League, you have wall-to-wall coverage and the managers are such big characters that they will shout and scream about mistakes loud enough to be heard all around the world.

They even complain when VAR gets it right, such as when Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag claimed an Alejandro Garnacho offside at Arsenal was really onside. The officials are in an impossible position.

Johnson: It’s not a new thing, despite what is said about the current standard of referees. A few years ago, the IFAB, football’s lawmakers, said it receives “20 calls from England for every one or two from Spain and Germany,” which tells you more about how the game is looked at here rather than what the officials are like.

When it comes down to it, this country really, really likes to moan, and you never see a headline about the good VAR decisions, only the controversies. Because it’s bad news that gets the attention.

The other leagues have their own controversies and row, but in their own language. Did anyone hear about the referee allowing Borussia Dortmund‘s Sébastien Haller to be substituted during an offside review on a penalty that was messed up? Haller should have been sent off, and he was sat on the bench.

What about the VAR missing a defender playing the whole Juventus team onside? The goal, which would have been a legitimate injury-time winner, was ruled out. And in Spain, the front pages of the papers last month were plastered with complaints from Barcelona and Real Madrid over refereeing standards. But that doesn’t get reported in English.

Laurens: Every country has VAR issues and refereeing problems, but England seems to have the most. Every weekend, there is something! People always need to find a reason and an excuse for a loss, for example, so it is easy to blame the referees and VAR for it. Just look at Ten Hag, as Mark mentions.

You rarely hear from the French PGMOL. Yet Webb wants the PGMOL to be in the conversation all the time. He even has his own show to explain how his referees have messed up: why? We see referees appearing on German TV to explain some decisions (and sometimes apologise), but their bosses? No. Football is so big in England that everything within the game takes huge proportions, including the referees and VAR decisions.

Olley: Mark is right, it is the level of scrutiny. But despite what Dale says, the standard officiating is also getting worse. Michael Oliver is England’s best referee, with Anthony Taylor not far behind. Then there’s a gap to the rest.

There also seems to be a shortage of officials. Is it right that England can officiate in UAE on Thursday, then act as VAR for Tottenham vs. Liverpool on Saturday and Nottingham Forest vs. Brentford on Sunday, before he was stood down for the latter?

VAR is, sadly, one of the biggest talking points in the English game, so there should be more professionalism. Why isn’t the VAR role full time?

Dawson: There are three elements here, and Dale sums the first one up perfectly. There are refereeing controversies all over the world, and how involved you are with a particular league or team relates to how wound up you get.

Secondly, like it not, the Premier League is the biggest and most scrutinised domestic league in the world, and it generates a lot of noise. Mistakes, especially ridiculous ones like the Díaz “goal,” are going to be big talking points, and there’s no getting away from that.

Thirdly, and probably most important, the standard of refereeing in the Premier League is not good. It’s the best football product because it boasts the best players and managers. You see other leagues casting envious glances because of the TV deals and the money in the English game, but very few league executives are saying “we’ve got to learn from those English referees.”



Should Díaz’s goal have stood in Tottenham vs. Liverpool?

Mark Ogden reacts after a Tottenham vs. Liverpool match that wasn’t short of controversial refereeing decisions.

Ultimately, where should VAR go from here? How would you change it to make it better, or would you scrap it entirely?

Ogden: First off, with the mistake at Spurs, a simple solution would be to get rid of the robot-speak. Had the VAR official said “Attacking player onside” rather than “Check complete,” there wouldn’t have been a problem.

Beyond that, it is good that referees’ chief Webb has brought more openness with VAR decisions by allowing audio to be recorded and played back. But that openness and fairness has to be matched by the players and managers. They need to stop complaining so much and accept that officials are human and make mistakes, just like they do. Because we are now in a world where every incident is replayed from so many angles that you can’t get rid of VAR. The genie is out of the bottle.

That said, it was so refreshing to be at Carabao Cup games without VAR recently, with decisions solely down to the officials making their minds up without a second look. There’s no going back, though. Mistakes will happen, so we all just have to accept that.

Johnson: The openness from Webb has been badly hampered by the performance of his officials, and that has to change. By acknowledging errors, fans now think every time they don’t get a decision they deserve an apology, a situation that gets worse with each error.

But as previously explained, the real issue is the subjective nature of this sport. It doesn’t fit this VAR system, which means absolutely everything has to be looked at. The pressure of that is immense on the VAR throughout 100 minutes. FIFA is adamant this is the way to go, and if things go wrong, it’s because leagues aren’t doing it right rather than the system not working.

The only way for it to work in football may well be a challenge system. It removes the constant fear a goal could be ruled out for a trivial offence and puts the responsibility on the teams to realise when they really have been wronged. FIFA might fear a big error would be missed with a challenge system, but, as we have seen in sports such as cricket and tennis, that is accepted when the onus is on the participants to raise it rather than the umpire. Challenges would almost certainly reduce the impact on the game.

Laurens: VAR is good for the game. Keep it, of course, but have competent people operate it. It doesn’t need to get fixed; it’s not damaged. But some of those names mentioned are bad referees, and not even VAR can make them better.

You can make VAR better, of course, with the changes Mark and Dale have mentioned. You can have the referee explaining decisions and reasoning. Have semi-automated offsides in every league. Think about being able to go back to VAR even if the game has restarted, but only if nothing significant is happening or has happened on the pitch in the meantime. But start by telling the VAR and assistant VAR referees to actually watch the game they are involved in. Unlike on Saturday.

Olley: Firstly, make VAR officiating a full-time pursuit and ban outside work. Secondly, improve the communication. “Check complete” and the like was used to avoid officials mishearing “goal” and “no goal” or “offside” and “no offside” in a loud stadium. It isn’t solving that problem. And let us hear the dialogue on a VAR decision in real time rather than edited later.

Thirdly, introduce semi-automated offsides.

Fourthly, make a decision on who is the ultimate arbiter: the on-field official or VAR. Either implement an “umpire’s call” on penalty decisions and handball, and if referees want help, let them ask for it — don’t impose it on them. Or give the final call to the VAR, overturn a decision explaining why in real time, and end the farce of an on-field referee pretending they have any option other than to change their mind.

Dawson: The most obvious solution is to have better referees, which could be anything from attracting the best refs from other countries to the Premier League — they do it with players and managers, so why not? — to recruiting young players who have fallen out of the game and offer them a viable route to become officials.

It’s also important to have specially trained VARs because it’s a different job to doing it on the field. Sitting in a room at Stockley Park would probably also be more appealing to former players, who would always be nervous about becoming referees because of the grief they know they would get on the pitch.

From a technology point of view, I think everyone will agree that having semi-automated offsides, which seemed to work well at the World Cup, would be a positive step, and James also makes a good point about the “umpire’s call” that exists in cricket. It reduces big errors but still allows the game to be officiated on the pitch and not from a dark room hundreds of miles away.


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