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VAR to review VAR, perpetuate notion that VAR is the problem

Performative action

Chelsea v West Ham United - Premier League - Stamford Bridge Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

When VAR was first introduced in the Premier League, back in the ancient times of 2018, it was billed as never being “100 per cent perfect”, but it was hoped that it would reduce refereeing error rates from 4 per cent to 2 per cent, ideally and especially on key decisions. Very scientific! And clearly a lot of BS and salesmanship and yet also far too nuanced for the masses.

Every action and decision since by administrators in the Premier League, the FA, and the PGMOL, not to mention by the ever unhelpful shouty football punditry complex, has perpetuated the notion that it should in fact be 100 per cent and if we don’t get it right, someone made a mistake.

And so here we are again, after yet another weekend of “controversial” decisions. This is a familiar place (for fans of any team), but this time the shouting has been loud enough — even when a foul has clearly been committed — that the PGMOL have decided to conduct an official review of their decisions and processes, which is of course little more than more performative BS anyway. VAR isn’t going to be solved by internal review because VAR itself is not the problem. The problem is how we apply it, how we administer it, and what we hope to get out of it.

Even if you are David Moyes, you may be able to accept that subjective decisions can lead to different calls by different people. For example, whether Jarrod Bowen fouled Édouard Mendy is a subjective interpretation of the laws that define what is a foul and what is not. Same goes for whether Thilo Kehrer fouls Mendy on West Ham’s first goal. The on-pitch referee judged both of those to not be fouls. VAR thought the second one was, and the on-pitch referee changed his mind after looking at it again. I will tell you they are both fouls, as will Thomas Tuchel. David Moyes of course doesn’t think either is a foul.

Expecting to arrive at one set of “correct” decisions is a futile quest. These are subjective decisions, made by humans. They will never be perfect (though adding more eyeballs on and off the pitch could be helpful in spotting more fouls), and acting as if somehow the could be will just perpetuate the current culture of finger-pointing and post-match with-hunts.

So what’s the solution then?

If our goal is indeed to arbitrate games more “fairly”, we must begin by taking objective decisions out of the hands of humans and giving them to the machines. Offsides, out of bounds, goal-line (already done), time-keeping, anything that's a clearly defined binary choice — on/off, in/out, etc. — should be automated. Reducing errors in those decisions will reduce errors overall.

Disagreements in subjective decisions will always be there, and unless we try to go down the rabbit hole of defining binary laws for subjective calls (see: attempts to codify handball), that will be a necessary condition of a human game being played by humans. We can improve the “acceptance” factor of subjective calls by making more consistent interpretation of laws, adding more eyeballs, and improving the transparency of the process.

Reviewing individual decisions from certain games when someone shouts loud enough will not change anything. The current system is set up to fail, and when it inevitably and consistently fails, we blame the individual. Rinse, repeat next weekend then.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

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