Part 2: Rich analyzes the PGMOL plans for no pitchside monitor when they implement VAR
First, in preparation for what’s to come and in an act of supreme “cake eating-and-having it”, let me confess that I want to be someone who supports referees. It sits uneasily with me much of the time to do the absolute opposite and I experience moments of great doubt. Second, I believe only exceptional circumstances can justify my doing otherwise. Third, it took me a long time to get here. I could elaborate almost endlessly on all that, but I won’t.
Having said all of that, I believe there is something wrong, rotten even, at the heart of top level refereeing in this country. A reference point I come back to again and again, especially if wavering, is the infamous game between Manchester United and Arsenal in October 2004. What I saw there was an appalling display of officiating, favouring one side so extremely and decisively that it cannot be explained by accident nor ineptitude. If such a thing is possible even once in a league, and no explanation for it is ever supplied, the door is flung wide open to the possibility of either deliberate wrongdoing or something which doesn’t qualify as that but produces the same results in the end. Crucially, I have seen much in the subsequent years which has convinced me that Game-50 was no freakish event, but rather something of a piece that is now the fabric of English refereeing.
While I do not believe there is necessarily any grand nefarious plot or the likes, and, furthermore do not believe anything of that order exists, what I have concluded is there are structures of power and influence which can produce similar results when necessary. That, I realize, may hardly be enough to avoid the label which rhymes with Conspiracy in the minds of some. But that’s where I have been at for many years, convinced something is wrong with top level officiating in England.
The issue of VAR effectively brings much of it to a head, offering as it does the tantalizing hope of changes which could highlight and target anything now amiss with how the game is refereed or ‘managed’ here. No panacea of course, and likely bringing unforeseen and unexpected issues with it. But still, if done right and as intended by those who proposed the system, there is significant hope for me of much needed improvements. The killer is, of course, but only if the system is used well by those in charge of it.
If I suffer from a severe lack of trust in those currently charged with officiating, how can I feel much confidence in a VAR which will be staffed by the same people? All hope has to lay with the technology itself, or rather the system and protocols which could, at the least, make it much harder to make certain big game-changing mistakes, and have a sort of positive trickle-down effect from there. However, much of that hope relies on the system being used as originally intended.
Pitchside monitor was tried only once
This lack of trust and skepticism on my part has been highlighted by a hugely controversial aspect of the VAR trials, which is, the PGMOL’s obvious intention not to use pitch-side monitors. Myself and a number of others have discussed the issue for many months now, certainly as far back as last year’s cup final, (where there were two incidents which merited a pitch side check, they were trialing VAR at the time).
Last year I had noticed the monitors were not being used, and could only ever recall seeing them early on, in the third round FA cup tie at Anfield. It transpires this was the one and only time the monitors were used in the entirety of the trials. Wow, they must have really not liked how it worked that day.
For the PGMOL to conclusively judge any element of how the system worked that day, especially in terms of speed, is, frankly, bizarre. It is akin to getting into the car for your first driving lesson to find an examiner sitting in the back, pen at the ready. Pass or your driving days are permanently done.
The full reasoning behind this huge decision can only be speculated upon. To date the only rationale appears to be the belief that the pitch side check is too slow. In an article last week by The Telegraph, with information presumably direct from PGMOL, they advised this was the version of VAR we will see next year.
This is, at least, consistent with the rare PGMOL utterances since the trials began. They have always been mightily concerned with VAR not slowing the game down too much. According to Riley in January 2018:
“The whole idea of the protocol is to have minimum interference on the game but get the right decisions to have the maximum impact.”
“VAR can actually add value. If the referee has made a wrong decision and VAR can quickly correct that and get the right outcome then the game will benefit.”
Typically it takes around 30-40 seconds to analyze some footage and make a decision. Obviously the faster we can do that, the better, and we need quite a high bar.
“We only want to intervene where there is a clear and obvious error. If we do that, the interruption to the game will be kept an absolute minimum.”
At all times the question looms why? If using the pitch side screen is so detrimental to the speed of the game and therefore the game itself, why has no other relevant party – IFAB, FIFA, UEFA, individual national associations – been alert to this fact. Standing alone is no proof of error, of course, but here it must be reckoned with. This is a huge decision, one for which variations of ‘we don’t want to slow the game down’ seems blatantly insufficient.
There are many unknowns, and, if the PGMOL remain consistent with their modus operandi, they will remain unknown. Seems they have decided against it because they can. The consultations on this subject between any of the PGMOL, the Premier League itself and the stakeholders will remain unknown. Remarkably, this is something the media is curiously incurious.
The PGMOL unilaterally deciding against the monitors does not seem especially likely to me, particularly as it is the Premier League who ultimately appoints whoever leads PGMOL and by inference must have a great deal of influence on how they operate, but I can only wonder about that.
Avoiding bad decisions
My own reasoning as to why the use of pitch-side monitors is the best use of VAR, or even essential to it working well, runs as follows: what gives the best chance of avoiding bad decisions?
It may seem, or be, the same thing as making good decisions, but to me at least the previous wording is the one that resonates most.
I have a particular incident in mind as a starting point. In a league game this year, a player was smashed by a dangerous, late, wild challenge and was saved from serious injury by luck alone. The leg buckled but didn’t break this time. I knew instantly the chances were extremely remote of the referee issuing a deserved red card based on what I have observed of their decision-making over a long period.
Instead, he quickly produced a yellow. This, I have noticed, is often the case when there is a challenge that should surely be red but the ref does not want to give it; they produce the yellow quickly. In practical terms it can help quell player unrest, as it instantly makes redundant further efforts to try convince the ref how bad the foul was; but it also ensures the ref is not seen to deliberate for any length of time over said bad challenge, and then opt for a yellow.
In that particular scenario, all being well with VAR, it should intervene. At the very least, they should ask the ref to pause the restart until they have had a good look.
In my example, the VAR looks, they believe that there is a strong case for a red, and ask the ref to look at it again on the monitor. He does and supposing he was mistaken the first time and made a bad decision, he then, in view of the world, has the opportunity to change his mind. After different angles to his own initial view and slow-motion replays, he can also stick to his guns.
If the original wrong decision is not reversed (becoming in the process a truly bad decision), at least we are in a position to say (a) everything reasonable was done to try and avoid the mistake and (b) the ref was given the best possible chance to reach the correct decision, and so ultimately (c) the final call is his and the responsibility (of the bad call) lies with him.
Conversely, with the VAR proposed by the PGMOL (no monitors, a huge emphasis on speed and a very high threshold for clear and obvious error) the wrong/bad decision will undoubtedly stand. The ref will get no opportunity to look again at the incident. His role is essentially unaltered from the pre-VAR era.
It is remarkable after all the sound and fury by the PGMOL, with their VAR we will simply end the same place we started. Unchanged.
Rich is a longtime student of and advocate of VAR. Follow him on twitter @Whatsinaname81