I have wondered previously about the lack of curiosity concerning VAR in the UK. Not so much that it has not been discussed frequently. It has. But, more that the professionals within the media and football industry don’t appear to have put in sufficient effort to try understand all the issues involved.
In the main, their attitude has been, overwhelmingly, a reactive one. Something happens, they comment, often betraying imperfect understanding of the protocol, coupled with surprising in-curiosity with the rules and guidelines published by FIFA-IFAB.
One would think serious people would make considerable effort to understand a change which is about to have a gigantic impact on their industry/business/sport. The aim, of serious people, on an important subject, is to be prepared in advance. Or rather that is the inevitable product of studying a phenomenon seriously and understanding it.
To date, that is not how we have done VAR here. The proof to me is self evident; no one in the media, not a single person to my knowledge, has picked up on the massive story of the pgmol deliberately doing VAR differently from every other competition.
As we publicized repeatedly on this blog, this was evident fairly early in the trials and became obvious long before they effectively concluded their dry run. Apparently, either nobody noticed or nobody thought it was very interesting.
And yet…there are prominent voices here who have already decided VAR does not work, and many others, judging by their reactions, who feel more or less the same. Meaning they have pulled off the incredible feat of concluding that VAR will not work in England, long before recognizing that the Premier League has chosen to use a different version of VAR to anywhere else.
Hostile to VAR
Which brings us to Martin Tyler. He has a cast iron claim to being the voice of football in this country, having been Sky’s main-man since the inception of the premier league. If they are the home of football, then he is the voice of home.
It is an understatement to say Tyler is skeptical of VAR, he is blatantly hostile. Alas, he also appears to be confused.
Tyler has been covering the U21 European championships in recent weeks and before that covered the Nations League finals. His commentary of the latter tournament has regularly featured long sections concerning VAR. Positivity has been in short supply; negativity the opposite. By and large, the correctness of any decision has had little impact on Tyler’s frame of mind.
Now, clearly the man simply does not like VAR, any VAR. He is entitled to that belief, of course. But to me, it would be best for all concerned especially to Sky, his employer, if he came to some sort of professional peace with it, or, even better, open his mind and, basically, suspend some judgment for a period of time. Maybe he is trying to do that. If so, he is failing on a grand scale. I have detected no trace of gratitude when VAR corrects a mistake, and he constantly gives free reign, seemingly, to his significant doubts about whether it is for the good of the game.
Tyler doesn’t like VAR; doesn’t think it improves the game; doesn’t want it. But by constantly moaning about it, what does he hope to achieve. VAR is already here, written in the IFAB rule book and implemented by FIFA. Does Tyler and those who echo his sentiments, far and wide, throughout mainstream media, believe they can put the genie back in the bottle. Even more extreme, do they believe that England and the Home Countries (assuming Scotland does not achieve independence) can defy FIFA and never implement VAR in FIFA regulated competitions.
Is it the man in the middle or the man in the truck?
Here is the strange bit. During one of his many complaints this past week, Tyler highlighted the inconsistent use of VAR this summer in different tournaments. He swiftly followed this by saying – in the tone he uses almost any time discussing VAR (fretful, peevish, injured…just shy of indignant) – the people in charge need to make their minds up; ‘Is it the man in the middle making the decisions or the man in the truck?!’.
Well now, this is something different. This is not simply a dislike of VAR. He introduces the idea of their being a battle, currently, between (at least) two very different versions of VAR, one where the main in the middle retains control, one where that power has been ceded to video assistants in a truck. Tyler intimated then that he is in favor (if it really has to be one of them) of the on-field ref making the decisions.
Anyway, I’ve watched a lot of various tournaments this summer, and have seen no evidence of different versions of VAR on display. The Women’s World Cup has generated much criticism of how VAR is implemented, particularly on handballs and the issue of keepers staying on the line at penalties. But that certainly doesn’t amount to a different version of VAR nor does it seem to have anything to do with Tyler’s contention that there is this battle between refs retaining final authority and VAR having it.
It’s therefore hard to explain what he was getting at and I cannot rule out it being an audacious attempt at muddying the waters in the service of pgmol and the Premier League. As any regular reader here knows, it is only pgmol who have trialed and presumably still intend to implement a vastly different version of VAR to anywhere else.
The pgmol version will dispense with the On Field Reviews (where the ref in the middle, on the advice of the video assistant, goes to the pitch side monitor and reviews footage, selected by the VAR referee and his/her technicians, before making a final decision). This is a central feature to the use of VAR wherever it has been implemented, evident in every other competition which has used the system to date but not to be in England.
I cannot explain how Tyler has conflated the pgmol VAR with that everywhere else. In none of the various summer tournaments has there existed different approaches; ref making decisions vs truck making decisions. Something subliminal at work in his mind you would think.
Soon after, during another U21 match a day or two later, Tyler broached the topic again. On this occasion he did mention that it was in the Premier League where an alternative VAR would be used. He referenced the fact pitch-side checks would not be used and that Premier League believed this was the better option. I recall he said this uncritically with little hint of how controversial a move it was nor how unusual for the pgmol to unilaterally decide to go it alone with a different system.
Making VAR irrelevant
Finally, I have to address a seeming inconsistency between Tyler being in favor of the ref retaining control and his offering no criticism of the pgmol version of VAR. Shouldn’t he be aghast at the idea of the Video Assistant Referee, not the on-field ref, making the final call, which is the inevitable reality of those with the whistle not being able to conduct pitch side reviews? His opposition to that should be very strong. Why not?
My theory as to why is pretty simple (Occam’s razor: Suppose there exist two explanations for an occurrence. In this case the one that requires the least speculation is usually correct.- Editor). He probably knows the Premier League/pgmol version of VAR intends to set the “clear and obvious error” threshold so high that it will be a rarity for the ref’s on field decision to be overturned. It will be such a high threshold as to make VAR virtually irrelevant. That to me was the objective of Mike Riley and the Premier League from the very start. Initially they made sure the trials of VAR was a disaster in 2017-18 but after its success at the World Cup and faced with its inevitable implementation, ginned up a version of VAR which will leave the status quo unchanged. A VAR in name only is satisfactory for those who don’t want VAR at all.
Well, alright then, that is where we are. The voice of football on the home of football is, unless someone has some stern words with him, going to be an unhappy man during the new Premier League season. A change is upon the sport he loves in the league he is synonymous with, and he cannot or will not hide his conviction it is a damaging change. Except there will be no change at all. Just more damaging controversy for the Premier League in the long run.