In the pained aftermath of Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, Patrice Evra issued a stark warning on Sky Sports. The use of video assistant referees is “killing the game”, he fumed, before suggesting that, if he was still playing, he would have run over and smashed the official’s pitchside monitor.
That, incredibly, was only the second most eye-popping utterance from a pundit on Saturday. The former 606 host Danny Baker used Twitter to first slam the “anonymous gargoyles who made these ‘new rules’” before making the astonishing assertion that “this era of football is out of control. It will be looked at with as much validity as the wartime matches were.”
In a way it was almost reassuring. In the midst of a global pandemic, with the economy swallow-diving and threats of Christmas being cancelled, this was football being football: overreacting, hyperventilating, suspicious of change. Even Gary Neville felt compelled to brand the decision to penalise David de Gea for encroachment after saving Jordan Ayew’s penalty “an absolute disgrace”. New normal, meet the old normal.
Of course Baker’s assertion that laws are drawn up by anonymous idiots who don’t understand football is easy enough to refute. After all, the International Football Association Board, which sets the rules for professional football, has Luís Figo and Zvonimir Boban among its decision makers.
But Evra’s criticisms of VAR tap into a wider mood of suspicion and distrust over the use of tech. Last week, for instance, a YouGov poll of fans found that only 49% felt it had improved refereeing decisions, with 25% saying it had made matters worse and 24% saying it had made no difference. But Evra is wrong and the science proves it. The biggest ever study into VAR, published last month in the Journal of Sports Sciences, found that it raised the accuracy of “match-changing decisions” from 92.1% to 98.3%
The research, based on 2,195 competitive matches across 13 leagues, involved asking a panel of referees to check 9,732 VAR decisions. Around 5% of those were in the grey zone – in which more than one decision could be supported. But even taking that into account, the academics found that the chances of getting it right “were significantly higher when a decision was taken with the use of the VAR, compared to the initial decision made without the VAR”.
There was something else. Remember the apocalyptic warnings about how much the game would slow down when VAR was introduced? On average the researchers found there were only 4.4 checks required per match – while the median time taken when referring to the VAR was 22 seconds (although that went up to 62 seconds for on-field reviews).
Meanwhile a separate study published in July, which looked at whether VAR had changed the way football was played in La Liga during the 2018-19 season found it had “hardly any effect”. Unsurprisingly the biggest difference was that matches where VAR was used featured more goals and went on a little bit longer.
So why the lingering reluctance to accept that VAR, while imperfect, is better than what was there before? Perhaps it has something to do with English football’s instinctive suspicion of change and a rush to judgment. Remember the fears about the game “going soft” when Fifa decided Claudio Gentile’s progeny could no longer commit ABH on the field of play? The widespread criticism of the no pass-back rule when it was introduced in 1992? Or, indeed, how long it took for women’s football to be welcomed into the fold?
Still, there is time for attitudes to shift. That YouGov poll last week, for example, found that 51% of fans thought VAR worked badly, compared with 60% in January.
Meanwhile for all the venom and rage about certain decisions during this weekend’s Premier League games, VAR appeared to get everything right – at least under the current laws. Take the decision to penalise De Gea for stepping off his line when saving Palace’s initial penalty. Last year the Premier League chose not to use the VAR to check whether a keeper had moved on penalties. Now it does. Whether United’s keeper strayed by millimetres or metres doesn’t matter. Encroachment is encroachment – just like offside is offside.
The Premier League also recently refined its guidance on defensive handballs. So if a defender is perceived to have spread his body to block a shot or cross and it hits a hand, it’s a penalty. You may think the decision to penalise Victor Lindelöf when Jordan Ayew’s shot smashed into him was preposterous. If so, it’s the handball law that is an ass, not VAR.
It was also right to not give West Ham a penalty when Arsenal’s Gabriel Magalhães misjudged a header and the ball hit him on the top of the arm. Why? Well, this season referees are being asked to look at the “T-shirt line” when judging handball – so being hit above where the sleeve on a T-shirt ends is not handball. Yes, this rule is a little subjective. But in this case there was no “clear and obvious” error by the referee.
Remember, too, that VAR also correctly overturned a Dominic Calvert-Lewin goal ruled out for offside when Everton were 1-0 down to West Brom. And it also flagged to the referee Paul Tierney that he should look again at the caution he awarded to Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen for bringing down Liverpool’s Sadio Mané – which he then changed to a red card after watching replays of the incident.
We cannot be sure how much these decisions affected the final outcome of both matches, although they were surely significant. However, we do know this: without the helping hand of technology, the officials who initially got it wrong would have been pilloried by pundits – and many of the same people who deride VAR would have been at the vanguard waving pitchforks.