VAR, the Video Assistant Referee, has been around for a couple of years now. Now it's the turn of the Premier League to follow other top European Leagues in adopting video reviews.
After we saw in last year's FIFA World Cup in Russia and on various other occasions like certain games in last year's FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, it was also used during this year's FIFA Women's World Cup in France.
The Premier League is adapting it in a slightly different way than we've seen previously.
What is VAR and what does it mean?
The Video Assistant Referee supports the work of the on-field referee and his or her assistants. They can review incidents within seconds as they are not only watching the game, but they also have access to multiple replays and different angles. They're not located at the ground.
The intention of VAR is to sort out the question of “was the decision clearly wrong?” across four types of key decisions.
- Goal or no goal decisions (offences leading up to a goal)
- Penalty or no penalty decisions
- Direct red card decisions (not second yellow cards) - this is a little different for the Premier League, see below
- Mistaken identity
VAR officials will only communicate with those on the field of play if there are "clear and obvious mistakes" (that phrase again) or "serious missed incidents" across the four areas. Only the on-field referee can stop play.
From the point of view of the referees on the field, if they feel they need to review something then they make a clear sign to indicate a review (as if they're drawing a TV screen with their fingers) and they can review the footage at the side of the pitch and communicate with the VAR.
To do this they need to go to the Referee Review Area (RRA) which is a marked area with the monitor at the side of the pitch. Just like broadcasters, VARs have access to numerous broadcast cameras. At the World Cups these included additional offside cameras only available to the VAR team.
At the Women's World Cup this year VAR was also used to check that goalkeepers stayed on the goalline during penalties. This will not be checked in the Premier League.
How will it be applied in the Premier League?
The Premier League says "there will be a high bar for VAR intervention on subjective decisions to maintain the pace and intensity of the matches".
As at the World Cup, the VARs will be constantly checking in the background - even when they seem inactive they will be active. The Premier League wants there to be as little VAR involvement as possible.
The Premier League has also further clarified the "clear and obvious" rule by saying that "factual decisions, such as offside or if a foul was committed inside or outside the penalty area, will not be subject to the clear and obvious error test".
The red card VAR rules are different for the Premier League than they were for the FIFA World Cups. As well as reversing wrong red cards, the Premier League VARs will be able to review missed red cards - incidents such as elbows which were simply missed by the on-field referee. This will definitely lead to some controversy for incidents that have slipped by in the past.
The mistaken identity part of the FIFA VAR rules will also apply to yellow cards (if the wrong player has been yellow carded).
VAR will let the referee know if there has been a missed card or if it was not a sending-off offence. pic.twitter.com/oGl8vxmOzD— Premier League (@premierleague) August 8, 2019
For goals, they'll tell on-field referees not to restart play if there's an issue, like an offside or foul in the build-up, or if the ball has gone out of play. They'll check all goals and offsides will be judged on the phase of play that led to the goal. Again it'll be about correcting clear and obvious (that phrase again) errors.
With VAR coming to the Premier League, every goal will be checked.— Premier League (@premierleague) August 8, 2019
Here’s how it will help when reviewing the phase of play that led to the final effort… pic.twitter.com/yfFjGgCQDY
The Referee Review Area was used a lot at the two recent World Cups, but the Premier League says this area will be used sparingly and that "the final decision will always be taken by the on-field referee".
We don’t want to unnecessarily delay the game, so the Referee Review Area will be used sparingly in the Premier League pic.twitter.com/VE3eFssgCj— Premier League (@premierleague) August 8, 2019
In the stadiums, VAR decisions will be shown on the big screen and they'll see text telling them what the VAR is currently looking at while a check is going on. For overturned decisions, a definitive video clip will also be shown, though presumably, this won't happen at grounds like Old Trafford where there's no big screen.
How did VAR come about?
As recently as 2012, technology was being kept out of football. A decision that year to enable goalline technology (thanks in part to the reaction to Frank Lampard's phantom 2010 World Cup goal in Bloemfontein) saw it used at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and in the Premier League, but there was still a greater goal - to irradicate bad decisions where there was "a clear and obvious mistake".
Rules in Association Football move slowly. They are managed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) - not even FIFA, the world governing body. IFAB is an independent body that resists unnecessary changes and keeps football away from the yo-yo rule-making seen in some other sports.
But in 2016 the IFAB decided to allow experimentation with VAR looking for "clear errors in match-changing situations” and subsequently approved it for use. It has been used in the 2018 and 2019 World Cups, the Nations League and the FA Cup in England.
In terms of the Premier League, the clubs held a vote in November 2018 to decide whether to introduce it for this season. The decision was unanimous.
Issues with VAR so far - does it work?
The intention of VAR was not to have lengthy stoppages in the game but sometimes that hasn't worked.
Stoppages of several minutes were seen in last year's World Cup. So FIFA showed replays on the big screen at last year's World Cup to remove confusion (again this will be the case in the Premier League). The message is clear: VAR isn't perfect, but it's better than nothing.
The idea behind VAR is not, as in rugby, to refer things upstairs for a decision. Instead, the intention of VAR - and the instruction given to referees at the World Cup - is to make the decision and let VAR sort things out afterwards. For close offside calls at FIFA tournaments, assistant referees have been told to keep their flags down and let VAR decide. We don't quite know if that will
Another criticism is that goals can be celebrated and yet it's 30 seconds later that everyone realises that the goal is being checked for it to be subsequently ruled out.
We've also seen a bunch of controversial penalties for handball because 'intent' isn't taken into consideration - instead, it's simply if the hand is hit by the ball in an unnatural position. We saw this occur during the Paris St Germain vs Manchester United game in the Champions League earlier this year. The Premier League's refereeing chief Mike Riley has suggested that the Premier League VARs won't be quite so strict.
FIFA head of refereeing Massimo Busacca sounded a note of caution about VAR last year; that it isn't perfect, but it's better than nothing. "We are looking to have incredible uniformity and consistency, but don't think that technology solves the problem 100 percent" he said during a media briefing.
"In front of video, you will always have a human who is making an interpretation. It's not [like] goal-line technology with a vibration [on the referee's wrist]. It's an interpretation."
How a VAR team works
For the Premier League, the VAR team will be based at the Premier League's broadcast centre at Stockley Park, West London in a dedicated "VAR hub".
International tournament VARs are based at the broadcast HQ for the entire tournament, known as the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) - such as the large facility set up in Paris for this year's Women's World Cup. For that tournament, there were 15 VARs in attendance at the tournament and 10 of those worked as VARs or referees at last year's FIFA World Cup in Russia.
We've previously visited a couple of IBC facilities and they are massive, with host broadcasters all having edit suites, offices and the ability to take pictures from all sources and studios. Essentially feeds from each of the stadia go via fibre to the IBC which is then taken by each broadcaster, mixed with studio segments and other footage and so on.
The main VAR has a main display as well as a secondary one where they can see four alternative camera angles. They also communicate directly with the referee, again via a fibre line.
There are then two extra VARS. One keeps the VAR up-to-date with live play if an incident is being reviewed (they're known as the AVAR1).
Another (AVAR2) is dedicated to offside decisions - they can see each goal area on their screens. They anticipate if there might be a problem with play and checks ahead to speed up the review process. The offside displays feature a 3D line system which is superimposed by software. You can see that working in this video.
A dedicated person in the VOR uses a touch screen to show the correct graphics are generated for the screens in the stadium.