Wolves are right to want VAR scrapped - 'frustration and confusion' are all it can produce

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Wolvers have tabled a motion to end the use of VAR in the Premier League - and while it won’t work, they’re right to try.

It probably won’t work, but you can sympathise with Wolverhampton Wanderers’ effort to try and scrap VAR from the Premier League – after all, a system which promised to wipe out the worst refereeing mistakes has instead just added another layer of obfuscation and human error to the game. Almost everyone involved in the game would agree that something needs to be done, and scrapping it altogether is certainly the easiest way to achieve that.

Wolves’ owners have put forward a proposal to drop VAR from next season which will be debated at the next league meeting on 6 June. If there is enough support, it will move forward to a formal vote, with 14 teams needing to be in agreement for the proposal to pass. As it stands, it seems unlikely to do so, with the Premier League board fiercely opposed to the idea of scrapping VAR and several clubs likely to vote it down if it even gets that far.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But while it’s unlikely to be a successful attempt, it may well be worth a try – because no matter how much you work on VAR, no matter how many new technological innovations are incorporated into the suites at Stockley Park and no matter how much you train the referees and review the processes, it can never fundamentally achieve the goal of eradicating mistakes. Refereeing decisions in football are almost all inherently subjective, and no amount of slow-motion replays can make most calls ‘clear and obvious.’

Wolves’ letter outlining their proposal offers nine reasons to drop VAR. Some are more reasonable than others (citing the fact that some fans boo the Premier League anthem because of VAR isn’t really the foundation of a watertight argument) but there are several very fair points indeed – that VAR creates “frustration and confusion” due to lengthy, poorly-explained checks, that it disrupts the pace of the game, that it “erodes trust” in refereeing standards.

But it also claims that the current processes represent an “overreach of VAR's original purpose to correct clear and obvious mistakes” and is “now over-analysing subjective decisions and compromising the game's fluidity and integrity.” Which is a tricky point to nail down… after all, how many decisions in football are truly objective?

Offside is objective, and VAR is undeniably accurate in that regard, even if the lengthy wait times can be frustrating – semi-automated offside, which will be introduced next season, will hopefully speed things up somewhat. But almost nothing else that referees have to rule on is cut and dry.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

When a foul is committed, how can you draw a completely uncontroversial, universally accepted line on what excessive force looks like? How much can a shirt be tugged before it becomes a foul? How far, precisely, can an arm be held away from the body before it constitutes an ‘unnatural position’? And, short of acquiring psychic powers, just how can an official ever truly know if a foul was deliberate?

Of course, plenty of decisions are straightforward enough. The defender ploughs in with both feet and studs raised. The shirt isn’t so much tugged as pulled off the attacker’s body. The hand belongs to Luis Suárez in the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup. But how many potential offences split pundits in the studio, or fans in the stands? Even qualified referees can’t always agree on what is or isn’t a foul.

And all of this extends towards the point… what is clear and obvious? At what point does the mistake become so egregious that it needs to be reversed? That in itself is an entirely subjective opinion and I doubt that you will find many offences in which 100% of viewers were in agreement over whether it was a foul or not – and that’s before you take bias into account, which makes every fan believe that their team endures more bad decisions than anyone else. According to ESPN, incidentally, VAR decisions have gone against Wolves more often than any other team in the Premier League since it was introduced (not necessarily wrongly, just against them either way) and that may well have informed the proposal in the first place.

But all of that doesn’t entirely undermine Wolves’ broader points about VAR and its various failings. The biggest issue is perhaps that, in attempting to produce factual results in a game which resists common sense, VAR has become caught between a process that wants to allow referees’ original decisions to stand wherever possible and one which microanalyses decisions in a way that far exceeds the human eye’s ability to process them.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So simultaneously, the system attempts to support referees by upholding original decisions while also undermining them by proving them wrong when placed under the microscope of repeated slow-motion replays. As Wolves point out in their letter, the result is damage to the trust in officiating standards – trust which is further eroded by the fact that we get another level of granular analysis when audio is released and dissected, which occasionally proves that referees really do sometimes just make a complete meal of things.

Referees are human beings who are expected to somehow be free of human error – clearly something that is impossible. Granted, sometimes the human error is especially shocking, but that doesn’t make mistakes any less inevitable. Mostly, what VAR has become is not a way of ensuring fair outcomes of football matches but a means of exposing every layer of human frailty possible.

Which is why VAR will probably never work as intended, or at least to the extent that it would have to in order to make everyone happy. Putting a referee in a dark room miles away from the match doesn’t make them infallible, especially when there is no truly ‘correct’ answer to most of the questions asked of them anyway.

The processes can be improved, certainly. VAR needs to decide what its purpose actually is – is it to correct only the most blatant errors, knowing that will mean it results in decisions which seem ‘wrong’ to many people based on the replays? Is it to get as close as possible to the correct decision every time regardless of the on-field call, meaning more time taken, more granular analysis and more arguments over subjective choices? Again – there simply isn’t a clear-cut right answer, and there will never be a process which satisfies everyone. There will always be a winner and a loser from every refereeing decision, some of them will always feel (or actually be) unjust, and VAR doesn’t change that. It only adds an extra layer of potential frustration and angst.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So perhaps Wolves are right, and we should just give the whole thing up as a bad job. It likely won’t happen – there are too many clubs whose sense of injustice about poor decisions has led them to want VAR reinforced rather than scrapped, with Wolves’ barb about VAR “fuelling completely nonsensical allegations of corruption” clearly aimed at Nottingham Forest who fall firmly into that camp – but maybe it would be for the best anyway. Some things are simply doomed to fail, and VAR appears to be one of them.

Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.