Why Mike Riley’s VAR admission is no surprise, yet remains equally worrying for football

Featured in the Raumdeuter Online Magazine – Edition #15

Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has been a talking point all throughout the summer leading into the Premier League campaign, and since the football kicked off seemingly a headline-grabber each and every week. Brought in to eradicate doubt and controversy, it seems to have generated more than it has solved.

As such, it comes as little surprise when Premier League referee chief Mike Riley admitted that there already have been four VAR mistakes in the top flight already. That’s the equivalent to one VAR error in every single game week.

These are out-and-out mistakes too. Not vague or seemingly obtuse rules, such as dubious handballs or miniscule offsides. Those are a whole different category of their own. No, what Riley is refereeing to is situations where by the very letter of football law, the VAR system which was brought in to make no mistakes and remove them from the modern game has made a call that was just that: a mistake.

The examples brought up by Riley include Fabian Schar’s equaliser for Newcastle against Watford and Leicester midfielder Youri Tielemans’ stamp on Bournemouth man Callum Wilson. Both were discussed in Thursday’s meeting of Premier League shareholders.

The other two errors cited by Riley were the referee’s decision not to award Manchester City a penalty when Jefferson Lerma caught David Silva in their match, and a decision not to award a penalty to West Ham when Sebastien Haller was brought down by Norwich’s Tom Trybull.

So far this season, 227 incidents have been checked by VAR, with six on-field decisions changed while ten decision have come up which should have been overturned.

According to Riley, the Premier League and officials are constantly learning and therefore errors occurring should be excused. Except, that just seems to defeat the very nature of having the VAR system in place. The whole justification for it being there is to remove errors and prevent mistakes – to remove the objective, human element of officiating from the modern game – and yet this just proves that either the system is ready yet, or at its very nature it cannot achieve that.

Personally, I do believe it’s the latter. Now, I accept I have not been a big fan of VAR from day one, and so my inherent biases will also be slanted against the system, but the fact mistakes can happen in it just seem to reinforce my prejudices against the model. It might take key decisions away from the pitch, out of the fishbowl atmosphere of the football ground to prevent it influencing a decision, but it is still ultimately a decision made by humans. It is by its very nature still subjective, therefore.

The only difference is that now the VAR officials can watch back footage of an incident at incremental, frame-by-frame speeds. Minute details, which would never be seen in the real time environment of a modern game of football , can now be used to make calls and influence decisions. It ruins the natural feel and flow to football, turning it into something very mechanical and robotic.

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