Premier League VAR is worse under Howard Webb despite clear and obvious solution…

John Nicholson
Former Premier League referee Howard Webb

The Premier League needs to suspend VAR or get rid completely. Howard Webb has done nothing to fix the flawed and incredibly unfair system. Just ask Brighton…

In the arguments over the pros and cons of introducing VAR, proponents painted those ‘just say that it’s the World Cup final and England…’ situations in which VAR would somehow save football from unfairness. That was the basis on which it was sold to us. It would make things more fair. Yeah, well tell that to Brighton who were denied two goals and a penalty by yet another terrible VAR performance this weekend, one of many almost every week now.

The best way to reduce errors is to stop using VAR, or, at the very least, use it much, much less. Use it purely for really glaring errors when a ref has missed someone who is three metres offside or when a defender has punched it out. Those massive mistakes are very few and far between and don’t really justify VAR’s existence but at least would have some use and allow its advocates not to have to lose face, admit they made a mistake and back down.

The current situation is not tolerable, nor is it sustainable. You can’t introduce a system whose whole purpose is to correct mistakes but which gets things wrong. It’s not credible. VAR has made the game more unfair in so many ways. Here’s just a few.

It’s unfair to penalise marginally offside goals where being marginal offside gained no advantage. That isn’t what offside was invented for.

It’s unfair to make decisions about incidents which cannot be seen with the naked eye. This is an analogue sport, not a digital computer game.

It’s unfair to award penalties for handball when the ball accidentally hits a hand for part of the season and then not do so for another part.

It’s unfair to not award a penalty when someone is fouled in the penalty box because it is not a clear and obvious error by the officials. It just adds another layer of subjectivity.

It is unfair and inherently contradictory to take over three minutes to make a decision over whether something is actually a clear and obvious error.

It is unfair to have to wait until a move is completed before the offside flag is raised in case a goal is scored and VAR has to make a call whether the flag was right or not.

It is unfair to officials because it undermines their authority on the pitch and makes them worse at their job as they know VAR can make decisions for them and they won’t take blame.

It is unfair on all of us to see a goal scored and celebrated, only to have it cancelled up to five minutes later. That moment is football’s greatest asset and VAR has compromised it.

It is unfair that VAR is only applied at certain stages for certain infringements because you can’t divorce any phase of play from another. Everything influences everything else.

It is unfair that it has introduced a dread into football when a goal is scored that previously didn’t exist.

It is unfair that we were told VAR was only going to correct big mistakes.

It’s unfair that lines are drawn to ‘prove’ offside  when we don’t know if the line is drawn when the ball leaves the passers’s foot or when they first strike it. If you’re going to get granular about it and are happy that an offside knee can disqualify a goal, the exact timing needs to be measured accurately.

But most of all, it is unfair that it is not doing the job it is supposed to do well enough.

Howard Webb was made PGMOL chief to oversee changes to how VAR is used. But it has not improved at all. Fans and TV watchers simply don’t know how, why and when it will be applied. Decisions are hugely inconsistent, not just from game to game but within games too.

Webb has had to apologise to Brighton and even former referees like Webb’s pal Peter Walton can’t defend some decisions. He said of the clear foul on Brighton’s Mitoma in the penalty box “It’s a penalty kick. I can’t defend it. The player has dangled his foot and he has caught him. For me, it’s a penalty kick and it’s one where VAR should get involved.”

Refs have always made mistakes like this, but not giving it as a penalty when you’ve time and equipment to judge it, undermines the whole system. It has one job.

Walton claimed that Webb is overhauling the system. “Howard knows VAR has not been set up the way it was supposed to be. He’s dealing with it.”

Is he really? How does that explain the Mitoma decision? And what does overhauling mean and what does ‘not been set up…’ mean? What is being set up? It’s just loads of cameras and some line drawing software. How do you overhaul that?

The problem is clearly that people understand the guidance for using VAR differently. Walton again, “VAR is told some weeks to do it, some weeks not to do it (overrule the referee)”

This opens many questions. Who is telling them this and on whose authority? Webb? Why does it vary so much and so often? Are individual VAR’s making up their own guidance? If so, why hasn’t Webb got them all in a room and laid out exactly what the rules are and how they should interpret them? It’s not that hard. Write a big list with a Sharpie and give everyone a copy. Easy.

Walton says Webb is dealing with the problems. “It’s a slow process, unfortunately … we are seeing changes already. Unfortunately today, it’s not one of their better days.”

Again that just raises more questions. Why is it slow? Why are we even playing football with such a flawed system? Why were they not properly trained in the first place? Why weren’t these problems anticipated in advance? They were obvious and many knew where the problems would lie.

Julen Lopetegui reacts against Leeds

Also, to keep changing the officiating practices within a season raises the question of competitive dissonance between games radically affecting the outcome of the final table. How fair is it to play a season under a constantly shifting officiating regime? We already know that VAR has deprived Arsenal of two points. If they lose the title by a point they should sue.

VAR has recently been introduced into Scotland’s top flight with disastrous results, as anyone with half a brain knew it would be. We even warned the SFA about it. How did we know? Because we’d seen it in action in England, of course. The same mistakes are being made. Why would they not be? And of course, as so many warned, the referees are still accused of being biased and now so is the VAR. It’s been so bad that there are increasingly loud calls from prominent voices in Scottish football to abandon it already. And up here it doesn’t seem unlikely that it will be.

And surely that is what must happen in the Premier League. Webb having to apologise every weekend for yet another cock-up has undermined everyone’s trust in the system. Suspend VAR, go away, redraw the rules of the game on issues like offside and handball so that VAR can be used consistently and properly if you must use it at all.

Or just don’t bother. Football never needed you, VAR.

To those who say we have gained a small percentile of more correct decisions via VAR I would say, we have lost too much in pursuit of that goal, far, far too much. It has fundamentally altered the football experience and corrupted some of its best aspects. And it is still getting things wrong. No-one said it would get things this wrong.

Only reintroduce it when you can prove that it will improve enjoyment of the game. That is a burden of proof that is surely beyond the greatest VAR advocate. The truth is as ever more promises to make it better are made, it gets worse. The charge sheet grows longer every weekend.

The majority of fans agree it has made football worse. You know, I know it, we all know it. So why persist with this fundamentally unfair and flawed system?