How VAR can be improved: Education, speed, communication
The trials of the video assistant referee (VAR) in England have not yet brought the clarity its proponents were hoping for. While on the few occasions it has been used the correct decisions have broadly been reached, the disruption to the game and the additional confusion caused are enough to wonder whether the whole process is worthwhile.
However, it looks like VAR is here to stay: the indications are that it will be used in this summer's World Cup, with a decision due on Feb. 3, while its most high-profile trial in England will come in Sunday's Carabao Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester City.
VAR is still a work in progress, a developing system which will inevitably take some time to bed in. But having observed the initial trials of VAR in England, how can it be improved? What adjustments can be made in order to make it work more smoothly?
A fundamental problem seems to be that not everyone is entirely clear on the parameters of VAR, how it works and what is considered a "clear and obvious" refereeing error. This is an ongoing process, so changes will be made, and everyone -- players, managers, clubs, fans, the media -- must be kept abreast of those alterations.
"There needs to be some sort of regular interaction, just to say 'This is where we are, and this is where we're going,'" former Premier League referee Peter Walton says. Perhaps a regular slot with a referee, or FA representative, on shows like ESPN FC, Match of the Day or Sky Sports would help keep everyone informed.
Clarification of the aims of VAR is key. "The backdrop to VAR was not to get everything 100 percent accurate," Walton says, "but to identify those clear and obvious errors -- we're looking at the Hand of God, the Thierry Henry handball that put Ireland out of the World Cup, Frank Lampard's 'goal' against Germany in 2010."
Speed up the process
In these early stages of VAR, we are most definitely losing time from games as decisions are referred. In West Brom's win over Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup, it took four minutes to check, award, then take a penalty, and not all of those minutes were made up in added time at the end of the half.
The longer stoppages are, the less satisfying a spectacle football is, but Walton thinks this will be something that will be ironed out in time. "The average throughout the world [in competitions that already use VAR] has been a formal review once every three games," he says. "Each one adds approximately 70 seconds or so to the game.
"The slower decisions are probably down to the experience of those operating it, and the experience of the technical guy sitting next to the official [at Premier League HQ]."
With practice, in theory delays should decrease.
Hand over referrals to managers
One suggestion on how to streamline the process and make it slightly more democratic is to hand things over to the managers. Rather than have officials check controversial calls, allow coaches two referrals per game, which is broadly how similar systems work in other sports.
This will present a series of problems, notably that managers may use their referrals "tactically," for instance to slow down a game if they're hanging onto a lead, and poor use could actually result in a bad decision not being corrected later in a game.
It would limit the number of stoppages, create dramatic moments and perhaps most importantly remove some pressure from referees. If a manager doesn't refer a decision, or has used up his referrals, then it's their fault.
Limit VAR purely to "objective" decisions
"Someone far more intelligent than me needs to define what 'clear and obvious' is," Walton says. "We may have to use a different term, but we need something to make people realise why a decision has been made."
This is one of the problems with the idea that VAR will make football a fairer place, because many of the decisions referred remain subjective -- fouls, handballs and so on. Even the definition of "clear and obvious," ironically enough, is not particularly clear, and as Walton says it's not an easy job to define it.
So why not limit it purely to objective decisions: whether a ball is over a line (an extension of the existing and successful goal line technology), or offside. It doesn't matter if any of these are "only just" decisions: they are binary, and VAR can help prove them.
The squiggly lines that appeared on our screens as evidence that Juan Mata's goal against Huddersfield was offside are something of a red herring: that was a breakdown in communications that should be fixed in time. But, as a way of demonstrating that a player can be offside by the smallest margin -- a toe, a knee, a chest hair -- Walton has a suggestion to make things clearer.
"Those lines we have across the field are only two dimensional," he says. "I think they need to be three-dimensional, so there's a 'wall' if you like, so it shows what part of the body is offside."
Make it clearer to those in the stadium what is going on
This seems to be the most obvious problem to fix, because as things stand VAR is, to one extent or another, ruining what chief executives might call "the match day experience." At the moment, all the fans can see when an official is talking to VAR HQ is a referee standing with his finger pressed to an ear, like a harassed security guard.
There must be much better communication within the stadium. Big screens are slightly impractical, because not every ground has them, but some sort of verbal announcement should be easy enough to implement.
"We need to have some sort of communication immediately when the call is made, so the fans will have a little bit more information," Walton says. It doesn't matter too much who actually does this -- the referee, as in NFL, the stadium announcer, another official -- but this must be put in place if VAR is not to spoil matches for those in attendance.
Bin it entirely
We do have to ponder the question of whether VAR actually creates more problems than it solves. Perhaps it's a Luddite view, but there really is something to the idea that football isn't perfect, will never be perfect and we shouldn't try making it so.
While VAR might correct a few erroneous decisions, ultimately will it be worth what we give up? With every introduction of arguably spurious technology, every attempt to sanitise the game, we take a little blood out of it. And plenty of blood has already been drained from modern football.
Huddersfield's David Wagner, the beneficiary of the VAR call against Manchester United, summed this point of view up nicely. "I don't like it, I never have," Wagner said. "Maybe I'm too traditional, but it kills the emotion in the stadium, and for me that's a big part of football's attraction."
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.