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All hail our new robot overlords: VAR coming to Premier League next season

This is a good thing.

Tigres UANL v Lobos BUAP - Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images

In all things, we should strive to be, or to get, better than we are. This is particularly true in a work context - I don’t care what you do, whether you’re a warehouse worker or a brain surgeon, you should always strive to do your job as best you can, and try to find ways to do things better and evolve your skills over time. You shouldn’t do this solely to get promotions or raises, although those things are awesome and should be welcomed, but because doing your best is a very satisfying thing, and is a great way to feel good about yourself.

It’s in that spirit that I share the news today that VAR is coming to the Premier League next year. For those of you who have not paid any attention to soccer in the last few years, VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee. The important word in that title is the middle one - the system of replays is emphatically not designed to take over everything in the game, or to remove the discretion and influence of the referees on the pitch or their assistants.

What is VAR? It’s simple. There’s a referee at every match, off the pitch, in the broadcast booth or in an office somewhere. That referee has access to the same TV feeds that you and I at home have - in other words, multiple angles of every incident. They probably have more angles than we do, in fact, because they get feeds direct from the broadcast truck, and most of those feeds don’t make it out to broadcast, we at home just get the “best” one.

That referee in that office is there to adjudicate four types of incidents:

- Goals. Not just whether the whole of the ball crossed the whole of the line - there’s already tech for that. VAR will be responsible for adjudicating whether there was a foul or an offsides violation committed anywhere in the buildup to a goal - in other words, four moves before the goal was scored, if there was a foul the center ref didn’t see, the VAR referee can signal that it should be reviewed.

- Penalties. This one’s more straightforward. If a penalty is called on the pitch, the VAR official will review it to ensure that it was, in fact, a penalty.

- Red Cards. As with penalties, the VAR official will review a red card to confirm that it was in fact a red card.

- Mistaken identity. A double check on the referee in case of a yellow or red card, to ensure the card went to the correct player.

That’s it. VAR cannot be used to determine/challenge offsides, or “routine” fouls, or anything like that. It’s designed to be used for significant events that a referee might not be in the best position to see, events that might have a major impact on the game. It’s designed to help referees in situations like this, involving Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling:

The second view of that incident in the tweet is exactly why there is a need for VAR. That view shows basically what the referee saw, and as you can see, from that angle, it looked like Sterling was tripped. But other angles show clearly he tripped on his own, untouched by the opposition, which would be an easy overturn from VAR’s point of view.

Those are the situations in which it is used, but how does VAR work, anyway?

Well, that gets to my issue with VAR as it’s currently implemented in MLS and as it will be done in the Premier League. When a VAR-reviewable incident occurs, the VAR official in the booth signals the center referee to alert him that there’s a reviewable incident. But then, it is up to the center ref to determine whether to actually review said incident; if the center ref doesn’t want to, the incident does not get reviewed.

That, to me, sorta defeats the purpose of VAR - if the VAR official sees an incident that needs reviewing, that official should be able to mandate that it be reviewed. It should not be up to the center ref whether it be renewed or not.

One of the main fears of people who don’t necessarily want VAR to be a thing is how long it will take to review a call using VAR. The phrase “flow of the game” tends to get thrown about here, as if soccer is a non-stop game of 90 uninterrupted minutes, which ignores throw-ins, corners, and all the other things that interrupt the flow of the game.

The rebuttal I have to the pace-of-play argument is simple. In each of the reviewable instances listed above, as it currently goes, play stops anyway. During that stoppage, players are either madly celebrating a goal or madly crowding the referee to protest the card/penalty decision that was made. VAR can and does operate in parallel with that time-wasting, so that at the end of it, there’s something constructive, either a confirmation or an overturning of the call on the pitch.

In the season and a half that MLS has used VAR, and I know this is just one anecdata point, I have not noticed an unreasonable delay in play due to VAR decisions. The one criticism I have of it in MLS is, at least in stadium, you have very little idea what is going on - there’s never an announcement made and fans don’t know VAR is being used until after it has started, so there’s an odd little pause in which we can guess VAR activity is going on, but we’re not sure. On TV it’s obvious, though, and if the implementation in the Premier League uses other leagues as use cases, hopefully they’ll learn to communicate better in-stadium.

It’s also important to note that VAR is not, as mentioned above, going to eliminate the need for referees, nor is it going to make the game 100% perfect. That’s not its intent nor is it its design. VAR, as with all replay systems in all sports, is designed to help the humans on the pitch make things better, and to make refereeing more consistent, but there will always be calls that, even with VAR, are not clear and obvious.

Rather than using that as a stick with which to beat the concept, it might be helpful to see VAR for what it is - another way to make the game better over time. It won’t be perfect from moment one, but that basically means it’s like everything else in the game - an improvement that will itself improve over time, and will mean the game is more clearly refereed and the rules more clearly understood by both players and referees, which is never a bad thing.

Change can be a good thing, if you remain open to it - I challenge you to remain open to VAR being a good thing overall, and not just writing it off as unnecessary from day one.