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VAR 4 - Arsenal 2

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The Gunners have had mixed fortunes with the league’s new technology.

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Arsenal FC v Sheffield United - Premier League Photo by Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images

VAR is a much talked about topic this season as it has become a regular part of Premier League action. Its intention is to help referees officiate fairly and accurately. So far the technology has been met with plenty of skepticism from players, managers, and fans alike.

The issues people have with VAR are myriad. It causes breaks that prevents matches from flowing smoothly and can seem overlong in light of the incident being reviewed. It is not entirely clear when VAR has and has not been used. Incidents that appear to be perfect opportunities to employ the technology have seen VAR not used and no explanation provided after the fact as to why it was not. The “clear and obvious” error standard is not a clear one, and for my money, doesn’t really make sense. If VAR exists to get calls right, why is there a presumption that the call on the field was originally made correctly?

There is also the interaction with offside. By the letter of the law, the goals that have been ruled out for offside when an attacker had a toe beyond the defender have been correctly called back. But those decisions feel wrong. They feel like they are contrary to the spirit of the law and of the game. The VAR-offside interaction isn’t a failing of VAR; it’s a problem with the offside law that VAR has thrown into sharp relief. But if VAR is here to stay (and it almost certainly is), the FA should revisit some of the Laws of the Game (like offside and handball) with an eye to their interplay with review technology.

Another puzzling trend is referees not using the pitch-side monitor to review incidents themselves, instead relying on the review official. The problem is that it feels as if the review officials in the “war room” are overly deferential to the call on the field, that they won’t overturn a call out of a misplaced desire to “protect” their fellow referees. Premier League referees were recently encouraged to use the pitch-side monitor for red card incidents.

Let’s look at VAR in action, take the Nicolas Pepe incident at the weekend. The Ivorian appeared to be tripped by Sheffield’s Jack O’Connell but Mike Dean waved play on. We think VAR reviewed the incident (but aren’t sure), and it felt as if more time and consideration should have been given. Additionally, Dean could have gone to the pitch-side monitor to review the incident himself. He didn’t.

Acknowledging my Arsenal-tinted glasses here, but it feels like the Gunners have had that foul given against for opposing penalties more than once this season. And I won’t get into Mike Dean’s unwillingness to award penalties to Arsenal. Check the numbers. It’s astounding.

When asked about the incident after the match Mikel Arteta expressed his frustration.

“I think it’s very clear,” he said regarding the trip on Pepe.

He also brought up the Jorginho shirt pulling foul that was not given in a recent loss to Chelsea. “It was the same as with Chelsea, very clear. I don’t know how many tools do we need?”

Other occasions where the Gunners were on the wrong end of a VAR decision include:

  • At Bramall Lane in October. Sokratis was pulled back in the Sheffield United box, but the Gunners were denied a penalty.
  • At the Emirates against Crystal Palace. Sokratis scored a winning goal that was ruled out after VAR took a second look at a “foul” committed by Calum Chambers. The referee chief has since admitted that the goal should have stood.
  • Last weekend at Crystal Palace Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was shown a yellow card for a bad tackle on Max Meyer. Paul Tierney turned to the VAR for a review and Aubameyang received a straight red card instead, which was probably the right call.

To be fair, Arsenal have also benefited from the new technology.

  • At Old Trafford in September, a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was ruled no goal for offside. Upon review, the goal was given.
  • At Norwich in December, Aubameyang missed a penalty, but VAR spotted encroachment by the defense. The spot kick was retaken, and Aubameyang scored.
Crystal Palace v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

It’s not just Arsenal that have been affected by VAR calls or no calls. A recent ESPN article outlines how each Premier League club has fared using the new system. Other teams have been on the wrong end of “bad” VAR decisions, but by ESPN’s metric, which includes more than just VAR, Arsenal have been the “unluckiest” club in the league this season.

The bottom line is that VAR is a system administered by humans, and humans make mistakes even when they have technology to help avoid them. VAR was put in place to reduce referee error and get more calls right, but it doesn’t feel like more calls are being made correctly. It may be the case, statistically, that they are getting more calls right, but it doesn’t FEEL that way.

Instead, it feels as if the conversation has shifted from “the referee got it wrong” to “the VAR got it wrong” or “why didn’t they use VAR.” If a call still goes against your team even after it was or could have been reviewed, it heightens the feeling of injustice. Of course, part of that feeling is the natural outcome of fan-bias, but part of it circles back to the inescapable fact that humans are not, and never will, be perfect

VAR is a Good Thing, and once they figure out how to use it properly, I think we will look back on pre-VAR football and wonder why the Premier League held out for so long. It was always going to be a learning process and was always going to have growing pains. I just don’t think anybody expected those issues would be as pronounced as they have been, and there definitely still is work to be done to use VAR optimally.