In his latest column, Adam Bate argues that, despite the controversy, VAR has helped to make decisions more accurate. It also means that the errors that do remain erode trust like never before. Far from ending the debate, it has only sparked new ones...
Thursday 5 October 2023 19:57, UK
The error that led to Liverpool’s opening goal against Tottenham on Saturday being ruled out following a VAR review was staggering. The reaction to it also highlights that the toxicity of the debate has been exacerbated rather than ended by video intervention.
That promise always seemed undeliverable. Advocates talked of how the introduction of video technology would put an end to the debate, but it merely added another layer to it, another opportunity for humans to get in the way of the world's most popular sport.
This latest debacle was a little different in that the 'significant human error' was factual rather than subjective. It has led to Jurgen Klopp requesting a replay, Liverpool questioning the sporting integrity and others losing faith in the credibility of the competition.
The common conception appears to be that refereeing standards have never been lower, a refrain as regular as the perennial claim that the youth of today are no damn good. Ironically, it comes at a time when there are fewer inaccurate decisions than ever before.
Video technology successfully amended 49 offside calls last season, 14 goals that would have been erroneously disallowed following the raising of a flag and 35 more that would have wrongly been permitted to stand because the on-field officials missed an offence.
Even as you are reading this, there is likely to be resistance. It does not feel as if the decisions are more accurate than ever before, does it? But that feeling only serves to show that the expectations of accuracy are so much higher than they once were.
The problem is that VAR removes many of the excuses but it does not remove all of the human error. The speed of the game, the chance to see an incident only once, obstructed angles, even a sneeze at the wrong second, all those mitigating factors are gone.
It is the law of unintended consequences in action. The assumption, perhaps, was that this greater accuracy would sate people. Instead, amid ever increasing scrutiny, it encourages the fixation on those rare - and they are rare - moments when the howler still happens.
In total, including those aforementioned offside calls, there were 116 overturned decisions as a result of VAR reviews last season. Even allowing for the possibility that on-field officials adopted a wait-and-see approach due to VAR, that is a lot of major incidents corrected.
Had those errors stood, every team in the Premier League would have suffered as a result, and every team in the Premier League would have benefited from them too. As it is, a handful of mistakes have slipped through, bringing a handful of apologies.
Liverpool were wronged. Manchester United, as a largely magnanimous Klopp pointed out on Saturday, got away with one on the opening weekend. Peculiarly, the more isolated the incidents, the more pronounced the unfairness of it all can appear.
Belatedly releasing the audio was a welcome move even if it did serve to make the officials appear more foolish. In its absence, conspiracies had filled the vacuum. But Occam's razor remains the best argument against vague talk of plots against your team.
Certain improvements can and surely will follow.
This particular error could have been avoided had the officials been empowered to overturn the decision seconds after the restart. The laws are there to serve the game, not the other way around.
Preventing officials from taking paid assignments in the United Arab Emirates just days before officiating at the highest profile Premier League game of the weekend would be a sensible policy. Bad optics, as they say. Do not fuel the fire for conspiracy theorists.
Ensuring that the language is not so ambiguous would help too. Check complete? How about simply stressing that the incident was onside? Repeat, onside. That feels like a change that is easily adopted and would prevent this very specific error happening again.
There will be a drive to improve the quality of officials, a challenge at a time when there is a dearth of them at grass-roots level. Accepting that the job of a VAR requires a different skillset might encourage the position to be opened up to a more diverse talent pool too.
But this is fiddling in the margins. The fundamental problem will remain. The mistakes will continue to come. Humans will find weird and not so wonderful ways of messing up. Even semi-automated offsides may need somebody somewhere to press a button.
Ultimately, 100 per cent accuracy is impossible and anything less is now deemed unacceptable. As a result, while the statistics suggest that the game has never been more accurate, the mood around football is one of mistrust. A toxic culture has taken hold.