Premier League: Referees are the last remaining VAR problem 

John Roycroft expresses his frustration that referees still can override VAR evidence in favour of their own decisions.
Premier League: Referees are the last remaining VAR problem 

Big screen displays a VAR decision during a game. Unfortunately, referees do not have to follow VAR recommendations over their own opinion. Resulting in some peculiar penalty decisions.    Picture: Glyn Kirk/PA Wire.

FOR years we had the problem of balls crossing the goal-line, only for the score to be ruled out as never happening. This, despite that even Joe in row Y with the Coca-Cola bottle prescription glasses, could clearly see the ball had travelled a foot past the whitewash.

Thankfully, these errors were eventually sorted out by goal-line technology. The ball passes the line, the referee gets a buzz on his watch that it, a goal.

The introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) was heralded as the next great step in technological assistance for the referee. The issues of inaccurate off-side and dubious penalty decisions had been a scourge on the game and any effort to address the problems was welcomed by fans.

Offside

While VAR's technology works just fine at a technical level, the human interpretation of what it shows has been a disappointment. Two seasons of hopelessly analytical interpretation of the offside rule saw VAR reviews deem players' armpits, shirtsleeves, and shoe-laces as encroaching the last line of defence, wiping out some of the best goals ever scored in the Premier League on the perceived advantage a piece of fabric on the wrong side of a designated line gives the striker.

The Liverpool 'goal' from Roberto Firmino is chalked off by VAR which deemed that Diogo Jota was in an offside position in the build-up.
The Liverpool 'goal' from Roberto Firmino is chalked off by VAR which deemed that Diogo Jota was in an offside position in the build-up.

Thankfully, the offside decisions have been somewhat addressed this season. Now, there is a conscious decision on behalf of authorities to not scrub off a perfectly good goal on ridiculously trivial margins.

So far, this season, if the mass of the attacker is in line with the defender, then an astray fingernail or sleeve will not be deemed enough to rule it offside.

Fine, done and dusted. VAR is doing what it was always boasted it could do.

Well no not really. Like a fairground wack-a-mole, soon as we have knocked down VAR's first problem, up pops its next inadequacy, the penalty call and referees strange interpretation of what VAR shows them.

The issue came to a head again, last Sunday, in the Man United West Ham game where there were genuine calls for four penalties between the sides but where only one was given.

Referee Martin Atkinson was the man in the middle and he had a hard day in the office where fans (on both sides) and pundits all agreed that he got at least two (maybe three) of the four penalty decisions wrong.

The most egregious of Atkinson's decisions came a little after the hour mark with the match balanced at 1-1. West Ham's defensive midfielder Tomas Soucek clearly had his legs whipped from under him by United full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka inside the penalty box. Atkinson must have not believed his eyes because he somehow came to the decision of a free-out for United.

A decision that even had Man United fans scratching their head.

Referee Martin Atkinson (left), Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo and Mason Greenwood look on as Paul Pogba receive treatment for an injury during the Premier League match against West Ham at the London Stadium, London. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.
Referee Martin Atkinson (left), Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo and Mason Greenwood look on as Paul Pogba receive treatment for an injury during the Premier League match against West Ham at the London Stadium, London. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

It was a clear moment of injustice and VAR rightly called for the attention of Atkinson to review his decision. Good, this is the reason VAR was introduced, righting obvious wrongs. And so Atkinson trotted over to the VAR screen to review the play. But despite everyone and their blind auntie seeing that Wan-Bissaka took out Soucek, Atkinson returned to the field and gave a free out for Man United. An astonishing decision.

The only thing that can be said in favour of Atkinson is that he then proceeded to balance it out by not giving what seemed a definite penalty to Man United and Ronaldo 10-minutes later.

Monitor

With the Portuguese legend bombing in on the West Ham goal, he clearly had his legs taken from under him by Vladimir Coufal's challenge. But Atkinson waved it off. Once again VAR called the foul to the attention of Atkinson, once again, after viewing the footage, the initial decision remained.

That wasn't the end of it. A few minutes later Kurt Zouma's late tackle on Ronaldo was ignored too. The VAR review this time showed Ronaldo drag his right leg before the tackle made contact, fair enough for Atkinson. But it also showed that Zouma did not get the ball and took out Ronaldo anyway. As the saying goes, 'we have seen them given as penalties before.'

Referee Chris Kavanagh consults the pitch-side VAR screen during a Premier League game. Picture: James Warwick
Referee Chris Kavanagh consults the pitch-side VAR screen during a Premier League game. Picture: James Warwick

This isn't an attack on Atkinson personally. Referees are human and liable to subjective decision-making like the rest of us. There were plenty of other dubious penalty decisions over the weekend most notably the sending off/on again of Kyle Walker in the Man City Southampton game.

It is a system failure to allow referees have the last call on their own decisions. As in who polices the police?

So instead of the game been all about the Jesse Lingard winner, the continuing Ronaldo roadshow, Mark Noble and De Gea's last-minute shootout drama, it instead reverted to controversy again, just because the football authorities won't address the referee privilege to have their decisions questioned, ignoring the technology brought in to eradicate injustices and confusion.

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