Premier League: Time to take VAR technology out of the hands of referees

Fans and pundits alike are continually upset at the decision process of the Video Assistant Referee in the Premier League. But as John Roycroft develops, it's the referees themselves, rather than VAR technology, that is still getting the critical decisions wrong.
Premier League: Time to take VAR technology out of the hands of referees

Referee Paul Tierney shows a yellow card to Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane (centre) for a foul on Liverpool's Andrew Robertson (right) during their Premier League match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire.

NOTHING has remained a bone of contention to this column over the past season and beyond than the ability of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to find a way to ruin a perfectly good match with an ill-judged adjudication on what seems a blatantly obvious decision.

The latest head-scratching moments came in last Sunday’s Premier League clash between home-side Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.

Twenty minutes into the first half, Spurs captain Harry Kane took a two-footed lunge into the ankles of Liverpool left-back Andy Robertson. Despite both of Kane’s feet being off the ground, connecting with the Scotsman’s ankle and making no contact with the ball other than with his hand, referee Paul Tierney decided to only show Kane a yellow card. All the while the VAR officials didn’t open their mouths to call a review on the decision, despite every TV camera in the stadium clearly confirming what anyone watching the game saw as one of the clearest decisions to issue a red card.

Robertson himself was later rightly sent off for a ridiculous swipe of his leg on Emerson Royal. His red card coming from a VAR review being called on the tackle, despite it being no way as dangerous as Kane’s slide on Robertson. The subsequent change of Robertson’s yellow to a straight red further frustrated the Liverpool camp with referee Tierney and the constraints of VAR.

Referee Paul Tierney shows a red card to Liverpool's Andrew Robertson after a VAR review for a foul on Tottenham Hotspur's Emerson Royal during their Premier League match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Referee Paul Tierney shows a red card to Liverpool's Andrew Robertson after a VAR review for a foul on Tottenham Hotspur's Emerson Royal during their Premier League match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was booked for his angry reaction to the decision not to send Kane off and confronted the officials at full-time, telling Tierney: "I have no problem with any other referees, only you."

Klopp told BBC Sport after the game: "I think we all agree it is a clear red card. I just need to ask two people - Mr Tierney and whoever was the VAR. You can give Robertson a red card, he knows that himself, but Harry should not have been on the pitch in the second half.

"If Mr Tierney does not see it, I get that. But the VAR was obviously awake because he told him to look again at Robertson."

Later in the week, Liverpool assistant coach Pep Lijnders said, "Everyone saw what happened. I think VAR is a good thing that is in football because it can help to make the big decisions right.

"Everyone makes mistakes. If Jurgen or myself make big mistakes, we get punished, if the players make mistakes, they get punished. If a referee makes mistakes, the players and team get punished.

Former Premier League referee Dermot Gallagher admitted on Sky Sports News that Harry Kane was 'lucky' not to be sent off against Liverpool. But bizarrely rationalised how VAR was not called to review Kane’s tackle due to the fact Robertson was quick enough to raise his leg off the ground rather than having it planted when Kane made contact with him mid-slide.

Referee view

“I think where he’s got lucky," Gallagher said, "is the referee has looked for the height of the [Robertson's] boot.

“I think that’s the only reason the referee kept him [Kane] on the field is the height of the [Robertson's] boot."

 Gallagher was then asked why VAR did not intervene and ask Tierney to look at the pitchside monitor like he did for the challenge by Robertson on Royal. Gallagher replied, "Because the VAR is a referee and he gets the same coaching and training as the referee, and that’s how they’ve been coached.” 

Countering that mindset, on the other hand, another former referee, Mark Clattenburg said, "If you don't believe this is a clear and obvious error about Kane, you're not doing your job correctly.

"I think we, as referees, are sometimes guilty of knowing the laws of the game but we don't understand the game.

"They are saying that his leg [Robertson’s] has to be planted for it to be a red, which is a new one to me."

Indeed, whenever, has the position of a victim mitigated the intentions or ferocity of an offence?

"Robertson is lucky today that he's still walking. We should understand footballers more because he's not going to leave his leg there, why should he? He's not going to want his leg broken and career put in doubt."

"I think we, as referees, are sometimes guilty of knowing the laws of the game but we don't understand the game."

A young fan receives Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson's shirt after the Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle. But should City's Brazilian goalkeeper have received a red card for his challenge on Ryan Fraser? Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
A young fan receives Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson's shirt after the Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle. But should City's Brazilian goalkeeper have received a red card for his challenge on Ryan Fraser? Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Player view

This was something Alan Shearer took up on Sunday’s Match of the Day 2, wondering if referees are in time with the way players see the game being played. Shearer’s ire was raised by his beloved Newcastle’s 4-0 loss to Manchester City, where referee Martin Atkinson did not award a penalty to Newcastle for goalkeeper Ederson's challenge on Ryan Fraser, a decision Shearer described as "terrible".

"There were a couple of incredible decisions in the Liverpool game and again in this [Newcastle] game. It has to be addressed at the highest level of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited.

Once again, events last weekend demonstrated that it’s clear that the technology involved in VAR is fine for the job, only for it to be let down by the subjective decision-making of humans which it was installed to remove. What’s the point of having a technical system that minimises human error, if the very same humans decides when it is used?

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