Image: ESPN

When VAR was introduced to England’s top flight at the start of the 2019/20 season, there was a lot of excitement. It was going to be a great leveller. It was going to eliminate costly refereeing mistakes. But it did not turn out that way. Instead, it brought frustration, confusion and fury amongst fans and pundits.

Fans have voiced their frustration

Offside decisions measured by the smallest margins and inconsistent use of the technology for handball and penalty incidents combined with lengthy delays over crucial decisions left fans around the country singing “It’s not football anymore” along with other more explicit chants.

The constant controversy and criticism did not abate as the season went on and by the second half of the campaign, there were already calls for changes from fans and important figures within the game. Even early supporters of the system began to admit that it was not working in its current form.

Increased accuracy is not enough

Although an increase in accurate decisions has been welcomed, many believe that in marginal cases, the benefit of the doubt should go to the attacking team. But the biggest complaint among supporters has been about the amount of time it takes to make decisions, with officials often spending minutes reviewing offside decisions that were not clear to the naked eye.

The people behind VAR claim that 94% of key decisions were called correctly up until February of this season. The increase in accuracy is welcome, especially with so much at stake in terms of European qualification, promotion and relegation and also for those involved in the key football betting markets. But the aim will be to improve that accuracy next season while also looking at other issues such as the time it takes to make decisions and also bringing in more use of the pitch-side monitor to aid referees.

Margin of error

Ironically, the improved accuracy of offside decisions has proved to be unpopular. By trying to create a black-and-white situation where you are either offside or not within the technical parameters, there have been situations where goals have been ruled out because a player’s toes or armpit has been in an offside position.

There is a feeling that a margin of error should be built into the technology to give a slight advantage to the attacking player. This could be done by moving the offside line to see if any part of the player is still onside rather than offside when the ball is played. Then, only if there is a clear gap between the attacker and the defender would offside be given. A player could be ahead of the defender but still onside if his toe was behind the line. This is still a black-and-white situation and goals would still be ruled out if the player was a centimetre ahead of the line but the decision would be much more palatable to fans.

More transparency

Increased use of the pitch-side monitor would also appease fans who do not like seeing the officials standing around waiting for someone in a remote location to review the action. If they see the referee using the technology, they feel more connected to what is unfolding and have a better idea of when a decision will arrive.

One thing is certain, VAR is here to stay for another season at least. But if improvements are not made, the backlash could continue to grow. Convincing sceptical fans will be the Premier League’s biggest challenge.