VAR: English football plugs into digital age - but how does it work?

As debuts in English football go, the introduction of a video assistant referee (VAR) during Brighton’s FA Cup third-round win over Crystal Palace was pretty steady.

There were a few complaints from Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson after his side lost thanks to Glenn Murray’s winner, which the visiting players thought may have been deflected in off the forward’s arm.

But once he’d calmed down, the veteran manager said it was a “genuine goal” and praised referee Andre Marriner and VAR Neil Swarbrick for coming to the right conclusion in the 2-1 defeat.

The biggest confusion seemed to centre around whether VAR was used – and the short answer is: yes it was, to a point.

No clear and obvious errors were made by Marriner, meaning the review system – where the two officials take time to look at footage – was not engaged.

But they still consulted over the goal – and on 11 decisions overall during the match – to check no mistakes had been made, thereby ensuring the flow of the game remained.

In many ways it was the perfect trial, even if it didn’t stop the Palace players confronting the referee at full-time.

The system was again used on Wednesday, during the goalless first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Arsenal, with both bosses praising the system.

VAR: English football plugs into digital age - but how does it work?

How was VAR used on its debut?

Marriner had the assistance of referee Swarbrick watching the game on television in the Premier League’s west London studio, with between 12 and 15 camera angles – plus four cameras in each goal – helping him along the way.

In future, it should cut out mistakes, such as the one referee Mike Dean admitted he made in awarding West Brom the late penalty from which they equalised in a 1-1 Premier League draw with Arsenal.

But, as the Murray goal showed, just because you can replay an incident on a screen, it does not make the decision beyond debate.

As International Football Association Board technical director David Elleray says, the system is designed to “deal with the big mistakes, those big unseen incidents, which bring big unfairness”.

Marriner thought Murray had scored with his knee, the VAR agreed and the decision stood.

VAR: English football plugs into digital age - but how does it work?

‘It was a cause of anxiety’

The system was used four times on Wednesday in the Carabao Cup tie between Chelsea and Arsenal with referee Martin Atkinson working with the VAR, who again was Neil Swarbrick.

In the first half, the officials evaluated challenges from Arsenal’s Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin on Cesar Azpilicueta and Cesc Fabregas respectively to see if red cards were needed, and on both occasions no players were booked.

It was also used on two potential penalty decisions, whether Victor Moses had fouled Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the first half and if Danny Welbeck had pulled down Cesc Fabregas in the 88th minute. Neither penalty was given, but in the second example, play had progressed for a bit of time before the officials reviewed the incident and adjudged no penalty was to be awarded.

VAR: English football plugs into digital age - but how does it work?

“It was interesting, a cause of anxiety as it took a bit of time to make the second decision with Welbeck and Fabregas, but overall it worked well,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.

“But, between the penalty action or penalty not action, with the time taken it would have been strange to come back to the penalty.”

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte was more complimentary about VAR, saying: “I am very positive about VAR because when there is a big doubt during the game it is right the referee and the other referee watch the video to check and make the best decision.

“I think everyone wants less mistakes during the game and I think this could be very positive for sure.

“You have to improve and understand that when you start to use VAR you then need to add more extra time. When there are doubts about two situations in the game then the extra time is seven, eight or nine minutes.”

When will VAR be used in future?

Where a VAR review is used, it will normally be triggered during stoppages in play and limited to four types of match-changing incidents:

  • Goals
  • Penalties
  • Straight red cards
  • Mistaken identity

So, for example, if Murray had clearly scored with his hand and Marriner hadn’t spotted it, the VAR would contact him via an audio link and tell him to reverse that decision as soon as possible.

“What the referee doesn’t have the option of doing is saying is ‘I don’t know if that was a penalty or not, I’ll look at the replay’,” added Elleray.

“We are requiring the referees to carry on refereeing as if there is no video assistant referee. If they make a clear and obvious error, they get told about it and I think most referees will welcome that.”

Unfortunately, VAR can only be used at Premier League stadiums where there is a direct link back to the Premier League studios west of London. It is set to be used in both legs of the Carabao Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Arsenal, and the final on 25 February.

It will also be implemented in every round of the FA Cup and some replays, based on broadcaster TV picks and whether the host for each tie is in the Premier League.

VAR: English football plugs into digital age - but how does it work?

How do we know it’s being used?

If a review process is engaged, fans will see the referee ‘draw’ a rectangle with his arms to replicate a TV screen. Either the referee or the VAR can decide whether an incident needs to be analysed.

It will then take one of two forms, with the first likely to be less controversial.

If a player has scored a goal from an offside position, for example, the VAR will inform the referee there has been an error which does not require further review. The referee will then make the ‘TV screen’ signal and change the original decision.

In situations that are less clear, the VAR will advise the referee to look at the video for what is called an ‘on-field review’. This is where the referee will look at the footage on a monitor by the side of the pitch.

Following their review, the referee will make a ‘TV screen’ signal and communicate the final decision.

Fans in the stadium won’t be able to view replay pictures, but supporters watching at home will see the same camera angles as the referees, so they should at least be able to get an idea of which way the decision is going.

VAR: English football plugs into digital age - but how does it work?

How often will it be used?

It only took 40 minutes of Serie A’s opening game for VAR technology to be used for the first time when it was introduced at the start of this season in Italy.

But since then it has settled down and is now generally used about once in three or four matches, according to former referee Elleray.

The technology has also been used in the Bundesliga in Germany and the MLS in the United States and was also available for England’s two goalless friendlies with Germany and Brazil last November, which passed without incident.

Has there been opposition to VAR?

Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri has expressed concern over delays caused by VAR referrals, complaining the game was “turning into baseball”.

And according to German magazine Kicker, 47% of players wanted to abolish VAR in the Bundesliga.

As for those claiming it hands an unfair advantage to teams who benefit from its use, the FA says it is a level playing field for both teams, whether the technology is available or not, and point to the fact that a VAR review is not often used.

During the game, players risk a booking if they attempt to influence any official into using VAR, and managers or other non-playing club staff risk being sent to the stand if they do the same, or encroach on the area where the referee is reviewing footage.

Should a controversial decision sway a big game, it will be interesting to see how much that rule is enforced.