The Premier League now faces a credibility ‘crisis’ – and latest VAR farce is just the tip

Comment: After Liverpool were denied an ‘onside’ goal at Tottenham, who can blame the conspiracy theorists when VAR continues to lack any transparency?

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 02 October 2023 22:00 BST
Alan Shearer gives blunt VAR verdict after Liverpool’s loss to Tottenham

By Saturday evening, as has become protocol but also a frustrating norm, Howard Webb felt he had no choice but to apologise to Liverpool for the Luis Diaz decision. Jurgen Klopp might well repeat the question as to who that actually helps, but a failure to communicate such a sentiment would have made it worse.

That’s partly because it is actually a failure of communication that is at the core of the controversy, which now poses a genuine credibility crisis for the Premier League.

"It's an image problem," as one involved figure put it, with Liverpool themselves describing the situation as “unacceptable” in an unprecedented statement. Because, for all the focus on the nature of VAR, this is an issue that really comes down to basic human error.

The details at the root of the story, though, are remarkable.

If we are to take the referees’ body Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL)’s explanation at face value – that this represented a “momentary lapse in concentration” – the VAR didn’t actually know what it was supposed to be looking at. Darren England and Dan Cook thought they were checking whether a goal should stand, rather than an offside call as referee Simon Hooper ruled, which was partly why the decision was made so quickly. It ended up creating the farcical situation that a communication of “check complete” led to a fair strike being wrongly disallowed in a completely preventable fashion.

After that, how was it that play was allowed to proceed, given those involved would have had immediate knowledge that this was wrong? The IFAB rules dictate that play cannot be called back once it has resumed, but was no one watching in the meantime? Would hasty shouts not have been made as soon as they saw Spurs shaping to take the free kick?

It has since emerged that the VAR and fourth official team of England, Cook and Michael Oliver were officiating a game in the UAE Pro League as late as Thursday evening, which has raised fair questions within the game over fatigue was a potential explanation for that “momentary lapse in concentration”.

Whatever the reason, it has created a credibility crisis, to go with much wider-reaching controversies like the unresolved Financial Fair Play cases involving Manchester City and Everton.

That is all the worse for the Premier League since this is an issue the competition prides itself on and is seen as a significant factor in its status as the most popular league in the world. Fans could trust what they were seeing.

Instead, this latest controversy also comes on the back of a long-term and increasing hostility and suspicion of VAR from a significant part of football's support.

It was for this reason that Webb was recently brought in as PGMOL chief in the first place, and many within the game say he has been gradually realising the scale of the challenge.

Howard Webb became chief refereeing officer at PGMOL in August of last year

Hostility to VAR goes hand in hand with a widely perceived “crisis” in the level of refereeing, which is commonly cited as the worst in years. It should be stressed that this is all in circumstances where officials are under far more scrutiny than ever before. There are more cameras to reveal every element of a decision – and whether they should have taken a different one – in a manner that was unimaginable in the supposed golden days right up to the mid-2000s.

Even Klopp acknowledged the extreme “pressure” on officials, which undoubtedly plays into errors that they obviously don’t make “on purpose”, as the Liverpool manager put it.

Discussions such as this should never go without mentioning how the real crisis with refereeing is at lower levels, and the scale of the abuse they receive.

It has undeniably affected the talent pool at the top, and there is a bigger debate to be had over whether it should be a better-remunerated profession to match both the talent they are overseeing and their necessity in getting the game played.

The introduction of VAR itself was nevertheless supposed to be a remedy for all of this and – at its core – an “aid” for referees. It has instead had the inadvertent effect of making all discussion much more poisonous and pressurised.

Jurgen Klopp was frustrated after nine-man Liverpool’s defeat at Spurs

That comes from a disconnect between the implied expectation and stated intention of VAR, the actual application and the communication.

The very nature of the technology has created an expectation of perfection, even though it was only ever supposed to improve accuracy to around 98 per cent.

This has happened, but the fundamental problem is that the remaining 2 per cent tend to be hugely high-profile errors. That is by definition given the threshold for VAR to get involved.

There has previously been very little communication on how those decisions were made, which has had the effect of only deepening suspicion among supporters. The vacuum of information inevitably leads to speculation and then to conspiracy theories.

While this isn’t to say there is any legitimacy whatsoever in the latter, since the most likely explanation is always basic human error, it does have the real-world effect of further toxifying the atmosphere around refereeing. This in turn puts even more pressure on them, because their integrity is unfairly questioned.

It is why the very technology of VAR has deepened this problem. Whereas error could previously have been written off as officials going off their own sight and instinct – even if the reason VAR was introduced was because of criticism of referees in the first place – they now have access to so much more technological aid. Many more fans consequently see the only possible explanation as some kind of corruption. You only have to take a glance on social media.

Simon Hooper also sent off Liverpool’s Curtis Jones after a VAR review

This is why better communication is essential. Webb’s great mission has been to improve that, and he has generally done a better job, but it’s fair to say the response to Saturday made this worse.

Liverpool were perplexed at how long it took for a statement to be made about the offside, the PGMOL eventually only commenting in the middle of Klopp’s post-game press conference. It was actually The Independent that made him aware of their statement, to the Liverpool manager's increased bemusement. The explanation that the VAR actually checked for the wrong call then came even later, as it felt like every development deepened the crisis.

There are at least a number of logical steps that can be taken to address that.

One of those is not to just remove VAR, since this is a non-starter that goes way beyond England and up to Fifa. It is here to stay. That’s also why it’s just vital that cases like this lead to improvement.

One first step is to limit this extra work abroad – as England and Cook’s appointment in the UAE was within the rules and actually approved by the FA. Another is to improve the communication so there is absolutely no ambiguity.

It is simple to go from “check complete” to “the decision should be a goal”, or equivalent. That also raises the most obvious solution of all.

All of the communication between the referee and VAR should be made audible and accessible, so as to eliminate any ambiguity.

Luis Diaz races through to score for Liverpool, in a goal that was ruled offside

People might still disagree with decisions, but they would at least be able to understand why they are made. That goes a long way to creating acceptance of VAR.

When it was raised whether the audio from this decision would be made public, one response was that Match Officials Mic’d Up is now a monthly show so it will likely feature on that.

The reality is that the Premier League could do with it coming out now, because of the number of questions that are being asked. Liverpool themselves called for the review to have “full transparency”.

"This is vital for the reliability of future decision making as it applies to all clubs with learnings being used to make improvements to processes in order to ensure this kind of situation cannot occur again,” the club said.

It doesn’t help that this comes amid even greater credibility questions for the Premier League, as everyone awaits the outcome of the charges against Manchester City and Everton over alleged Financial Fair Play breaches.

Many of the sport’s “stakeholders” are now livid at this. Even for broadcasters, this affects the credibility of the product they put on television.

That trust is what the game is founded on.

In the meantime, Liverpool are exploring “the range of options available, given the clear need for escalation and resolution”.

An apology, evidently, is not enough.

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