VAR needs a rethink. Soccer should look to the NFL to fix it

Yahoo Sports

VAR, in theory, sounded great. It really did. 

But a few years after soccer’s first widespread video review system debuted, and a few months after its introduction in the English Premier League, it has not been great. Yes, it has slightly improved refereeing accuracy. No, the sport is not better off as a result. 

Because the Video Assistant Referee system has overstepped its bounds. It was put in place to correct “clear and obvious errors,” like the non-existent handball on Liverpool’s opener against Wolves:

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It has also reversed marginal, previously undetectable errors-that-aren’t-really-errors like the phantom offside that disallowed Wolves’ equalizer:

Wolves' equalizer against Liverpool was disallowed by VAR for this "offside" in the buildup. (Screenshot: NBC Sports)
Wolves' equalizer against Liverpool was disallowed by VAR for this "offside" in the buildup. (Screenshot: NBC Sports)

VAR, like so many other great ideas, came bearing unintended consequences. And consequences of those unintended consequences. The issue isn’t just the offsides and handballs that are anything but “clear and obvious.” It’s the hesitation that now accompanies every goal because of them. It’s the unspoken fear that ecstatic celebrations like Pedro Neto’s will, two minutes later, seem embarrassing; that the most instantaneous and genuine of emotions can be undone.

Something has to change. The difficult part is figuring out what, and how. Because the simple solutions also bear unintended consequences. VAR, therefore, needs an overhaul.

Why the offside problem can’t be fixed

But first, before we lay out the revamped plan, an explanation of why the easy fixes aren’t viable.

The masses have taken aim at the offside law. Confusion stems from the “clear and obvious” distinction, which doesn’t apply here because offside is supposedly “factual.” The issue, of course, is that it isn’t factual. Determining where, exactly, a player’s shoulder ends and arm begins is a human decision. Determining when, exactly, a ball left a player’s foot is a human decision. That haziness fuels takes like this:

But who decides “if lines are needed”?

Another common proposal is that offside should require “daylight” between infringing attacker and last defender. But who decides what constitutes “daylight”?

Judging “daylight” is far more murky than what refs currently do with knees and shoulders. Applying the “clear and obvious” threshold to offside would make decisions more hazy, not less. No matter where you draw the line, there are imperfections and marginal decisions that must be made, whether by assistant referees on sidelines or video assistants in front of monitors.

The current system is the best of the lot. But it’s still unsatisfactory. We want blatant errors to be corrected. We aren’t willing to accept lengthy reviews of 50/50 calls that clearly aren’t “clear and obvious.”

The solution, then, is not to change any laws. It’s to devise a different system for deciding what’s “clear and obvious.”

How an NFL-style challenge system could work in soccer

Fortunately, the NFL has already devised that system. It’s called the coaches challenge system. It takes responsibility away from off-site video assistants and hands it to the aggrieved teams themselves. Because who better to decide what’s “clear and obvious” than the managers who believe they’ve been clearly and obviously wronged?

Wolves' manager Nuno Espirito Santo has plenty of reason to hate VAR. (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)
Wolves' manager Nuno Espirito Santo has plenty of reason to hate VAR. (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

Here, in short, is how and why a challenge system would work in soccer:

Limits on challenges: Each coach would have one challenge per game. One opportunity to trigger a review. If the review yields an overturned call, the coach gets a second and final challenge. But that’s the cap. A second success doesn’t earn the coach a third.

This will significantly reduce the amount of time spent waiting on VARs, not only because it introduces a maximum of four reviews per game, but because it forces coaches to be prudent rather than reckless with their challenges. They can’t just reflexively call for a review of a first-half goal, because if they’re wrong, they have no recourse for the second-half decision that is clearly and obviously wrong.

• Statute of limitations: A coach must challenge a call within 10 seconds of the incident in question. Once 10 seconds have elapsed without a challenge, the call stands (and, if the incident in question is a goal, celebrations can continue unhinged.) This prevents teams from scouring dozens of replay angles in search of a possible infraction to challenge. It has to be “clear and obvious” in real time.

• The mechanics of the challenge: Coaches trigger a review by going to the fourth official in that 10-second window. If there’s a worry that coaches don’t have proper vantage points to detect clear and obvious errors in real time, allow them to communicate, via headset or earpiece, with an assistant watching a live video feed. Also, give the captain challenge power. Just as the manager can go to the fourth official, the captain can go to the on-field referee.

• Everything is challengeable: Rather than limiting reviewability to goals, penalties and red cards, expand it to every aspect of the game. All fouls, yellow cards, corners, and so on.

At first, this sounds dangerous … but the challenge system remains the great regulator. Coaches would never challenge a foul at midfield in the first half, no matter how clearly and obviously wrong the call is. But if there’s a questionable tackle just outside the box in the 90th minute, they should be able to challenge it. It’s up to them to decide not only what is “clear and obvious,” but what is impactful enough in the grander scheme of the game.

• Challenges during open play: If a coach wants to challenge a no-call and play is ongoing, the 10-second window for challenges still applies, BUT the review doesn’t occur until the next stoppage in play.

• Time limits on reviews: Once a review begins, the referee jogs over to a pitchside monitor. Once he gets there, he and the Video Assistant Referee have 60 seconds to make a decision. If the evidence they see in those 60 seconds convinces them the call on the field was wrong, they overturn it. If not, they leave it as is.

The time limit essentially serves as the “clear and obvious” threshold. If offside is in question, and intricate lines from grass to shoulder are necessary because nothing about the play was “clear and obvious,” the refs won’t have enough time for definitive conclusions.

What a challenge system would look like in practice

Liverpool’s game against Wolves on Sunday would have been a perfect test case. Sadio Mane found the back of the net late in the first half, but Adam Lallana was penalized for a handball in the buildup. Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp or his captain, Jordan Henderson, would have had 10 seconds to challenge the call. Given Lallana’s immediate insistence that the ball hit his shoulder, not his arm, they likely would have. A quick VAR review would have shown that Lallana was right. And the goal would have been given.

Liverpool, therefore, would have been awarded a second challenge. But when Wolves had the ball in the back of the net a few minutes later, not a single Liverpool player complained. They started walking, dejectedly, back to the center circle. That there might have been an offside in the buildup was not even in question. So Klopp likely wouldn’t have challenged. And after 10 seconds, there would be no need to restrain celebrations. No need to fear.

And if Klopp did challenge?

  • The goal likely would not have been ruled out, because 60 seconds wouldn’t have been enough to find convincing evidence of offside.

  • Whether or not it was, Liverpool would have been out of challenges for the second half.

The best of both worlds

The system is far from perfect. There will be instances, inevitably, when a late call costs a team points because a coach, having exhausted his or her challenges, can do nothing about it. But more often than not, those coaches will only have themselves to blame for a faulty or less significant challenge earlier in the game.

More importantly, it’s the best of both worlds. It retains the flow of the game. It gets rid of the looming, inescapable uncertainty that currently pollutes every key moment of every game. But it still corrects the blatant errors – as long as coaches challenge responsibly.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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