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Wolves won’t get VAR scrapped, but can the Premier League learn lessons?

VAR has never been an easy bedfellow for English football. The Premier League was the last of Europe’s major leagues to adopt it in 2019-20 and it’s never been accepted. It’s never got to grips with what it wants VAR to be, and we’re left with a hybrid model that satisfies no one.

Step forward Wolverhampton Wanderers, who on Wednesday became the first club to put their head above the parapet and call for VAR to be scrapped ahead of next season.

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Premier League clubs will vote on the motion when they meet for their AGM in Harrogate on June 6. Wolves’ resolution is unlikely to get the 14 votes it needs to pass — though it would be no surprise if Nottingham Forest are one of the clubs to support it given their recent outbursts — but it will at least provide the opportunity to reflect and reset.

The clubs who regularly take part in European competition are unlikely break ranks with the wider game. For all Mikel Arteta’s complaints earlier this season, the Arsenal boss has regularly spoken of his desire to work with the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL). ESPN is aware of at least one other club outside of the Big Six who won’t vote in favour.

The clubs have invested huge sums to introduced semi-automated offside (SAOT) VAR next season — it was only voted through last month — and that would have to be scrapped too. They have also put vast resources into the VAR hub in Stockley Park. Money alone shouldn’t be the reason VAR stays, but this investment clearly wasn’t made for one season — especially SAOT, which involves a contract with a new technology partner. Clubs cannot scrap VAR and still implement SAOT.

Over the five seasons of VAR, when all decisions for and against are tallied up, Wolves have a net score of -17 (e.g. 15 decisions for, 32 against, to come to -17.) The next worst-affected is Arsenal, who are way back on -7. Of the 13 clubs to play in the top flight throughout, only two others have a negative VAR score (Tottenham -3, West Ham -5).

This isn’t to denigrate Wolves’ stance, but it does explain why they of all clubs would be the ones to make this move.

Wolves have had three VAR errors logged against them by the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel this season, yet that only paints part of the picture of their frustration. They’ve had a catalogue of other decisions they’ve disagreed with, notably a handball penalty awarded on the field to Luton Town and a late equaliser disallowed by the VAR for offside against West Ham United.

It was the goal against West Ham which led manager Gary O’Neil to confront referee Tony Harrington afterwards, resulting in a Football Association charge and a one-match touchline ban. In the days that followed, Wolves chairman Jeff Shi issued a statement which gave an indication of what was to come.

“When a goal is scored and not one person inside the stadium questions the validity of that goal, including both sets of players, coaches, fans and even the match officials themselves, it’s time to question whether someone remote disallowing that goal is really what football wants or needs,” Shi said. “It is our sincere hope that the Premier League and PGMOL recognise the importance of addressing these concerns to uphold the integrity of the competition and demonstrate why the Premier League is regarded as the best in the world.”

Shi’s words will ring true for many fans. The refusal of FIFA and the International Football Association Board to allow VAR to naturally develop has caused stagnation and frustration, it’s exacerbated every problem it faces to be accepted in football. The Premier League, meanwhile, is so determined to protect its own product that it has brought in a VAR system which has caused more harm than good.

Few will argue against the points made in Wolves’ statement. That’s especially true of the experience of match-going fans, and if the clubs were to poll their season-ticket holders VAR would almost certainly be gone. The stats may show that decisions are now 96% correct, up from 82%, but the fans feel that 4% even more.

How the supporter experience hasn’t developed in the seven years since VAR came in has been a remarkable show of stubbornness from those at the very top. Wolves’ proposal comes when, finally, changes are afoot which could improve that. Even so, referees being allowed to announce VAR decisions to crowds only scratches the surface.

The Premier League, which is staunchly against Wolves’ proposal, has questions of its own. It’s been so afraid of damaging the fast-paced, physical nature of the game that it’s created a VAR system which is neither one thing nor the other.

PGMOL, the refereeing body, takes most of the criticism over this (and the buck does stop with it over refereeing standards.) But it’s the Premier League which decides how it wants the game to be played: from voting on using VAR, on SAOT, and how it wants games refereed. PGMOL is in effect the service provider; the Premier League sets the parameters.

The Premier League is desperate that the VAR shouldn’t get involved too much, so afraid that its winning model will be hurt. The hands-off approach gives the impression that controversial decisions aren’t even looked at. It invites the feelings of injustice Wolves clearly feel so strongly. The stats might show that VAR errors are down 23.68% year on year, but that’s irrelevant if fans and clubs feel it’s going in the other direction.

Wolves complained about the “overreach of VAR’s original purpose to correct clear and obvious mistakes,” but in the Premier League at least there has been a drive to get VAR back to that ethos. It’s just being done the wrong way.

Of the 29 VAR errors logged this season, 24 are missed interventions. Referees are hamstrung by an instruction to only send referees to the monitor if it matches the high-bar, an intervention point that can’t be measured and is in itself subjective. In gives a sense of inaction, that VARs are deliberately avoiding sending referees to the monitor. And when they do, you can be almost certain that it will be changed.

For the perception of VAR to improve, the Premier League needs to embrace the way it was intended to work. Referees need to have greater control and to be seen to be making more calls on the most controversial decisions — and that means we need to see more referees being sent to the screen and sticking with their decision. Would Liverpool fans be more accepting of the decision not to award a penalty for Jérémy Doku‘s challenge on Alexis Mac Allister if referee Michael Oliver had confirmed his on-field call at the monitor?

The Premier League board might not like to hear that, but it’s a key reason why trust, as Wolves put it, has been eroded. We’re not talking about a huge amount of extra stoppages, just that most of those 24 errors might be avoided with a more relaxed approach, and there might be more acceptance from supporters and clubs if a few controversial decisions are rubber-stamped by the referee.

Indeed, the worst decisions against Wolves this season have occurred because the VAR hasn’t got involved (remember, the decision to disallowed that goal against West Ham was the right decision).

In the first weekend of the season, they should have had a penalty at Manchester United but the VAR backed up the officials on the field. Newcastle United and Sheffield United were both given penalties on the field which should have been cancelled. These are problems of implementation, rather than VAR itself.

That’s not to say this will fix all VAR’s ills. That’s impossible with this system. FIFA’s tunnel vision over the protocol it first began to put together 10 years ago has stifled any development and means we remain in a fog of “clear and obvious” where every goal could be disallowed.

But maybe if the Premier League began to operate VAR closer to other leagues, rather than trying to reinvent the intention of the monitor, things might actually start to improve.

At least Wolves might have started the conversation.

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