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Why VAR has become a necessity in the Premier League

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Referees have cost Everton enough already this season. The most popular league in the world deserves all the help it can get

AC Milan v Juventus - Serie A
VAR is already in place in other European leagues, such as Serie A and La Liga
Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Many will have let out a hearty collective groan on Thursday when it was announced that video assistant referees (VAR) are set to be used in the Premier League next season.

But for an insight into how welcome a change VAR will bring to the league, look no further than Charlie Austin’s seething face last weekend.

With Austin’s Southampton, who started the day one point above the bottom three, leading Watford by a single goal, the striker thought he had doubled the Saints’ lead with what appeared a perfectly legitimate goal.

The sheer relief about Austin, not only to edge his side closer to an invaluable three points, but to also end a league goal drought stretching back to April, was plain to see. Unfortunately for him, referee Simon Hooper intervened.

Hooper incorrectly felt Austin’s team-mate, an offside Maya Yoshida, had touched the ball on its way past goalkeeper Ben Foster and ruled the goal out. Watford then equalised, the game ended 1-1, and Southampton go into the international break with just goal difference separating them from the drop zone.

It would be unfair not to also note that Watford had a strong penalty claim denied by Hooper in the same game, but speaking afterwards, Austin was understandably apoplectic:

“It’s ridiculous, they shouldn’t be in the game. We scored a perfectly good goal that was ruled out for offside. The officials cost us two points.

“You go on about VAR this and VAR that; help the officials out. Clearly they need help.

We play in the Premier League, the best league in the world, the most-watched league in the world. Give them all the help they need because clearly they cost us two points today. It’s a joke.”

The following day, rock-bottom Fulham thought they had gone ahead at Liverpool when an onside Aleksandar Mitrović headed past Alisson Becker, only for man-in-the-middle Paul Tierney to think otherwise and disallow it.

Seconds later, the Reds took the lead, went on to win the game, and Whites boss Slaviša Jokanović, who had claimed post-match that Tierney had showed his struggling side “disrespect”, was sacked three days later.

Liverpool FC v Fulham FC - Premier League
Could Jokanović still be in a job had VAR allowed Mitrović’s goal?
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

In exposing their respective referees’ mistakes, Austin and Jokanović also highlighted one of the modern game’s biggest taboos.

When jobs are on the line, and Premier League statuses are at stake, VAR will, inevitably, become a necessary evil.

This is all hypothetical, of course, but what if Southampton are relegated by a single point come May? Had Fulham left Anfield with a result, would Jokanović still be in place at Craven Cottage?

It is not yet a certainty that VAR will join the top tier next year; as yet, clubs have only agreed to the move in principle - the league itself must still make a formal request to Fifa and the International Football Association Board.

But in truth, it has long been a question of when, rather than if, it would become part of the Premier League landscape.

Its trialled use in English cup competitions, and introduction in other European Leagues and this summer’s World Cup, rendered it simply a matter of time before the Premier League bit the bullet. Indeed, “non-live” trials have already been carried out on games in England this campaign.

From an Everton perspective, there are similar reasons to advocate VAR’s introduction next year.

Take the debatable penalty Idrissa Gueye conceded in the defeat at Manchester United, while the game was deadlocked at 0-0, from which Paul Pogba scored the rebound.

Consider also Phil Jagielka’s red card with Everton 1-0 up in the opening-day draw at Wolverhampton Wanderers, or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s indisputably offside goal in the 2-0 loss at Arsenal.

If another oversight were to befall the Blues without VAR available for clarification, who is to say Marco Silva may not suffer the same fate as Jokanović?

As with all forms of new technology, there will be teething problems while first implementing VAR.

It was widely decried after its use in last season’s FA Cup tie between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion led to three major first-half decisions, with the excessive time delay compounding frustrations.

Liverpool v West Bromwich Albion - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round
The use of VAR was widely criticised in West Brom’s FA Cup win at Liverpool last season
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Before 45 minutes had elapsed, referee Craig Pawson awarded a penalty, disallowed one goal, and delayed in awarding another, all with the assistance of the new technology.

Even though the Baggies went on to win the game, their own manager, Alan Pardew, admitted it made for a strange atmosphere after the match.

Pardew cited the inability for anyone else to see what evidence the referee is looking at as a key issue, claiming ‘everybody’s in the dark’, while also suggesting the delays contributed to hamstring injuries for two players.

Look no further than journalist Danny Baker’s enraged tweet during this fixture for evidence of how VAR has garnered a reputation for obliterating atmospheres:

Its presence at the summer’s World Cup also proved polarising; while some praised the way it removed any element of doubt from key decisions, others again highlighted its tendency to suck the energy from games by bringing proceedings to a standstill.

This year’s tournament also saw the 29 penalties awarded - the most given at any World Cup, almost doubling the second-highest figure of 17. Whether it becomes too easy to rely on VAR for clarity on a decision in the Premier League, or whether it has a similar impact on the amount of spot-kicks, only time will tell.

It has been in place for two Goodison Park games this season; both Carabao Cup ties against Rotherham United and Southampton.

Everton v Rotherham United - Carabao Cup Second Round
VAR was used at Goodison Park for the first time for August’s EFL Cup tie with Rotherham United
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

For the latter, it was used to rule on debatable issues such as penalty claims, and the protracted length of time it took to decide did, admittedly, make supporters feel like game show contestants being told they must wait until after an advertisement break to find out if they chose the right answer.

But for the former, it was not required at all, which suggests that, rather than VAR being the over-bearing annoyance that its detractors often label it as, there is a way to limit its involvement as much as is feasibly possible.

Goal-line technology has now been in place in England’s top-flight for five years, and has made such a wholly positive impact on the game that its inclusion is barely still considered a talking point.

It has become commonplace in the Premier League through giving definitively correct rulings on key decisions, simultaneously ironing out potential grey areas. Given time, VAR will have the same effect.

It is not replacing a human element of football - it will merely assist it - and as Austin furiously argued, the best league in the world deserves all the help it can get.