VAR referees are intervening less in games, but is this still problematic?

In January, I wrote a piece highlighting the significant increase in the average number of penalties awarded during the 2020-21 Premier League season. If we continued at the current pace (0.40 penalties per game), we were on track to see 152 penalties given across the full 380-game season, representing a 66.7% on the last season (92 penalties) and a 42.9% increase on the Premier League record from both the 2009-10 and 2016-17 seasons (106 penalties). Interestingly, however, this rate has decreased in recent weeks to 0.35. While it fits with the declining trend across the season from an initial high of 0.72 in Gameweek 2, the previous decline could be explained by a relaxation of the handball law. So, the recent deviation from the average raised the question: what might be causing it?

Dale Johnson, ESPN’s expert on laws and regulations, offered a possible explanation in his weekly VAR thread. He pointed to the fact that since December 26th, there have only been seven VAR interventions in 62 games, working out as a frequency of 0.11 (~one in 10 games / one a weekend). This represents a huge decrease in frequency compared to the period up to December 26th, in which there were 67 VAR interventions in 134 games (0.50 = one every other game, or five a weekend). He suggests that while other leagues have managed to maintain a consistent application of VAR (i.e. the Bundesliga), the Premier League has “lurched from regular intervention to barely a touch”. This change of approach has contributed to the recent decline in the number of penalties awarded, but is this inconsistency problematic?

IMPACT ON PENALTIES

Below is a graph tracking the average number of penalties awarded in the 2020-21 Premier League season across each gameweek. The blue line represents the average when including every gameweek (up to Gameweek 22). The orange line represents the average when excluding the first three gameweeks, which coincided with the stricter interpretation of the handball law. Finally, the red line represents the average from Gameweek 16 onwards, which coincided with the change of approach to less VAR intervention.

What the graph shows is that each change has led to fewer penalties given. The current average is 0.35 when including every gameweek, yet 0.30 from Gameweek 4 onwards and 0.21 from Gameweek 16 onwards. This may not sound like much but across the remaining 165 Premier League games, this could represent a difference of 23 penalties as:

  • An average of 0.35 would see another 58 penalties given
  • An average of 0.3 would see 50 penalties given
  • An average of 0.21 would see just 35 penalties given

IS THIS A PROBLEM?

The problem with an inconsistent application across a season is that there are winners and losers, teams that will have had an advantage because of the higher frequency of favourable decisions earlier on in the season. This is because VAR intervenes in match-changing situations (red cards and penalties), which could be the difference between winning, drawing or losing a game. Recognising the incredible power referees and VAR have on the outcome of a game is thus an important part of any debate on its future application. ESPN keep a league table of VAR overturned decisions for the season, but it would be interesting to see this broken down further into two periods (before December 26th and after) to investigate the impact this change has had on the final league table.    

Note: The issue of offside is not relevant to this discussion as the use of technology is applied consistently – the VAR referee does not choose whether to use the technology. If a goal is scored, it must be checked for offside.  

THE COUNTER

Yet there is a counter argument to explain the reasoning behind the move toward fewer VAR interventions. Referees are “learning on the job”, wrestling madly to find the sweet spot for “clear and obvious” – the point at which VAR should intervene. In the first part of the season VAR was clearly being too fussy, but now we are back to a high bar of intervention. They have effectively overcorrected the problem and ended up with the same result: unhappy fans. Now that is not to say that fans won’t ever not complain about VAR, but on either end of the spectrum there is a sense of injustice. That is what inconsistency brings. So while VAR officials may be intervening less in our football matches, the problem of VAR has not gone away.

Tomas Soucek’s red card against Fulham optimised this problem. Even though VAR is intervening less in the game, it and the matchday referees are still not reaching the right outcome. The vast majority of people would not have complained if Soucek was not shown a red card, and hopefully the West Ham midfielder will win his appeal. There needs to be some common sense applied to the process, or a better balance, because as of yet, we have neither.

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