The video assistant referee was a controversial feature of the 2018 World Cup, with players and managers regularly confused by the matches at that tournament being disrupted so that the referee could consult with VAR in order to review key decisions. Sometimes this would involve the man in the middle racing over to a screen to watch replays of an incident and infuriating both teams in the process.
However, while the majority of football fans hoped that this “experiment” would be abolished straight after the tournament, FIFA claimed that VAR had been a success in Russia and just needed a bit of fine tuning in order to be effective at professional level. While there were many contentious decisions made that summer, it’s also true that the 2018 tournament was the cleanest World Cup since 1986.
Indeed, there were no red cards brandished during the opening eleven matches of the 2018 World Cup and only four dismissals throughout the competition. Despite an average of seven incidents being referred to VAR for every game of the 2018 World Cup, FIFA claimed that this new system had a success rate of 99.3% compared to the 95% of correct calls by refs where the video assistant ref wasn’t in play.
While FIFA continued to bang the drum for an innovation which would be rolled out for major domestic leagues in a relatively short space of time, VAT was met by fierce opposition from leading football figures for not only disrupting the flow of football matches but also for the interpretation of the laws of the game.
Nevertheless, UEFA were quickly on board with the idea of VAR being part of modern elite football and plans were then rolled out to implement the video assistant referee for major domestic leagues. This naturally included the English Premier League and it was swiftly announced that VAR would be used for the 2019/20 season, with supporters, players and coaches preparing themselves for a massive game-changer.
Many speculated that having VAR at every Premier League match would increase the number of penalties awarded and therefore increase the overall goal tally. Others thought that there would be more goals disallowed for borderline offside decisions and the aim of this article is to explore the exact consequence of the video assistant referee being present.
Over 100 Premier League Goals Reviewed This Season by VAR
Nobody can argue that VAR had a minimal impact on the 2019/20 Premier League season. Right from the moment that Leandro Dendoncker had a goal disallowed for handball during Wolverhampton Wanderers’ goalless draw at the King Power Stadium, we have seen managers bemoan the interference of the video assistant referee throughout the course of the campaign.
The 2019/20 English Premier League season recently came to an end and there were a sum total of 109 goals or incidents that were directly affected by VAR. That is to say they have either been referred to VAR by the referee or the arbiter has received information through his earpiece that the video assistant ref is examining a particular goal or incident.
That is not an insubstantial number and it has actually affected clubs in different ways. For example, Manchester United have enjoyed an additional seven goals as a result of VAR and some of these have been when the referee has pointed to the penalty spot after a particular incident has been reviewed.
You might also be surprised to discover that Brighton & Hove Albion have done very well from the introduction of VAR this season. The Seagulls might have been one of the lower-scoring clubs in the Premier League, although their net score for VAR overturns was eight and ultimately made a big difference in terms of keeping them in the division.
VAR Overturns (Net Score)
Brighton & Hove Albion +8
Manchester United +7
Crystal Palace +4
Leicester City +1
Tottenham Hotspur +1
Manchester City 0
AFC Bournemouth -2
Aston Villa -3
West Ham -4
Sheffield United -5
Norwich City -7
Manchester United and Brighton have been comfortably the biggest beneficiaries of VAR decisions this season, while Wolves fans have been highly critical of the way in which the video assistant referee has had an impact in their games. It’s hardly a surprise considering they are -5 in terms of net score on VAR overturns and the Dendoncker disallowed effort at Leicester was just the start of things to come.
Sheffield United also have a score of -5 and Chris Wilder claimed at an early part of the season that “it’s not football anymore” as the Blades fell foul of a VAR decision, although the Yorkshire club have still had an immensely successful season despite these setbacks, while the same can be said of Wolverhampton Wanderers who have surpassed their fine achievements of last term despite juggling Europa League commitments.
Why Has VAR Favoured Manchester United This Season?
You’re never too far away from a conspiracy theory, although it does seem somewhat strange that Manchester United have profited so much from VAR calls this season. With a net gain of seven goals over the campaign, it essentially meant the difference when it came to the Red Devils landing third place and a Champions League qualifying berth, with Chelsea manager Frank Lampard highlighting that the video assistant referee seemed to be favouring Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s club.
Interestingly, United’s first major VAR call of the 2019/20 season went against them when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal stood for Arsenal at Old Trafford, although they then benefitted on an incredible nine consecutive occasions with a big decision going in their favour. This included Liverpool’s Sadio Mane having a goal ruled out for handball, two penalties being awarded at Norwich (both missed) and two Chelsea goals being disallowed at Stamford Bridge.
Ahead of Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final, Frank Lampard appeared to suggest that Manchester United were benefitting from these referee calls, especially when it came to the awarding of penalties considering that the Red Devils had enjoyed 14 spot kicks. Although the Blues would go on to win the clash at Wembley, there was a consolation penalty which was converted by Bruno Fernandes although that appeared a clear-cut decision.
“There is always a human element to VAR, still, and clearly they have to make a decision,” Lampard said. “The confusing thing about some of the recent ones is that they’re very, very clear and obvious decisions that were wrong and didn’t get reviewed and changed.
“A few of those have happened and that is strange. I would like to think that with VAR you have to be level-headed. Some might go against you or not. But we seem to be in a period where, in terms of Manchester United, they’ve got a few in their favour.”
Has VAR Led to More Premier League Goals?
There were 1,072 goals scored during the 2018-19 Premier League season, with this meaning an average of 2.82 per match. It’s worth remembering that this was the last campaign that was played before VAR was implemented and we are now in a position to see whether there’s been any discernible changes during the 2019-20 season which has led to an increase or decrease in the goal count.
You might be surprised to discover that the final goal tally for the 2019-20 season only just surpassed 1,000 in the end. Despite a high-scoring final day of the campaign which saw scorelines such as Arsenal 3-2 Watford, Newcastle 1-3 Liverpool, Everton 1-3 Bournemouth, Manchester City 5-0 Norwich City and Southampton 3-1 Sheffield United, we ended up with sum total of 1,034 goals which was an average of 2.72 per match.
While we’ve not seen a huge drop off in the number of goals being scored in the Premier League, the plain fact is that the following happened:
- Total overturns: 109
- Leading to goals: 27
- Leading to disallowed goals: 56
To confirm, 109 original referee decisions were overturned by the video assistant referee during the 2019/20 season. Although 27 of these overturns have led to goals being awarded, more than double have led to goals being disallowed, with the ref wiping them off the slate on 56 occasions.
The majority of disallowed goals have been ruled out for offside, with VAR chalking off 34 goals for an infringement as far as this is concerned. It’s clear that assistant referees have been briefed to keep their flags down for borderline decisions, although there have been 8 occasions where a goal has been awarded after an incorrect offside.
While there’s been a significant boost in the number of penalties awarded (22), it’s also worth noting that 9 of these spot kicks were then subsequently missed, while 7 penalties have also been overturned which means they were originally awarded before being dismissed. There have been 4 penalty retakes, 1 being when the spot kick as scored and 3 when the taker missed.
Handball has also played a part and Leandro Dendoncker’s disallowed effort in that opening EPL weekend was the first of 14 to be chalked off for a player handling the ball on the way to his team scoring. On the flip side, just 2 goals have been awarded after the referee wrongly blew the whistle for handball which goes to show that the eagle-eyed VAR is very much anti-goals in this regard even if the decisions are technically correct.
Is VAR Actually Working in the Premier League?
As recently as Thursday 10 July, there was a huge amount of controversy concerning VAR after it emerged that there were a number of debatable calls across three different Premier League matches. While many assume that the video assistant referee makes consistently accurate decisions, it appears as though this isn’t always the case and the BBC Sport website reported that three VAR calls were wrong.
Former referee Dermot Gallagher works for the Premier League match centre and he told BBC Match of the Day that incorrect penalty decisions were made in the following games:
Aston Villa v Manchester United – when Bruno Fernandes was adjudged to have been fouled in the penalty area and United were handed a spot kick.
Everton v Southampton – when James Ward-Prowse fell into Andre Gomes and a penalty was awarded, only for the same Southampton player to hit the crossbar.
Bournemouth v Tottenham – when Spurs were not awarded a spot kick despite it appearing as though Josh King had shoved Harry Kane in the back during a set piece.
It’s worth noting that the video assistant referee is actually a real person who is watching the game on a TV screen and is then able to use technology to replay specific incidents using every available angle to him. While the VAR is still expected to make a decision within a short space of time, we’re talking about a professionally qualified referee at the helm who takes charge at Premier League level.
There is always the option for a referee to go over to a TV screen on the halfway line and take a look for themselves. This is what happened in the recent clash between Arsenal and Leicester when Eddie Nketiah was dismissed for a straight red card, although the vast majority of VAR decisions are made without the actual on-field ref utilising this service.
How Has VAR Compared in Other Big European Leagues?
While the video assistant referee was only implemented in England this season, other leading European domestic leagues are more acclimatised to VAR being part of the set-up. The German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A have both had VAR in operation since the start of the 2017/18 season, while Spanish La Liga started the 2018/19 campaign with this in place and it’s been interesting to note how the goal rate has dropped off in the latter division.
During the 2016/17 La Liga season, we saw a record-breaking 1,118 goals scored which was an average of 2.94 goals and music to the ears of Over 2.5 Goals backers on a general basis. The 1,000 goal mark was also surpassed during the 2017/18 season where 1,024 goals were pilfered at a rate of 2.69 goals, although the two VAR seasons in Spain have seen the goal rate steadily decline.
While two years of data isn’t completely conclusive, the 2018/19 season saw 983 goals scored at an average of 2.59 and it’s hard not to assume that the video assistant referee had a hand in ensuring that the goal rate dropped. It wasn’t just the decisions that were being made but also an awareness that play-acting and simulation in the penalty area wouldn’t earn the penalties of the past.
The goal rate in Spain has dropped to an average of 2.47 as we come to the end of the 2019/20 season and that is nearly half a goal dip competed to three seasons earlier and it’s now clear that every team has to work that little bit harder for their goals than they did before. This is especially the big clubs in La Liga who previously earned unjust penalty kicks due to tricky players and a partisan crowd.
In Germany, we have a slightly different story. After an average goal tally of 2.83 and 2.87 in the pre-VAR seasons of 2015/16 and 2016/17, there was a slight decrease in the number scored during the 2017/18 campaign where 855 goals led to a reduced average of 2.79 goals and many attributed the fall on penalties being overturned and goals being disallowed.
However, there has been a massive upturn in Bundesliga goals over the past two seasons despite the video assistant referee continuing to officiate every match. You might argue that teams such as RB Leipzig, Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund are directly responsible for the goal surge due to their attacking style of play, while a resurgent Bayern Munich have also been scoring in large volumes.
On the flip side, perhaps VAR has now become embedded into the German top professional division and that teams are learning how to adjust accordingly. Perhaps previous occasions where a player was caught offside has helped Bundesliga outfits develop learnings and ensured that more legitimate goals can be scored.
What Can Premier League Clubs Learn From VAR?
Sir Alex Ferguson was renowned for bending the ear of a referee and ensuring that a penalty being awarded to the opposition at Old Trafford was rarer than hens teeth. Who can forget that abiding image of Andy D’Urso being backed into a corner by Fergie’s Manchester United players for having the audacity of pointing to the spot during the Red Devils’ Premier League clash against Middlesbrough, with Juninho subsequently missing from the spot after a lengthy delay?
Wind the clock forward into the present and it appears that little has changed. United have been the chief beneficiaries of VAR being implemented during the 2019/20 season and other Premier League clubs will be taking note of how Solskjaer’s team have a +8 net goal benefit from decisions made by the video assistant referee even if the Norwegian claims that the video assistant referee has actually not helped his team all that much.
For the record, there have been 12 key overturns in Manchester United matches and 7 of them have been disallowed goals against. However, those 13 penalty decisions for will have alerted their rivals and it’s clear that the pace and trickery of the team’s attacking players have been earning regular spot kicks even if many of the penalties have not been converted by United’s attacking players.
Winning penalties is nothing new and players have gradually learned the “dark arts” which has led to referees pointing the spot after minimal contact in the penalty area. Although professionals have to be smarter when it comes to earning their side the chance to score a penalty, the key aim is often to draw a fall from a defender which can be achieved by having players running at pace with the ball in the area.
What to Expect in the 2020/21 Premier League Season
After just one season of the video assistant referee being in operation as far as the Premier League is concerned, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions as to whether more or less goals will be scored over time. This is a system still in its relative infancy and we’re likely to see changes made along the way in a bid to ensure fairness across the board.
We should also note that while the goal count for the 2019/20 EPL season is down on previous years, it was temporarily halted in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and never before have we had a campaign that was eventually concluded in the summer months of a year, with several rounds of games being played out in front of empty stadiums where teams weren’t driven on by a partisan home crowd.
The 2020/21 Premier League campaign is likely to begin in mid-September and a new and improved VAR is likely to be in operation by then. It’s also worth noting that Norwich City, Bournemouth and Aston Villa currently look likely to be relegated and these sides had real problems scoring throughout the season, with average goal tallies of 0.7, 1 and 1.08 respectively.
In addition, matches involving teams such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United were notoriously low-scoring. It might be that these teams’ style of play becomes more attacking, while Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Leicester will also look to play on the front foot and perhaps we might see the goal ratio naturally increase.
If VAR starts to become more geared in terms of “favouring the attacking team” which many think should be the order of the day when football decisions are made, then we might see the goal averages slowly increase as we’ve seen in the Bundesliga recently, although for the moment, the net is bulging that little bit less in England.