The Premier League has seen a fall in VAR errors this season, but chief football officer Tony Scholes says there are “too many checks” which are “taking too long” and hampering the video review system.
ESPN revealed two weeks ago that the number of mistakes at the same stage of the season had dropped from 25 in 2022-23 to 20 in the current campaign. However, the time taken over reviews has increased markedly since the error to wrongly disallow Luis Díaz‘s goal for offside for Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur on Sept. 30.
Scholes believes the lengthy delays are adversely affecting games and the fan experience in the ground, both of which the Premier League wants to improve.
But he said that plans to adopt semi-automated offside next season have yet to be rubber-stamped, and there remain doubts about the overall effectiveness of this technology.
“Clearly everything in the world of VAR is not perfect,” Scholes said. “We’re aware of that and we know that we’ve got work to do. We’re doing too many checks, we’re taking too long in doing them as well. It’s to a degree understandable, given the level of scrutiny these guys are under.
“But the reviews are taking too long and it’s affecting the flow of the game, and we’re extremely aware of that and the need to improve that speed whilst always maintaining the accuracy.”
Scholes wants decisions to be made more quickly, but accepts that placing a time limit on VAR reviews might not be appropriate at the expense of getting decisions correct.
“We don’t want to jeopardise accuracy,” Scholes said. “But decision times have increased this season and that’s alongside the increased scrutiny that is on the VARs as a result of a couple of high-profile decisions.
“They are taking longer to check, we understand that, but by training and development we want them to focus on making a decision on the facts they see but not having to double or triple check.”
Howard Webb, the chief refereeing officer, announced in April last year that he wants to appoint a team of new coaches and VAR specialists to help improve standards, a move which Scholes said the Premier League supports. While that process has begun, with invitations for applications sent out to serving officials, it’s not a change that can be adopted in the short term. Clubs have also vastly increased funding to PGMOL, the refereeing body, to revamp the organisation through the Elite Referee Development Plan.
All contentious incidents are assessed by the Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel, which Scholes believes has been important in providing an overview to help guide the expectations of clubs, but also to inform referees.
Of the 20 VAR errors this season, 17 have been for missed interventions, with two decisions changed incorrectly and one situation where the VAR wrongly rejected an overturn at the pitchside monitor. Last season, the 25 mistakes were made up of 18 missed interventions and seven incorrectly changed decisions.
ESPN can reveal that Premier League leaders Liverpool have been most affected in the 2023-24 campaign, with four VAR errors against them. Brighton & Hove Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers have each suffered three mistakes, with Arsenal two and eight other clubs on one each.
Aston Villa have benefitted the most, with three VAR mistakes in their favour. Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest each have two logged errors which have gone their way.
The accuracy of key match decisions has increased from 82% pre-VAR to 96% this season and Scholes rejected criticism of refereeing in England, saying the standard is “at least as good [or] better than it’s ever been.” But he insisted that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do.
“It’s critical that the match officials keep up with the quality and the advancement of the players and the coaches,” Scholes said. “Further improvement is always required. I know myself from my club background that one mistake can be incredibly costly to a club and can be incredibly costly to individuals.
“It’s important that all of us at the league and in the refereeing organisation stay mindful of that and of the need to keep developing, keep improving so that we are in a world where no factual mistakes at all are made and subjective mistakes are minimized.”
Scholes added: “The openness and integrity needs to be there. It needs to be self-evident and people need to have confidence in the system.”
Scholes said that a fans’ survey showed there is still majority support for VAR, but it’s not high enough. He added that improving the situation for the match-going fan was crucial to changing that perception.
“It’s nowhere near good enough,” Scholes said of the in-stadium experience. “We know it’s not, it affects supporters enjoyment of the game, and we know it needs to change. We are constrained by the IFAB as to what we can and can’t say both during the VAR process and post the VAR process.
“We cannot use the audio, we cannot play the audio [live]. My personal view is we’re on a journey and we’ll get to a point where both the video and the audio is played live, and then played afterwards to explain the decision. How far away from that? I don’t know. That’s not in our hands.
“One development that we are expecting to come in imminently, of course, is that the referee will announce their decision, post VAR review, to the crowd on the pitch side.
“We need to ensure that our match officials are trained up to a level to enable them to communicate things effectively to the crowd.”
The Premier League continues to carry out non-live tests with two operators of semi-automated offside, with a final decision on its possible implementation to be made by a vote of clubs in the spring. Although the technology is already in use in FIFA and UEFA competitions and in Serie A, it’s not certain that it will be adopted in England.
“We don’t believe that it will increase or improve the accuracy of decision making, but what it will do is speed up the time of reviews and it’s extremely important in that regard,” Scholes explained. “We’re testing at the moment a couple of systems, and we hope to be going to clubs for a decision on that later on in the year.
“I have to say that’s not a definite at the moment, the testing that we are doing has identified some areas that we are not totally comfortable with. When we introduce semi-automated, we want to be extremely certain that it will improve the situation and not detract from it in any manner.”
Scholes added: “As always with these things it’s what we call the edge cases, so those where many things are occurring at once. You might have a lot of bodies in one place and it is the ability of the system to identify different parts of the body.
“For the vast majority of cases there won’t be an issue but in our competition we want to be clear that we are not introducing something that will give us unintended or unanticipated problems in other areas.”
Scholes also revealed that effective playing time has increased by 3:31 minutes to 58:28 minutes following the application of measures to combat time-wasting at the start of the season, with the length of matches up by the exact same time to 101:41 minutes.