• Brett Rosenheim

Has the VAR been a success in the Premier League? URef has the data-driven answers!

The integration of VAR into the Premier League was subject to more attention, speculation, and fan opinion than any high-profile signing in the competition’s history. The introduction of VAR polarised opinion before the season had begun and when the season did commence, the discussion and debate intensified tenfold.

So, how does URef measure success for the VAR? URef believes that the fans are the most important stakeholder in Football, and accordingly, our definition of success is determined by aggregated fan opinion. So, with the possible exception of will Liverpool be crowned champions if the season is cut short, let’s tackle the second biggest debate of the 2019/2020 Premier League season – was the VAR a success?

One of URef’s core metrics is key decision accuracy which measures whether the majority of fans approved or disapproved every key decision. The on-field referees have had a decent season thus far, recording a collective 66.27% KDA. The VAR Referees recorded a collective VAR KDA of 72.06%. If the definition of success for the VAR is to improve key decision accuracy then that objective has successfully been achieved by +5.79%. However, given the hype, the significant impact on the contest and atmosphere that the introduction of VAR has had in the Premier League, many fans might consider a 5.79% increase, only satisfactory, underwhelming, disappointing or even perhaps, not worth of it being introduced.

Another compelling data point to measure the successfulness of VAR are URef’s Sentiment ratings which records total aggregated key decision approval for each Referee and VAR Referee. For on-field Referees, the collective Referee Sentiment is 56.10% so far this season. Tellingly, VAR Referee Sentiment is currently 62.14% which confirms a +6.04% approval sentiment disparity for the VAR’s decision making compared to that of the on-field referee. This insight underscores and reaffirms the positive impact that the VAR is having in the Premier League as the fan consensus clearly demonstrates that the VAR is successfully serving its fundamental purpose of increasing key decision accuracy.

URef’s VAR Alignment stat records the times the VAR aligns with key decisions made by the on-field referee, as a percentage – Remarkably, VAR Alignment this season was just under 80% (79.9%). The strategy was seemingly to align with the on-field referee’s call as much as possible rather than being willing to overturn – This was a pattern that received more scrutiny than praise. In light of the criticism, we expect the VAR Intervention rate to increase from its current 20.1%, in future.

In terms of the way VAR was utilised so far this season, URef classes the approach as a failure given the seemingly defensive policy and the reluctance to use the pitch-side monitor which has proven to be an established, effective, accepted method in other football competitions. There was a mountain of justifiable criticism centred around the way the VAR was implemented. As URef’s VAR Alignment stat indicates, there was a perceivably strong resistance to overturning key, contentious decisions which likely negatively hindered the VAR’s key decision accuracy margin as did the insistence to avoid the use of the pitch-side monitor to optimise key decision outcomes.

Despite the shortcomings of the VAR approach, it is undeniable that the VAR has been a success to those that simply want more key decisions called correctly. It has been far from a perfect start and VAR Referees in the Premier League should feasibly be expecting to dramatically lift the current 5.79% increase in accuracy but statistically, it is a somewhat positive start nonetheless.

There will undoubtedly be expectations for the VAR to keep improving just as the performance of players, managers and owners are constantly in the headlights and subject to scrutiny. One of the rare but beautiful things about football is that there will always be heated discussion and the subsequent, ensuing drama when it comes to key decisions, such is the grey nature of Football and the game’s interpretations. What this means is that refereeing and VAR will always divide opinion but so long as the fan consensus on decision accuracy keeps moving in the right direction, and fan sentiment continuously improves, the game will benefit as a superior spectacle will emerge. Harmony between the fans and referees seems a long way away but URef is committed to the mission of conciliation between fan and referee by constructively activating the voice of fans for the betterment of refereeing. Fans should always consider that the role of the referee (and the VAR) is incredibly difficult, the pressure is immense and it is often a thankless task but just like players, referees are more often than not, outstanding – URef’s data emphasises that fact with a view to increasing recognition for high quality officiating.

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