Within a single replay of Liverpool’s second goal against West Ham on the opening weekend of the 2018/19 Premier League, the officials’ mistake became obvious. Sadio Mane had stood, quite clearly, in an offside position as the pass was played through. The score at halftime should have been 1-0 rather than 2-0. While the final outcome would be a comfortable 4-0 win for the hosts, this ultimately finished the Hammers off.
It was in this moment that the Premier League all of a sudden felt behind the times. We, as a footballing public, had grown accustomed to officials being able to review such incidents during the World Cup. There was some confusion over certain moments, with a lack of clarity over when VAR should and shouldn’t be used muddying things, but it would have cleared up Mane’s offside goal in seconds.
Of course, the Premier League took the decision at the end of last season not to implement, or even test VAR, this season. At the time, that looked to be a wise call. Early testing of VAR elsewhere in the sport had been nothing short of farcical. The Premier League, the most watched football league on the planet, felt it couldn’t take such a risk.
However, the World Cup was a watershed in the development of VAR. Over the course of the tournament, it became an accepted part of football at the highest level. Terms related to the technology were introduced into the mainstream lexicon. There are still some problems to iron out, but by and large, the implementation of VAR at the World Cup was a success.
Now that the mainstream has been introduced to VAR, it feels like a backwards step to take it away from them, like the Premier League have this season. There has been a shift in the dynamic, a shift in public opinion. While the notion of VAR was once widely condemned, now the positives have been seen after the World Cup.
As soon as the first replay of Mane’s offside goal against West Ham was shown, VAR was mentioned. “That wouldn’t have counted at the World Cup,” uttered the co-commentator on duty at Anfield, summing up the rhetoric we’ll hear throughout the 2018/19 Premier League season. Expect this line to be trotted out with each and every offside goal scored, every red card unjustly shown, every handball in the penalty box missed.
The fact that VAR will be used in the Bundesliga and La Liga this season only adds to the feeling that the Premier League has fallen behind the times. The division was one of the first to implement goalline technology, something now accepted as the norm across the game. English football takes pride in being at the forefront of the sport, in being a showcase to the world. Somewhere along the line, though, they became the ones chasing the zeitgeist.
It seems inevitable that VAR will eventually be adopted by the Premier League, but they have already wasted time in not even testing it until now. MLS, for instance, ran months of tests in one-off games before the technology was implemented right across the division. If the Premier League is to install VAR at grounds next season, it will have to do so from a standing start.
The purists will be happy, though. VAR’s place in such a fast-paced, free-flowing sport is still debated, with many maintaining it has been crowbarred into football simply to appease those who can’t accept human error as an element of the game. They say VAR also robs football of its greatest moment – the moment of euphoria that comes with the scoring of a goal. Players now know to expect a VAR review before they can truly celebrate.
But we are past the point of no return. With its use at the World Cup, the biggest show on earth, VAR is here to stay. Football feels somewhat antiquated without it, as was demonstrated at Anfield on Sunday. Rather ironically, the Premier League will have to review their decision on this.
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