Where Do We Go From Here?

I have to admit, there’s a metric ton worth of talking points surrounding the Premier League at this very moment. This is the beginning of the final stretch, that last third where history or infamy beckons. And yet my thoughts are drifting to the future. To what this game and league could transform into.

There are changes afoot that will presumably result in polarizing opinions. One immediate fresh feature on the minds of every fan is the recent debut of VAR. Either now your friend or arch nemesis.

VAR is the video assistant referee. Essentially just a red challenge flag but thrown by the referee himself or a crew watching the screens. It is in use in Italy and Germany already. The USA, too. It has been tried in South America and will make its presence known in the upcoming World Cup. The Premier League has not committed to it as yet. However, it is in a trial run during the FA Cup matches. And consequently to mixed results.

I won’t get into the controversial calls (Willian diving for Chelsea not being overturned, Juan Mata scoring seemingly legally for Manchester United before VAR disallowed it for a supposed offside) or the nuances of the rules and guidelines to its use. What I will say is this: I am on board with VAR being implemented into the Premier League; however, with major restrictions.

Video assistance is progress. A technological breakthrough that should be applauded and appreciated. Trust me, I’m a football romantic. I genuinely miss the “old” days when teams didn’t change kits every season and you could sing the name of a player knowing he wouldn’t be sold twenty minutes later. Oftentimes I lecture younger fans on how they never knew football when it was pure. Before the Premier League. Back when paint companies sponsored Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were feared worldwide. That was the stuff. And I say that to make my point that in spite of my longing of yesteryear, I think it imperative to move the game forward. Football is different now. Athleticism is next level and the players have redefined what fitness truly is. The sport is faster and stronger. And more is on the line. Crowds are watching across the globe and piles upon piles of billions are riding on this league. That is quite a bit of pressure for a referee and a linesman to never make a mistake.

And mistakes are rampant. Because referees are human. And that is part of the game. Or at least was. To keep up with the players the game needs to keep up with technology. The essence of football isn’t changing with these introductions. Simply, with a few minor tweaks the purists may balk at, we are getting correct calls during the most significant moments of a match. These moments the same ones referees are bungling at a frustratingly high rate.

VAR in its current format does however need to change. I am not a proponent of reviewing such a wide range of calls. The human element of the referee needs to stay intact and that includes his or her ability (or inability) to whistle and make a decision on a straight red card or a dive. Those kinds of decisions should not be reviewable. Taking aside the time it takes and adds to the match, the referee must still be responsible for the subjective, critical calls like these. We need things to complain about!

The ball fully crossing the goal line and whether or not a goal is offside should be the only reviewable instances. These are questions of fact. A ball is over the line or it is not. A player is offside or on. These decisions are not of the subjective variety I would prefer to see being handled by the actual referee. The goal line technology is already in play and takes a split second. It’s an incredible new feature that alleviates any question of a goal in a usually crowded and difficult to see area of the pitch. Not to mention the speed at which the ball is traveling obscuring one’s judgment.

The offside call is slightly more tricky. The language used in order for VAR to be enabled is it functions to correct “a clear and obvious error.” This is murky, but I don’t see the utility in dissecting the semantics. The player is onside or he is offside. If there is a question: VAR. It is not helpful if a goal is scored and the linesman relies on VAR each and every occasion. It should be for times only when the attackers and defenders are in line. A call has been made but there are doubts as to the split second nature of the run. Technology can help answer fundamental questions such as “where was the striker when the ball was played?” and “is anyone playing the attacker on?” We should also not be doing away with the benefit of a doubt goes to the forward, of which VAR apparently takes into account. There needs to be an efficient and savvy process wherein the referees and video crews can astutely assess when to bring in VAR. It will surely take time and trials and practice, but it’s worth it to make the correct call. VAR will ease the enormous pressure and strain modern day referees are under (from the media, fans and players alike) in a high flying game, but it shouldn’t outright replace them.

Another change on the horizon is one previously called for on this blog: the transfer window shutting on time. And it is happening! Now, the Premier League summer window will close BEFORE the season starts. A massive move that I celebrate and welcome. Clubs will still be able to loan players and sign free agents until the 31st of August, but all buys must be taken care of before the first match. No longer do we have to deal with a player excelling with one team for a month only to find himself wearing a different shirt in September. The clamoring of smaller sides to find in-season replacements for panicky giants cherry picking stars at the last minute is finally over! It was a problem and I do credit the normally archaic and obtuse FA for actually making a change. The January window remains untouched, but if I may take a moment to nitpick, I’m not opposed to an intelligent conversation about limiting winter transfers solely to loan agreements. But hey, that’s a completely different issue for another time!

Speaking of January, it does finally seem like the Premier League may entertain the idea of a winter break. Again, I’ve gone into much detail on the topic previously but it is astounding as to the fixture pile up that occurs around Christmastime in Britain. The breaks would stagger for the clubs in order for the TV companies paying billions of pounds to not completely throw a raging fit, but it’s a start. The festive period would remain, which I am comfortable with as long as teams get a two week break. It’s a compromise. Ideally clubs wouldn’t play three times in a week in late December but the money seems to be too good to pass up. With a break looming around the corner though, maybe we can see more competitive lineups more consistently as players and managers will know actual rest is duly arriving.

Football is changing as it always has done. {{Remember when you could back pass and the goalkeeper could pick it up??? Ahhh, a classic time waster back in the day. But really glad we never did away with throw ins for kick ins!! Ain’t nobody got time for corners up and down the touchline.}} These detailed differences here though are beneficial to the sport. To the development of the new version of this sport. And I welcome any change that moves football forward positively.

Check the tape!

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