If there’s one man to speak to about the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) project, it’s Howard Webb. A former FIFA World Cup final and Premier League referee, Webb has been involved since the beginning when Major League Soccer became one of the first leagues in the world to use it.
“If you say to any top official ‘you can go into the game with VAR or without it,’ I don’t think there’s any referee in the world at that level who would say ‘you know something, I’m just going to fly by the seat of my pants and hope I can get it right,'” Webb told ESPN. “They are all going to say ‘of course I want VAR.'”
Initially in charge of its implementation in MLS in 2017, Webb was promoted to general manager of the referees’ body, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), a year later. He’s been at the heart of VAR’s development, overseeing how it’s applied and the training and mentorship of referees.
VAR has been problematic in many other leagues, with the Premier League in particular experiencing what seems to be a never-ending stream of high profile controversies. But in MLS, which recently started its fifth season with VAR, it’s an accepted part of the game — even if referees don’t always get everything right.
In an in-depth interview, Webb sets out his philosophy for how VAR should be used, and why he feels it’s been a success in MLS.
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What VAR should be, while the Premier League struggles
“When I missed Nigel De Jong putting his foot into the chest of Xabi Alonso in the  World Cup final that wasn’t because I was a poor ref, though it was not a great decision,” Webb told ESPN. “But if I’d have looked at that on the screen within five seconds I’d have seen it was a red card. It’s for those type of really clear situations, not for the ones where you might think ‘I’ve seen them given.'”
The ethos of VAR is to correct “clear and obvious” errors. But how do you define that for fans, players and officials alike? An error to one person will be a correct call to another.
“Clear and obvious” has become something of a dirty phrase in the Premier League. Knowing where the line sits for a VAR intervention seems to differ across referees, leading to errors and exasperation.
This season, the Premier League has seen five red cards rescinded on appeal — four shown through the VAR process and another when the referee’s decision was supported. It’s comparable to the first full season of VAR in MLS, when seven red cards were overturned on appeal. That reduced to three in 2020 — only one through VAR and two when the original decision was upheld.
Handball and penalty reviews have been inconsistent in the Premier League; no one seems at all sure when the VAR will or won’t intervene.
For Webb, it’s important that everyone in the game has a feeling for what the VAR will do and what is a “clear and obvious” error.
“People get frustrated sometimes by the words ‘high bar’ and ‘clear and obvious’ but in our experience, and as somebody that has lived and breathed this now for five years, I’m just as strong now in my belief that the threshold, and managing expectations around that, adds massively to the acceptance of VAR,” Webb added. “When you look at something it needs to be really clear, and relatively quick. Be decisive, form an opinion that it’s clearly wrong.
“We have to be really careful that we don’t change a decision based on subjective considerations when in the eyes of some people the first decision was right anyway. But everything can’t be compartmentalised beautifully into a little box. There’s going to be some subjectivity.”
In most leagues, a pitchside review is only for subjective incidents, such as red cards and possible penalties. But in MLS, the referee will always make the final decision at the monitor.
“We use the review area for every single review, even things like in or out of the penalty area, ball out of play, offside,” Webb added. “It still needs the human determination. Our fans enjoy the unfolding narrative, they like to see the referee going to the screen. And it gives the referee information that’s useful in managing the players.
“I understand the rationale for not doing it [on factual decisions], as it takes around 50 seconds, but we think the net benefit is there. The referee always has control over every decision.”
“We have to be really careful that we don’t change a decision based on subjective considerations when in the eyes of some people the first decision was right anyway.”
Transparency: MLS wants fans to hear the VAR
“We’re working with FIFA and a few other federations about using live audio,” Webb said. “We did it last year on three games, but to continue that we would need the approval of FIFA. We are potentially looking at some sort of pilot, we don’t know if it’s going to be a successful approach but we’re working with them about how feasible that is.”
MLS cannot broadcast the VAR audio live (yet), but Greg Barkey, manager of video review, explains the major decisions on a YouTube video, “Inside Video Review,” which includes the original VAR audio — and importantly he’ll say when the PRO feels the VAR process hasn’t resulted in the correct outcome.
It’s one thing fans across the globe can unite over: let us hear what the referee and the VAR are saying to each other, let us understand the process like in other sports. FIFA isn’t yet ready to embrace this, though many leagues — including MLS — are desperate to try.
In the Premier League, it is very rare that you hear from anyone within the VAR process at any stage. The lack of transparency only adds to the confusion, and it means there is no education not just for those within the game but fans too.
The gap of up to a week (for training and consultation) between MLS matches and “Inside Video Review” certainly isn’t perfect. Fans want to hear the VAR audio as the decision is made.
MLS ran the first-ever live trials of broadcasting the VAR audio last summer during the “MLS Is Back” tournament and, while Webb is eager for MLS to do more, the feeling is we’re a long way from it becoming part of the game.
“The feedback we got back from pretty much everybody was universally positive,” he added. “We are respectful of process and doing things the right way and the trial was an exceptional circumstance in unusual times [the COVID-19 pandemic]. Now we’re back into a regular season with fans in the stadium we do want to make sure we do it with the support of the governing bodies. We think there’s a net benefit.
“I understand the reservations of going too quickly in this space. It takes time to become proficient and you need to be comfortable before you draw that curtain back a little bit. We think we’re in the position where we can try it out and see how it works.”
“I think if you took VAR out of MLS tomorrow there would be a real uproar about it… There might be some challenges in a small number of situations but there’s a whole swathe of benefits.”
No fighting about VAR offside in MLS
Remember Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford being ruled offside when pointing for a pass at Crystal Palace? Or Liverpool’s Sadio Mane somehow being a millimetre offside when he set up Jordan Henderson for a dramatic late winner in the Merseyside derby at Everton? They are the kind of VAR decisions that infuriate fans, and for good reason.
All of the major European leagues are dogged by similarly marginal calls, when the striker looks to be level in the spirit of the game.
This doesn’t happen in MLS, because MLS doesn’t use the Hawk-Eye technology. It can’t be installed consistently across all stadia, so instead offside is judged by the naked eye — first by the VAR and then the referee at the monitor.
It doesn’t mean there will be noticeably fewer offside reviews, they are just done in a less intrusive way. The 2020 MLS season saw 30 offside reviews in 291 games (0.103 per game), while in the Premier League this season it’s 46 in 360 games (0.128).
Webb wouldn’t rule out using Hawk-Eye technology in the future, or semi-automated offside when it’s ready for use in a few years. But right now he is content with how MLS does offside.
“The configuration of cameras in our stadiums is pretty inconsistent, and that makes it a challenge to be able to implement this system across all 27 venues,” Webb explained. “And we want consistency. Our assistants are pretty good at what they do — their accuracy levels are pretty high into 90% without VAR, they are in the best position in the stadium, they are in line and the camera often isn’t.
“We teach our VARs to take into account the camera angle, and how that impacts their perception of what’s happening. Of course, sometimes the VAR will have a slight dilemma when a player looks just offside, but is it clear enough for them to recommend a review? Also, we only advocate offside flag delay when the offside offence exists but they know it’s close. Beyond that is clear offside, where there’s no doubt it’s offside and there’s very little chance of it being wrong. So in that case just stick the flag up, what’s the point in delaying the flag? We trust them, they trust themselves. Why would you frustrate and increase the risk of collision?
“Are we saying this is totally scientific? No. Are we saying it will capture clear errors? Yes. It might still leave some debate but we’ve had very little push-back. The advantage is we’re able to stay true to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacker, stay true to clear and obvious, and we’re not disallowing things for minutiae.”
“The advantage is we’re able to stay true to the benefit of the doubt to the attacker, stay true to clear and obvious, and we’re not disallowing things for minutiae.”
Retired refs bring vital experience as VARs
Many leagues rotate their elite referees in the VAR hub and out on the pitch. But in MLS, there’s a team of retired officials who work only on VAR, which enables all games to officiated by top-level referees. In the Premier League, some referees from the second-tier Championship who only rarely, if ever, take charge of a Premier League game, have acted as the VAR and had to work with referees of a higher level out on the pitch.
In 2019-20, the Premier League regularly used six second-tier officials as VARs, who had a total of two Premier League matches as referee (both picked up during that season). It led to accusations that they did not want to undermine more senior colleagues and lacked the experience to make game-changing decisions in top-flight football.
PGMOL clearly realised there needed to be a shift. Two of those six referees, Robert Jones and Darren England, were promoted for this season, while three of the others no longer act as the VAR. One remains, with Jared Gillett, who has never refereed a single game in the Premier League, regularly used as the VAR.
It adds to the workload on Premier League referees, who must take their turn as VARs when a group of retired referees could be taking the pressure off them.
Webb believes that using retired referees ensures the VAR and the referee are of the same level, meaning there is trust and respect among the officiating team. The Premier League is learning and will take its first steps along this road next season, with Lee Mason retiring to concentrate solely on being a VAR.
“It’s a hybrid model at the moment, and it’s born out of the size of the league and that we value their experience having been there and done it,” Webb explained. “If we were only restricted to active officials we’d end up bringing in less experienced officials to do that job, and we think there’s a value in having officials who have worked to that level, even if they have retired, rather than dipping into the referee pool further down.
“We have 24 professional referees and almost all of those across the season will be used as VARs, and then 13 dedicated ex-referees that are doing it as well. There’s no real pattern about whether ex-referees or current referees are better at this. When we track our data about missed reviews, unnecessary reviews and efficiency of process, and it comes down to personal traits. Some people are just naturally better at being VARs than others.”
VAR is better in MLS, but there’s work to do
Webb admits that it’s going to be a long process of making incremental improvements, with 98.52% of reviewable incidents resulting in the correct decision in the 2020 MLS season — but mistakes will still happen and 100% isn’t realistically achievable.
There were 101 reviews last year, at a rate of 0.31 per match (in the Premier League, it’s slightly higher at 0.33). But Webb says his VAR officials missed a further 16 reviews, while seven reviews resulted in the incorrect outcome.
Webb believes his training programme is key to improving VAR standards.
“You can ask the question why isn’t it 100% when you’ve got VAR, and there’s a few reasons,” Webb added. “Our VARs don’t always recommend reviews when they should — they look at something and feel it doesn’t reach the level of a clear and obvious error. We really do value that as an important part of being successful with VAR.
“And yes, we’re still asking human beings to make that judgment in the moment, under time pressure, together with a colleague [an assistant VAR].
“We’re not perfect, we had some situations in 2017 that were horrible, but we’re seeing less and less of those situations and more of the good stuff. There was a clear desire [in 2017] to get overly involved, and we had to say this is not what the system is for. It’s not to re-referee the game.
“The volume of training that we continue to do is crucial. Every single week, on a Monday, we put out to the group all the reviews, or the things we think might be reviewable, and we ask for their opinion. And then we can focus our training to those areas where there’s less consistency. And then on a Friday we give our feedback with guidance. And as you keep chipping away you see us getting closer. But there’s still a few situations where we as a management team will be split.
“The net positive is you won’t get a goal scored with the hand, you won’t get a goal that’s clearly offside, somebody won’t get away with an elbow to face that’s deliberately done. There might be some challenges in a small number of situations but there’s a whole swathe of benefits.”