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The stats that prove VAR is great news for Premier League minnows

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Over the course of a whole Premier League season Video Assistant Referees (VAR) could have a profound impact on results – and some teams are poised to benefit more than others

England were trailing 2-1 to Germany in the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup when Frank Lampard took a shot from the edge of the box that changed football forever.

His effort, which would have pulled the Three Lions back level from two goals down, crashed off the underside of the bar and bounced a yard or so over the line. But the referee didn’t see it. Germany went on to win the game 4-1, and England were knocked out.

But the incident finally broke FIFA’s reluctance to incorporate more technology to help referees, and helped lay the groundwork for the move towards Video Assistant Referees (VAR), which were already common in other sports, and which will make their debut in the Premier League this season.

The system, where a team of officials reviews incidents on the pitch looking for clear and obvious errors, has already been used at the men’s and women’s World Cups, and in European club competitions, where it has been involved in a number of crucial incidents. In the Champions League semi-final in April, VAR ruled out a last-gasp goal from Raheem Sterling that would have put Manchester City through – the goal was disallowed and Tottenham progressed instead.

The system is already changing the way the game is played in those competitions, with defenders so fearful of being caught out if the ball strikes their arm that they’re going into tackles and blocking crosses completely differently. Over the course of a whole league season VAR could have a profound impact on results – and some teams are poised to benefit more than others.

More decisions for the underdog

Referees are often accused of subconsciously (or even deliberately) favouring ‘big clubs’ – it was an allegation frequently aimed at Manchester United during their years of Premier League dominance. Could VAR help level the playing field?ADVERTISING

The system has been in use already in the top divisions in Spain, France, Germany and Italy, and in the first season after it was introduced, the number of penalties awarded to underdog teams playing away from home increased by 35 per cent, according to stats compiled by football data analytics firm 21st Club.

“There is therefore a chance that the Premier League might see so-called smaller teams getting a few more decisions going their way at the top clubs,” says Omar Chaudhuri, the company’s head of football intelligence. Teams who could benefit from that include Crystal Palace – whose winger Wilfried Zaha was the league’s second most fouled player last season – and who won 11 penalties, second only to Man Utd.

Fewer offsides

Correctly calling an offside decision is one of the hardest decisions in sport. Linesmen have to simultaneously watch the movements of an attacking player, the last defender and the ball, and make a judgement as to their relative positions at a specific moment in time without the benefit of slow motion. Simple. VAR will make their jobs much easier. Officials are being urged to keep their flags down for as long as possible on marginal decisions, because if they get it wrong they can be overturned by VAR.

It could lead to more goals being scored and then subsequently ruled out. In the European leagues there’s been an overall drop in the number of offsides per game, which fell from 4.6 prior to the introduction of VAR to just below 4.0 in VAR – a 15 per cent decrease.

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However, there could also be a knock-on effect, because play resets once play enters a second phase. If an attacker is offside but plays on because the assistant gives him the benefit of the doubt, and the ball doesn’t go in but instead goes out for a corner or a throw-in, play won’t be called back – and the attacking team will still have the ball in a dangerous position. As a result, “teams that defend with a high line may be vulnerable to conceding more goals,” says Chaudhuri – potentially bad news for the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool.

Premier League quirks

The Premier League is taking a much more cautious approach to VAR than other competitions. Keen to protect the division’s reputation as a home for fast-paced, frenetic football, league administrators are desperate to avoid the long delays and stoppages that have been the hallmark of VAR in other competitions. VAR contributed to a staggering 18 minutes of time being added to England’s 3-0 win over Cameroon in the Women’s World Cup.

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The league is aiming for minimum interference – which it will look to achieve by maintaining a constant dialogue between on-field referee and the video team, who will be based in a centralised location at Stockley Park, near Heathrow. The VAR team will only intervene if there’s a discrepancy between what the on-field referee says he’s seen, and what the video footage actually shows – so it’s possible that VAR may not come into play as much in England as it has done elsewhere.

Lots of controversy, but not much consequence

The technology is likely to generate a lot of talking points during the first few months of the season, but the analysts aren’t giving VAR too much weight when it comes to modelling the outcome of the season as a whole. Chaudhuri says that 21st Club’s predictions won’t factor in VAR as they “estimate it to be a small and unpredictable effect”.

Their model for the season gives defending champions Manchester City a 52 per cent chance of retaining their title, with last season’s runners-up Liverpool on 46 per cent. “Liverpool’s tremendous end to last season means they remain close to City, and that they only lost on penalties in the Community Shield also suggests they should compete again for the league,” Chaudhuri says.

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At the bottom of the league, 21st Club’s modelling says there are six teams with more than a 25 per cent chance of being relegated – including the three promoted teams (Norwich, Aston Villa, Sheffield United), along with Brighton, Burnley and Bournemouth. Perhaps VAR will come to the rescue.

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