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Spoiler alert: VAR is proving to be box office entertainment in the Premier League – but at what cost to the action?

By Matias Grez, CNN

(CNN) — When the Premier League first implemented the video assistant referee (VAR) at the start of the 2019-20 season, the technology’s current prominence in the discourse around match action and its impact on football would surely have been close to the worst-case scenario.

In an ideal match, referees and officials should be largely inconspicuous, only intervening in the play when absolutely necessary and making sure to avoid becoming the center of attention with a game-changing decision.

VAR was only intended to supplement that ideal, helping to eliminate a small number of match-defining errors that are inevitable over the course of a season in a high-speed, high-stakes sport.

Instead, four years on from its Premier League debut, the technology has now seemingly become the main talking point rather than the football itself.

For days – sometimes weeks – after a match, erroneous decisions are continuously dissected in media conferences and painstakingly examined in newspaper columns.

The matches, the players, the tactics and the standings are seemingly becoming a sidenote, overshadowed by an insatiable desire for the controversy that inevitably comes with an imperfect system.

The introduction of semi-automated offside technology, which uses artificial intelligence to help track players’ limbs, could likely have made life easier for officials, but the Premier League doesn’t use the system, despite it being introduced at the 2022 World Cup and its deployment in the Champions League, Serie A and La Liga.

Chelsea’s exhilarating 4-1 win over Tottenham on Monday – a game that had five goals overturned or disallowed, two red cards and 21 minutes of stoppage time – was the latest in a growing list of Premier League matches this season to feature VAR as the main protagonist.

After the match, Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou admitted he was becoming increasingly frustrated with the impact VAR is having on games.

“I’ve said it before, I don’t like it,” Postecoglou told reporters after the match. “I don’t like the standing around. I don’t like the whole theatre around waiting for decisions, but I know that I’m in the wilderness on that, I’m kind of on my own.

“In my 26 years, I was always prepared to accept the referee’s decision; good, bad or otherwise and I’ve had some shockers in my career, and I’ve had some go my way as well, but I’d cop that because I just wanted the game to be played.

“When we’re complaining about decisions every week, this is what’s going to happen. People are going to forensically scrutinize everything to make sure that they’re comfortable it’s right – and even at the end of that, we’re still not happy.

“So what does that mean? It means we’re going to see a lot of standing around and I think it’s just diminishing the authority of the referee. You can’t tell me referees are in control of games now, they’re not. The control is outside of that, but that’s the way the game’s going so you have to accept that and just try and deal with it.”

While Postecoglou was scathing about how VAR has changed football matches, admitting that he’s perhaps a bit “old school,” it was at least refreshing to hear a manager make no complaints about the decisions that went against his team.

Being magnanimous about refereeing decisions isn’t a trait many Premier League managers seemingly possess.

Following Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat to Newcastle on Saturday, Gunners manager Mikel Arteta branded the standard of officiating in the Premier League as “embarrassing” and a “disgrace,” before the club released a statement supporting the Spaniard’s stance.

“The Premier League is the best league in the world with the best players, coaches and supporters, all of whom deserve better,” the statement read.

“PGMOL urgently needs to address the standard of officiating and focus on action which moves us all on from retrospective analysis, attempted explanations and apologies.”

CNN has reached out to the PGMOL, English football’s refereeing body, and the Premier League for comment.

Arteta was joined in his criticism of officials by Wolves manager Gary O’Neil, who said he had “given up on referees” after a controversial penalty decision went against his team for the second weekend in a row, while Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp has already called for a match to be replayed this season following his side’s legitimate goal that wasn’t given against Tottenham.

The competence of officials has been increasingly scrutinized since VAR’s implementation, with many fans, players and managers believing poor officiating to be the main issue in controversial decisions, rather than the technology itself.

Former PGMOL chief Keith Hackett described the current standard of refereeing as “woeful both in the middle [of the pitch] and VAR room at Stockley Park.”

In response to one user on X, formerly Twitter, Hackett said there is currently “incompetence and a lack of leadership” at the PGMOL.

Ever since VAR was introduced, fans, players and pundits have regularly called for more transparency in the decision-making process, much like systems used in rugby and cricket, but authorities continue to push back against the idea.

“Lukas Brud, you are wrong,” Hackett added, responding to comments from the chief of the International Football Association Board, the governing body that determines global football’s rules, who said broadcasting live VAR communications to fans would be too “chaotic.”

Going forward, it’s hard to see the controversy subsiding any time soon. Whatever the Premier League and PGMOL had in mind for VAR’s development, it surely wasn’t this.

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