It’s been a long, long season in the Premier League for many reasons, however the biggest talking pre-lockdown and ever since the season restarted has been VAR. Some love it and some hate it, but ultimately it’s here to stay.

But what would the final table look like if VAR wasn’t available? Would Liverpool still be champions and would any of Norwich City, Watford or Bournemouth survived the drop? Chris Winn, programme leader for MSc Football Business at GIS, has taken a look at the numbers to find out…

The 2019/20 season will be one we will never forget, mainly for reasons off the pitch, as the coronavirus pandemic made its mark on all our lives. As such, the end of this season, coming 50 weeks after it’s commencement, is a time for reflection in more ways than one.

Although by far one of the least important facets of this season, the introduction and operation of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has continued to cause controversy throughout the season, with the expectation that only ‘clear and obvious’ errors are to be intervened on seemingly contrasting with the hair’s breadth offside decisions we have now become accustomed to via those familiar computerised lines.

Furthermore, unlike in other top European leagues, Premier League referees are not generally utilising the on-pitch monitors, further inhibiting the on-pitch transparency of VAR decisions made.

With FIFA taking over direct responsibility of VAR from football rulemakers IFAB from the 1st July, it is expected to insist on greater consistency across the professional game – which may mean we see VAR used differently here in the Premier League come September.

Over the course of this season we have kept track of VAR goal decision interventions made, to understand exactly who has benefitted and equally suffered most for the introduction of VAR when it comes to off-pitch goal related decisions. While this is no exact science, now the season has come to a close we can now reveal how such decisions have affected final placings and associated rewards:

  • We calculate that VAR goal decisions have influenced the overall result of matches, or the number of goals scored, in 79 of the 380 Premier League games played over the season- 21% in total.
  • Wolves are the team to have suffered the most through VAR goal decisions, gaining an additional seven points and rising three positions to 4th place in the VAR-less table, and in doing so gaining Champions League qualification and pushing Man Utd into a Europa League place, themselves having benefitted from VAR goal decisions to the tune of two points.
  • It’s no coincidence Wolves are also the team to see their goal difference improve the greatest without VAR, rising by six goals to a goal difference of 17.
  • Tottenham were the team to benefit the most in terms of points gained via VAR goal decisions, being eight points better off than they would have been without VAR. This also contributed to Tottenham falling from 6th to 10th in the VAR-less table, the greatest fall of any team and one that would have taken them away from a Europa League position.
  • The gap at the top would be reduced to just nine points in the VAR-less table, as a result of Liverpool being five points better off and Man City four points worse off for VAR goal decisions.
  • Southampton’s goal difference would fall the greatest - eight goals to -17 - were it not for VAR goal decisions, resulting in a fall of one place and five points in the VAR-less table.
  • Without VAR interventions on goal decisions, Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich would remain in the bottom three, however Watford and Bournemouth would switch places, whilst the relegation fight would have been much more precarious for Brighton.
  • Newcastle United are the only Premier League team to have not been directly affected by a VAR goal decision in terms of points gained or goal difference over the season.

Given an element of Premier League domestic broadcast distributions are based on league position, clubs may be better or worse off by c.£2m per league positon changed based on this measure alone, whilst the financial impact of the merit-based portion of international broadcast rights remains to be seen in its first year of operation.

However, it’s likely that Wolves will feel most aggrieved for the introduction of VAR, with Liverpool and Spurs both collecting in excess of €100m in broadcast payments alone in their runs through to the Champions League final in 2018/19.

Armpits, shoulders, and shoelaces aside, VAR is in all likelihood here to stay. With technology already established in the beautiful game, there is no reason why VAR cannot do the same- but changes will be needed this summer to provide greater clarity on both its operation and criteria for intervention.