If you haven’t heard, VAR is on its way to the Premier League. It has felt like an army slowly marching its way across a vast land. After about 3 years of trooping, the dust cloud is finally visible on the horizon.
The opposing forces that await its arrival are multiple. The inherent scepticism that always accompanies such seismic change dug its trenches long before there was actually an enemy to fight.
On the flanks there are those that worry about an imbalance at grassroots level. From above, you can hear the hum of the football fans who don’t want to wait before they can celebrate a goal.
FPL managers, however, hover somewhere in the middle. Some are deeply cynical – one prominent FPL voice recently tweeted that they were “worried for football”. Others, however, have welcomed the advancement with keen anticipation.
Regardless of where FPL managers stand, one thing appears to be unanimously agreed upon: VAR is going to have a significant impact on FPL assets. Particularly penalty takers.
Let’s explore that.
How has VAR affected other leagues?
Firstly, we’ll take a look at other European leagues that have already implemented VAR. How much impact has it had on the number of penalties awarded?
Penalties awarded season before VAR: 113
Penalties awarded season after VAR: 128
La Liga shows a clear increase in the number of penalties awarded in this post-VAR dystopian. An increase of around 12% is definitely enough to take notice of, but it isn’t sharp enough to give us a clear conclusion either. Perhaps things will settle next season. Hasta la vista, baby.
Penalties awarded season before VAR: 137
Penalties awarded season after VAR: 126
Unlike La Liga, the Serie A tells a different story. Here, the number of penalties has actually decreased since the introduction of VAR. Not exactly the penalty-fest that some might’ve imagined.
Penalties awarded season before VAR: 98
Penalties awarded season after VAR: 93
The Germans have mirrored their Italian friends, with yet another decrease in the number of penalties after the introduction of VAR.
This data, though taken from a small sample size, demonstrates that VAR and more penalties are not as synonymous as we might think.
Remember, VAR doesn’t just spot penalties; it actually spots non-penalties too. In other words, if Salah dives in the box next season, he’ll be booked rather than rewarded. Perhaps this helps to explain why we haven’t seen a spike in spot kicks in these European leagues.
But every league is different, right? The pace of the English game is faster; surely it’s unfair to compare Serie A’s penalty stats to the Premier League’s?
Let’s take a look at the Champions League numbers instead. This is probably the closest comparison we can find.
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Were more penalties awarded in the Champions League after VAR?
Anecdotally, it has felt as though far more penalties were awarded during the 18/19 Champions League tournament than in previous seasons. Remember the one Rashford buried against PSG? And what about Salah’s conversion in the final?
But hang on a moment. Let’s see what UEFA themselves have reported. I found this data on their official website.
Penalties awarded in the UCL
2018/19 35 awarded; 76% scored
2017/18 34 awarded; 82% scored
2016/17 53 awarded; 62% scored
2015/16 43 awarded; 58% scored
2014/15 39 awarded; 79% scored
2013/14 46 awarded; 63% scored
As the data shows, the 18/19 Champions League tournament (the first since VAR was implemented) saw one extra penalty compared to the season prior. If we compare the numbers to the last five seasons, however, we can see that actually, last season was among the lowest for penalties awarded.
Will VAR effect the number of penalties awarded in the Premier League?
Whilst there might well be an increase in penalties awarded in the Premier League next season, there is nothing conclusive to suggest that the introduction of VAR will be responsible for it.
If the Premier League follows the suit of the Champions League, the Bundesliga and Serie A, we may even see a slight decrease in the number of penalties awarded. Remember, VAR only serves to make a referee more accurate: that might well swing the pendulum the other way as far as penalties are concerned.
What does VAR mean for your FPL team?
Well, it doesn’t mean that the likes of Milivojevic and Sigurdsson aren’t valuable. They’re still on penalties, after all, and whilst VAR might not increase the number of penalties awarded, it certainly doesn’t appear to have a clear detrimental impact on them either.
But to give penalty takers a loftier status this season is to fall for a bias that was developed during the 2018 World Cup, in which far more penalties were awarded than in previous tournaments.
As it turns out, the World Cup was the anomaly. At a top quality club level, we haven’t seen anything like the scenes that unfolded in Russia. This is probably down to a number of reasons. Firstly, players are savvier. They know what they can and can’t get away with now.
Secondly, the gulf in quality between nations competing in the World Cup meant that some teams were dependant on a more aggressive mentality. Two of England’s three penalties, for example, came against Panama.
But players know more about VAR than they did in 2018, and the gap in quality doesn’t exist to such an extent in the Premier League.
The result will likely be a few weeks of transition – for players, referees and audiences – before things begin to take on a more familiar hue once again. I, for one, am quite relieved that it probably won’t be the invasion that some predict.