VAR Is Causing A Footballing Injury Crisis

Arsenal defender Jurrien Timber to undergo surgery for ACL injury
Arsenal defender Jurrien Timber to undergo surgery for ACL injury

VAR is causing a footballing injury crisis is another issue that we can add to the list of reasons why we don’t like the refereeing aid.

Injuries in top level professional football have never been higher and while there are a number of factors behind the ever-growing injury tables, VAR is without doubt one of them. However, unlike the amount of games and the pace of matches, this is a criticism that VAR has escaped from so far.

How much is VAR affecting injuries in professional football, though? And what, if anything, can be done to help alleviate this?

VAR Is Causing A Footballing Injury Crisis

The Virtual Assistant Referee is something most football fans were clamouring for around a decade ago, but now it’s been implemented in most football leagues, it has become an extremely controversial part of the beautiful game.

VAR was initially brought in to correct “clear and obvious errors”, such as the infamous mistaken identity sending off of Kieran Gibbs in 2014.

However, some leagues and competitions such as the Premier League have gone back on this, instead forensically analysing any and all calls made by the on-field referee. And even then, they still get it wrong in sometimes spectacular fashion.

Image credit: The Short Fuse - SB Nation

We’ll park the mistakes with VAR to one side for a minute though, as the problem here is the stop-start nature of VAR. Football, in theory, should be a game of 90 minutes of play split evenly into two 45-minute halves. However, in practice, that is never the case.

There will always be stoppages to the play for goal celebrations, substitutions, set pieces, injuries and anything else that might halt the action. Of course, added on time at the end of each half helps to compensate for this, but increasingly, VAR is stopping play more often and for longer.

It isn’t uncommon for play to be stopped for up to four or five minutes to go over a decision, particularly if the on-field ref is required to go to the pitchside monitor to look it over as well. The pauses when goals are scored are also longer, adding to the problem.

Why is this such a problem?

Anybody that plays a physical sport or spends a lot of time in the gym will know why this is such a problem. You can stretch and warm-up as much as you want, but if you have to stop a workout part of the way through and then go back to it after, it’s way harder than if you just powered through before.

Even though professional footballers are physical specimens when it comes to their physique and athletic ability, they are pushing their bodies to the absolute limit and beyond in many cases.

Why Do Soccer Players Fake Injuries

Footballers are having to re-engage their leg muscles after standing and getting a breather for a few minutes up to a dozen times a game. That regular shock can have a devastating effect on their bones, ligaments and muscles.

The stats back this up as well, with the 2023-24 season so far having 15% overall injuries more when compared to the average of the previous four campaigns (2019-20 – 2022-23). It’s even worse for women’s football too, which is going through an ACL injury crisis.

One of the counter arguments to all of this, though, is that clubs have a larger pool of players now than ever before and that’s definitely true. Although, managers will still want their best players playing every week, especially in the Premier League, where the strength in depth of all 20 teams is impressive.

Squad rotation is vital in modern football, but you also want the most settled and consistent team line-up possible.

What about other sports?

VAR is not exclusive to football and it’s effectively implemented in its various guises in other sports. So, is it causing injury problems there, too? Well, unfortunately for football, this is a problem specific to it.

Tennis’ Hawkeye is instantaneous and only comes into play when a player makes a challenge, which is usually at most a couple times per set. Rugby is naturally a stop-start game, so getting the TMO (Television Match Official) involved doesn’t change the games much.

The same is true for cricket, which is anything but a fast-paced sport. Football also has the disadvantage of being a sport where the rules are extremely complex and subjective, leading to referees needing many angles and repetitions of replays to make a decision.

What can be done to help the crisis?

The easiest thing to do would be to scrap VAR and that would certainly be a popular move amongst football fans. However, the opinion of football fans doesn’t matter to those that govern the game and the powers that be have invested far too much money into VAR to bin it.

So, we instead need to reduce the amount of time that players are waiting around for VAR decisions to be made and I have the perfect solution to that, that I’m taking inspiration from another sport for.

Image credit: Quince Sports

The whole point of VAR was originally to correct “clear and obvious errors” in matches, so why not impose a time limit on VAR officials to make a call? 60 seconds should be enough to clear up anything that is obvious and that’s not an extended period of time for the players or fans to wait.

To see the proof as to whether this would work, just look at the success that the shot clock has been in basketball. In the NBA, players are required to make a shot within 24 seconds of their team gaining possession of the ball, making the sport a much faster and more flowing game.

Football has to be careful, otherwise it’ll become as stop-start as other sports like American Football and the athletes simply aren’t built to withstand that.

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