The Premier League has never been short of a talking point or two. Former players have carved out lucrative careers by pontificating upon the questionable decisions that take place each week, and now they have something which has dialled up the controversy several notches - VAR.
What is the Video Assistant Referee (VAR)?
The Video Assistant Referee system has been utilised since the start of the 2019/20 season, and we have seen multiple examples of how it has affected the outcome of matches – naturally, this influences the betting world too.
It’s impossible to say exactly how many VAR checks take place in each match, though it is possible for bettors to conduct their own research via live text feeds and match reports. ESPN also keep a record of any confirmed decisions that were overturned by the VAR.
What we can say for certain is that all goals scored, all red cards shown, and all penalties awarded are checked by the team at Stockley Park, with the aim of ensuring the on-field referee made the correct decision. The VAR also checks incidents where there perhaps should have been a spot kick (penalty) or sending-off, in case they were missed by the team of officials at the stadium.
What impact did the VAR have in the Premier League in the first four seasons it was implemented, and how did it affect bettors? Let’s take a look at three categories.
VAR's impact on red cards
Red cards have declined since VAR was introduced. In the final four seasons prior to its implementation, 185 players were sent off in Premier League matches, but that total dropped to 165 from 2018/19 to 2022/23.
There are two important points to consider here though. Firstly, red cards were already thinning out - there were 257 issued in the four seasons from 2000/01 onwards, for instance.
The other potential issue is that red card numbers may not have dropped because of VAR, they may have merely fallen during the period in which the review system has been utilised.
The data backs this up. There have been 53 overturned red card decisions following review, with 44 additional sendings-off, and just nine have been rescinded.
In other words, VAR added a net 35 red cards that would not have been issued otherwise. Without the interventions from Stockley Park, the total would have truly plummeted. The decrease will have been thanks to referees allowing games to flow more freely, and being lenient when having an opportunity to punish potential offences.
The most significant sending-off following the implementation of VAR appears to be the first: Ryan Bertrand’s red card only 12 minutes into Southampton’s match against Leicester in October 2019. The match finished 9-0 to the visitors, making it the biggest away win in English top flight history.
Pinnacle had under 2.5 goals as the more likely outcome ahead of the match, priced at 1.86 compared to 2.05 for over 2.5 goals. A 12th minute sending-off (which wouldn’t have otherwise occurred) went a long way to ensure that it was a goal-fest, and this will have proved costly to some bettors.
Coincidentally, there was also a VAR-influenced red card when Manchester United beat Southampton 9-0 in February 2021. However, that occurred in the 86th minute, and the home side were already six goals up, so the sending-off had far less influence (beyond helping an already big win become a record-equalling one).
A better example of the impact of the VAR occurred at The Hawthorns two months earlier. With a score of 1-1 in the first half, West Bromwich Albion’s Matheus Pereira was dismissed following a review after just 34 minutes. It helped visitors Crystal Palace to win 5-1 with their player advantage. Under 2.5 goals had closed on Pinnacle at 1.88, while over 2.5 was 2.03.
There may still have been at least three goals irrespective of the red card, but it clearly made the possibility far likelier.
While the sample sizes for combinations of referee and VAR influence are small, they are still worth bearing in mind.
The duo of Mike Dean and Darren England produced red cards following review in the opening 10 minutes of games at Brentford and Fulham in 2022, one each from the on-field official and one each from Stockley Park. Newcastle were the beneficiaries both times, winning 2-0 and 4-1 respectively, and they were pre-match underdogs at Pinnacle in the first game.
VAR's impact on penalties
It will be impossible to accurately gauge the impact of VAR alone with regard to penalties, as the handball law has changed within the last four years.
At face value, the effect on spot kick awards has not been huge, with 419 in the four seasons in which VAR was in place and 381 in the four prior to that.
Serie A and MLS saw a degrading of home advantage involving penalties.
However, as with red cards, the video reviews have made a net addition. Although 50 penalties were rescinded, an extra 113 were awarded once the on-field referee had taken a second look.
There has been a far more interesting shift too. Both Serie A and the MLS saw a degrading of home advantage with regard to penalties when VAR was introduced, and the Premier League has also seen this occur. Between 2015/16 and 2018/19, 58.8% of penalties were awarded to home sides, but that has dropped to 53.9% in the VAR era.
Similarly, home teams have received 55.6% of non-VAR awarded penalties in the last four seasons of Premier League football, but only 49.6% of those which followed a review.
It is worth noting that the biggest dip occurred in 2020/21, a campaign which was played almost exclusively behind closed doors. Without a crowd to influence the referee, a lower proportion of home penalties was probably inevitable that season.
In terms of teams, Manchester City have been awarded the most spot kicks thanks to VAR with 11, ahead of West Ham (10), Brighton (nine), and Manchester United (eight).
Arsenal have been the most reliant upon reviews among top flight sides in this period though. Where 27.5% of Premier League penalties have been given after a review, 46.2% of the Gunners’ tally falls into this category. West Ham (45.5%) and Newcastle (41.2%) have also benefitted proportionally, particularly compared to the likes of Aston Villa (12.5%) and Liverpool (17.4%).
From a betting perspective, whether a penalty is scored or not is usually more important than if it is awarded in the first place. This is where the delays brought about by VAR checks may have an impact.
Of the 327 spot kicks awarded since the summer of 2019, 84 were missed, resulting in a conversion rate of 79.6%. However, 31 of the failures occurred from the 113 penalties which were awarded following a video review. In other words, the penalty conversion rate was 82.2% when no overturn was required, but only 72.6% when Stockley Park intervened.
VAR's impact on goals
While red cards and penalties likely, but not definitively, affect match outcomes, goals clearly do. Once again, the rate hasn’t shifted much – the Premier League saw 4,180 goals across the four years leading up to the implementation of VAR, and 4,212 since.
Yet that rise of just eight goals per season could have been far greater. Video reviews have led to a net drop of 151 goals, with 45 awarded following an intervention, but 196 ruled out.
It isn’t the total volume of goals which concerns us, but rather their impact upon results and related bets. While it’s impossible to say for sure if a goal awarded or disallowed will have changed a result, there were some matches where it was hugely relevant.
The strongest case can be made for those which occur late in games. There have been 39 goals allowed or disallowed in the 85th minute or later, but of course some were in matches that were effectively already settled.
There have been just two goals awarded by VAR which could reasonably be considered winners, and none since 2019 – an 87th minute goal for Crystal Palace at West Ham in October that year and a 94th minute strike for Leicester when hosting Everton in December, both matches ending 2-1 in favour of the review beneficiaries.
Potentially game-changing disallowed goals have occurred more frequently, with the Bournemouth side of 2019/20 perhaps the most deeply affected team. With their Premier League safety on the line, they had injury time goals disallowed against Tottenham and Southampton in July 2020, which could easily have earned them an extra three points and saved them from relegation.
The new system hasn’t just affected the basic 1X2 market for a match. By disallowing or awarding goals, VAR has also disrupted the market for the Golden Boot.
A key intervention occurred in 2019/20 at the Amex Stadium. Jamie Vardy initially missed a penalty, but the VAR ruled that James Maddison had encroached into the box before knocking in the rebound.
The penalty was retaken. Vardy scored, and eventually became top scorer by a single goal. Without VAR, he would have shared the Golden Boot award with Danny Ings and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang two goals back, as he gained two goals following video reviews.
The Golden Boot hasn’t been affected since, but the potential is there.
The following season, Harry Kane was top scorer ahead of Mohamed Salah by a solitary strike. However, where the former Tottenham man had one goal disallowed by VAR, his Liverpool counterpart saw three wiped out.
The Golden Boot market hasn’t been directly affected since, but the potential is there. The biggest impact will be seen in the Both Teams to Score and Total Goals markets though, as the timing of opening goals has a massive impact on how matches play out.
Let’s look at some examples from 2022/23. When Liverpool hosted Chelsea at Anfield, Pinnacle had odds of 1.89 for over 2.5 goals and 2.01 for under 2.5.
In the third minute, a Kai Havertz goal was disallowed for offside, which was not spotted by the on-field officials. History shows that a Premier League match sees over 2.5 goals 71% of the time when the first goal is scored in the opening 10 minutes.
However, this game ended goalless, and bettors who selected the favoured option in the ‘Total – Match’ market would have been disappointed.
There are also examples where an early disallowed goal didn’t prevent both teams from scoring. or there being a high total of goals. For instance, Brentford vs. Newcastle finished 1-2 despite a potential opening goal being ruled out in the ninth minute. However, these are markets where VAR can definitely have a massive influence upon the success of your bets.
Perhaps the worst part for bettors is that it’s impossible to know how or when VAR will strike. In a sport full of random factors, VAR may have become the largest of them all, which can only spell bad news for bettors.
You can follow Andrew Beasley on X for more of his insights @BassTunedToRed.