VAR ‘won’t penalise trivial things’ in Premier League next season

The use of the video assistant referee (VAR) will be ‘dialled back’ in the new Premier League season, with officials told not to penalise “trivial things”.

There was only minimal contact on Sterling when he won a late spot-kick.

“Contact on its own is only part of the what referees should look for,” said referees’ chief Mike Riley.

“They should also ask themselves if the contact has a consequence, and then if the player used that contact to try and win a foul or a penalty.

“It’s not sufficient just to say: ‘Yes, there’s contact.’ I think, partly, we got into that frame of mind by the forensic analysis that went into VAR awards.

“If you’ve got clear contact that has a consequence, that’s what you’ve got to penalise. If you’ve any doubt in those elements, you’re less likely to be penalised.

“I think it moves the dial back towards where we were in a pre-VAR world. We don’t want trivial things penalised.”

VAR take three

VAR was introduced to the Premier League in 2019 to review “clear and obvious errors” in four game-changing incidents: goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity.

However, changes were made last summer including encouraging referees to use pitchside monitors more, assistant referees being told to keep their flags down on tight offside decisions, and monitoring goalkeepers to make sure they stayed on their lines during penalties.

Riley, general manager of Professional Game Match Officials Limited, says he always felt it would be a “three-to-five year project” to bed in VAR, and believes cricket and rugby took seven years to get to what he calls “a good place” with video technology.

Many people felt decisions seemed to be arrived at more quickly, and with less argument, during Euro 2020 than in the Premier League last season.

Riley feels the comparison is not quite fair.

There were at least eight officials involved in the VAR process during the summer, compared to three at each Premier League game.

Riley also feels tournament football – where bookings have an immediate consequence in terms of missing key matches – is played in a different way to domestic action.

It is estimated there was only one key match decision for VAR to make on average during Euro 2020, compared to three per Premier League match.

However, one element from the summer will be introduced.

The tortuous process of lines being drawn on screens as VAR reaches its offside decisions will not be visible. Instead, as at the Euros, television viewers will only be shown how the conclusion was reached.

What’s new for 2021-2022?

Beyond the time taken to reach decisions, probably the most contentious aspects of VAR are handball and offside calls.

For the 2021-22 season, both have been amended, in ways Riley feels will improve matters.

In the case of handball:

  • What is the hand or arm position in relation to body movement?
  • Is the body being made unnaturally bigger?

For accidental handball:

  • It is an offence if an attacker scores directly or immediately after the ball touches a hand or arm.

So the penalty Leeds conceded at Liverpool in September would now not be given, as Mo Salah flicked the ball off Robin Koch’s knee and his arm.

Likewise, Wolves’ Max Kilman would now not be punished for the handball that cost his side against Leicester as his arm would be deemed to be in a natural position.

For offsides:

  • Benefit of doubt for attacking sides now restored.

“The toenails and noses that might have been offside last year won’t be next season,” said Riley.

“We will carry on following the same process as last year, so you’ll apply the pixel lines, place the attacking line and defending line on top, and then the thicker broadcast lines. But where they overlap those, situations will now be deemed as onside.”

Riley estimates 20 goals were disallowed last season by using “quite forensic scrutiny”.

Assistant referees have now been given greater scope to flag for clear offsides immediately, rather than delay in case they are wrong.

Riley believes ‘semi-automated’ methods of measuring offside, which would reduce the decision time from an average of 34 seconds to five, could be in place for the 2022-23 season.

Systems that would allow this to be implemented are yet to be trialled – and may struggle in packed penalty areas, hence the need for officials to be involved – but world governing body Fifa wants it in place by the next World Cup in Qatar.

Anything else?

  • Michael Salisbury, Tony Harrington, John Brooks and former A League referee Jarred Gillett have been added to the Premier League list for 2021-22, partly as a response to the introduction of a third European tournament which will mean more calls on referees by Uefa.
  • Lee Mason has retired from active refereeing and becomes the Premier League’s first dedicated VAR.
  • Broadcast of VAR communication with the referee remains banned by Fifa.
  • The tackle by Fabian Balbuena that resulted in the West Ham player being sent off against Chelsea in April is now regarded as having been over-analysed, and the incorrect conclusion was reached.

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