Ahead of the Premier League season, Jamie Carragher discusses VAR and new rules with PGMOL chief Mike Riley, plus referees Michael Oliver and Anthony Taylor.
VAR has now been used in the Premier League for two seasons to varying success. The 2021/22 campaign has seen tweaks to rules regarding offside, handball and the awarding of penalties.
Speaking about the overall experience with VAR so far, PGMOL general manager Riley told Carragher: “If you go right back to the very start, we said implementing VAR – the most fundamental change we will ever see in my refereeing lifetime – and it was going to take three to five years to really harness the benefits for Premier League football.
“If you go back to the start, we had a really high level of intervention. We wanted a high threshold and high levels for VAR to intervene, and for the first half of that season, there were certain things we didn’t come in on. Quite rightly, people criticised and had probably set the bar too high at that point.
“We then oscillated and went a little bit low in reaction to that and people would say ‘why are you coming in there?’. Last season was more about finding a level that was suited to Premier League football.
“We had some incidents we got wrong, some that provoked debate so it’s constantly learning as we go along.”
Premier League referee Michael Oliver added: “I think we all have an input – the club, the players, the staff, PGMOL and the referees. There will always be debate, Sky Sports programmes on a Monday Night or Sunday afternoon, we won’t always agree but we’re trying to work with everybody to get to a point where everyone at least understands it.
“There will be some situations where you think one thing and we think another, but at least we have an understanding and a collective agreement that we’re moving in the same direction.”
What are the new rules for offside?
- Premier League VARs are set to use ‘thicker lines’ in games this season to determine marginal decisions.
- The PGMOL hopes the change will give the benefit back to the attacking team after Premier League clubs gave feedback in a VAR survey last season.
- Viewers not in the stadium have been able to see the working out process and it led to screenshots of borderline decisions being shared and creating more negativity for the decision-review system. As a result, all decisions will be made off-screen from now on.
- A brief clarification from FIFA about where offside lines start and stop: they say the bottom of the armpit is now being classed as the part of the body where offsides will be measured from.
Riley: “One of the benefits we have next season is reintroducing the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player. So where you have those really close offside situations, we’ll carry on with the same process – we’ll draw a one pixel line of the defending player and one on the attacking player.
“We then overlay the slightly broader lines we use for broadcast and where they cross, then that will now be deemed onside. If you look at it, we’ll probably get 20 goals back that were disallowed last season and I think that’s a really good thing for football.
“The other thing with offsides that caused frustration, particularly with players last year, was where we kept the flag down to create the VAR window, as they call it. There were certain situations where the player was clearly five metres offside, or the ball went out wide and it wasn’t a clear and obvious attack.
“Now we are encouraging assistant referees to flag so you’ll have far fewer passages of play that people get frustrated about when we pull it back for offside.”
Anthony Taylor: “If you remember back two or three years before we had VAR, maybe on Monday Night Football, you would draw a line and say ‘well someone’s toe is offside, how has the assistant referee missed that?’.
“But in the last couple of seasons, nobody likes that being done now. So you are moving the margin – there will always be a margin in an offside situation – but that margin and benefit of the doubt is certainly going back more towards the attacking team this season.”
What are the new rules for handball?
- Accidental handball in the build-up to a goal will no longer be deemed an offence. The crucial word here is ‘build-up’. It will still be an offence if an accidental handball directly creates the chance that scores the goal, or scores the goal itself.
- There is also new language around how a player makes their body ‘unnaturally bigger’ in a handball situation. The handball law no longer specifies that a particular position, or anything other than a standard silhouette of a body, are considered ‘unnatural’.
Carragher uses the example of the incident at Anfield, where Callum Wilson had a goal ruled out after the ball inadvertently ricocheted off his arm and into the net…
Oliver: “The Callum Wilson one, in particular, while he takes an extra touch, it’s him that scores the goal and whose arm it hits. Immediately afterwards, the ball goes into the goal so that will still be handball.
“It’s a difficult situation where everybody is happy with it and I think there is a feeling in football that if the person who handles the ball then immediately scores, that can’t be right. While there is a change, the Wilson one would still be a handball.”
Riley: “One of the ones we didn’t like was when it forces a player to pass it to a team-mate, who then scores. Last season, that was disallowed but we’ve listened to that and that will now be a goal next season. I think that’s a positive step.”
What are the new rules for penalties?
- There will also be a tweak in the approach toward penalties after a record high of 125 were awarded last season.
- This season, referees should not only establish whether there is clear contact but whether it had enough of a consequence in order to award a penalty and whether the player used the contact to try to win a foul or a penalty.
Taylor: “What everyone needs to remember is that football is a contact sport. In recent times, all areas of the game have been focusing on ‘if there’s contact, that automatically means it’s a foul and that’s not the case. The process for us on the field is all about making a positive decision. Every small bit of contact doesn’t make everyone fall over two steps later.”
Carragher uses the example of Richarlison on Dani Ceballos at the Emirates, where Arsenal were awarded a penalty after the slightest of touches from the Everton striker sent Ceballos rolling over. It was eventually ruled out for offside against Nicolas Pepe in the build-up…
Riley: “The referee on the pitch, we are encouraging with that type of offence to keep out of it. When you look at the footage, you can’t deny that there is a small element of contact. But is it forceful and strong contact? No, it’s not.
“Does that contact have a consequence, does it cause Ceballos to go down? Or does he have the contact and the opportunity to go over. On the pitch, we think it is better not to penalise it.”
Carragher uses the example of Phil Foden being fouled by Southampton goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, but not being awarded a penalty after staying on his feet…
Oliver: “I think we reflected on the Foden incident as a group of referees and agreed that it should have been a penalty.
“I think we’re very clear – you don’t need to go to ground to win a penalty, but the players who are willing to stay on their feet doesn’t mean they won’t get a penalty. With the Foden situation, he goes down and gets immediately back up, but looking back on it ourselves, we know that should have been an intervention from the VAR and a penalty.
“We are very keen that the players are aware that you don’t need to go down and exaggerate the contact. If the contact is there, we’ll find that.”
Is VAR a benefit for referees?
Taylor: “Ultimately, it has resulted in more important decisions being made correctly and from our perspective, if you’re refereeing a high profile, important match, you don’t want to be driving home afterwards knowing you could have made a better decision which has had a bearing on the match. But normally, the VAR has an angle that you can’t have.”
Oliver: “No one likes to be told they are wrong in that setting, but doing that and having 20 seconds of pain, if you like, has to be better than three or four days of newspaper article afterwards.
Riley and Oliver on their hopes for the new season
Riley : “I think it moves us back towards the Premier League football we are in love with – physical contact, free-flowing game, competitive and compelling football. I think that’s a good thing for the game and a good thing for referees as well.
“But what I hope for is an understanding in that doing that, there’s always going to be subjectivity, we’re still going to be debating things. We’re better debating with an understanding of a higher threshold, a higher level for intervention of VAR, because that produces a more free-flowing game and that’s what we really want.”
Oliver: “We’ve not met together physically for over a year now with Covid. It’s our first training camp back, our pre-season… and it’s the excitement of a new season. It’s like being a player, you have the summer off, you go to a tournament, then you rest and recharge and you want to start again.
“It’s nice to see the lads and get back together in a big group and now we’re excited for Friday and the weeks to come.”
“The VAR reaching the right decision in the end with VAR has to be a better place for everybody than have days of newspaper articles and ultimately the wrong decision as well.
“It is tough [when you’re in the firing line for a wrong decision]. It’ll be the same as when you played, if you make a mistake or get sent off and you take the criticism that comes with it. From our side, it’s the same.
“You strive not to be in that situation in the first place and VAR provides that fail safe, but it’s never nice. It’s never personal because it’s about the refereeing, but it feels personal because it’s your name that you see in the newspapers and on the TV.”
Riley: “The spirit in the group is just like that of a team. They will arrive, they will have the legs cut from underneath them by their friends because that brings them back down to earth and helps them cope with it. But there’s a great team spirit to protect each other, but also to help each other.”