Video Assistant Referees will finally make their debut in the Premier League this season, along with a mid-season break and a range of rule changes, but fans are being promised the end product won’t look too different.
VAR has been a long time coming considering it has already been widely used in other areas of the world, but Premier League officials believe the wait was worth it, allowing them to adjust the technology and the system to suit the pace and traditions of English football.
One of the biggest fears amongst fans has been that VAR will slow down and delay the action, when fast-paced football and breathless matches have long been the calling card of the Premier League and Football League.
It’s an issue which former referee Neil Swarbrick, now a ‘hub commander’ for VAR technology at Stockley Park in west London, feels strongly about.
Having watched the way VAR was used in other countries, such as Germany and Italy, as well as in the Women’s World Cup (where it was widely panned for being used too often and too slowly), the Premier League has set “minimum interference” guidelines in a bid to ensure it is only used when really needed — to correct obvious mistakes, for instance, around goals, penalties and red cards. This means VAR will only be used for ‘clear and obvious errors’ or ‘serious missed incidents’.
Swarbrick said; “Our invention line is very high. Over the 69 live games we have done so far, we are reviewing a decision one in every five games. Against other competitions that is quite good, at the (2018) World Cup there was a review every 3.2 games and the Women’s World Cup was a review every 1.9 games. We are setting a very high bar as to when we intervene so it is less likely there will be stoppages of any significant length.”
That ‘high threshold’ for VAR intervention is important because the Premier League wants to avoid a situation where referees automatically ask for reviews for every decision rather than making it themselves.
VAR will effectively check the veracity of every goal scored but in most cases nobody will know it has even happened — and the delay will only come if a referee needs to be told an incorrect decision has been made.
Use of The Referee Review Area (a pitchside screen where he or she can review the action) is being actively discouraged because research shows it added an extra 90 seconds to decision making and often led to confrontations. It will be used sparingly.
Instead, a team of video referees will watch an incident back three times at full speed and then use close-ups to finalise their decision. And, in a further attempt to speed up VAR decisions, only incidents in the immediate phase of play will be reviewed — meaning the tape won’t be wound back several minutes to search for misdemeanours in the build-up to a goal. Instead, VAR officials ‘reset’ their equipment when a new attacking phase begins.
It remains to be seen how successful the technology will be, but it’s clear the aim is to intervene as little as possible — and attempts are also being made to keep fans better informed than in the past.
This year, for the first time, screens in stadia will show photographs of the review and include a voiceover explaining what is happening (although supporters won’t yet be able to see video replays of the incident). All VAR decisions will be made in Stockley Park, where officials will have access to 12 camera angles and use of ‘crosshair’ technology which allows accurate assessment of offside decisions even if a camera is not in line with the offending player.
Will it make a difference? Well, that will no doubt be debated long into the season. But supporters of VAR say had it been in use last season in the Premier League then accuracy of decision making would have risen from 84 to 87% and assistant referees from 79 to 95% — with an average check time of 84 seconds.
The question is, how long are we willing to wait for decisions to be correct?
The Premier League hopes by lowering the check time in future, VAR can gain universal acceptance.
Changes in the Premier League this season: A season of complicated handball calls?
For the first time in its history, English football will have a mid-season break (something which is quite common in other European countries). However, rather than at Christmas it will take place in February. The league will split a round of matches over two weekends, Feb 8 and Feb 15, with 10 clubs taking a break each weekend.
New handball rules are set to make penalty decisions even more complicated. Deliberate handball has always been an offence but now accidental handball could also lead to a free-kick or penalty in some circumstances. If the ball goes into the goal off an attacking player’s hand, even accidentally, then the goal will be ruled out.
It will also be deemed as handball if a player’s arm is above their shoulder or if the arms have been used to make the body bigger. This will be down to the judgement of the referee.
A handball will not lead to a penalty, however, if the ball is knocked accidentally onto a hand by another player — or if it hits a player who is not seeking to make his body unnaturally bigger by raising his hands.
Last season there were some laughable scenes at free-kicks with defending teams placing players in the wall, in front of the wall or behind it — leading to no end of scuffles.
Now, if there are more than three players in a wall, no players from the opposite team will be allowed to get amongst it or to try and force a gap in it.
Could this lead to a great number of goals from direct free-kicks?
There’s good news for teams who like to play out from the back because now defenders can take the ball from the goalkeeper before it leaves the penalty area — but opposition players still have to remain outside. It should make starting attacks and keeping possession easier. But after some chicanery by Benfica in pre-season, teams will not be able to exploit the new rule to circumvent the backpass law. It will not be permitted for keepers to lift the ball to a defender to allow him head it back.
Goalkeepers must now have one foot on the goalline when a penalty is taken. However, the Premier League has said it will not use VAR to flag breaches of this rule.
From now on, substitutes leaving the field will be told to do so at the nearest point. So, no more slow walks to the dugout in a bid to waste time.
Managers have always been ‘sent to the stands’, but now they can officially be shown yellow or red cards.
Team captains who win the toss can now choose which end to attack — or if they want to kick off first.
Sadly for those who love a rumble, drop balls will no longer be contested. Instead the ball will go to the team that played the ball before the referee stopped play.
A drop ball will also be used whenever the ball hits the referee and hands one team an advantage as a result.
If a referee accidentally knocks a ball into the goal, it will be given to the goalkeeper to restart play.
Because the current League of Ireland campaign began before the rule changes were implemented in June by IFAB, the new rules won’t apply there until next season.