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Premier League VAR, rule changes for the 2021-22 season

Offside, handball, and fouls have all been tweaked.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Jack Thomas - WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images

The Premier League has made several rule changes ahead of the 2021-22 Premier League season including changing VAR offside judgments, tweaking the handball law, and trying to cut down on “streetwise” penalties. At first blush, I think the changes are good ones. They’ll make the game seem “fairer,” will bring calls more in line with how we think football “should” play, should eliminate some of the “negative” instances of VAR, and reduce the number of VAR-awarded penalties and VAR offside calls that take goals off the board.

Basically, the changes should make refereeing decisions “feel” better. I know that’s a somewhat soft, inarticulate description, but I think we all have a sense of what that means. The calls will better match the “spirit of the game” with these tweaks.

If you’ve followed this blog or TSF Twitter, you’ll know that I can sometimes get a bit wrapped up in referee decisions. It’s a natural part of being a sports fan, and I think my personal proclivity is amplified by my having been a FIFA referee back in the day. After all, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I’m hopeful that these changes will reduce the number of times I feel particularly aggrieved by a referee decision I felt went against Arsenal, or more generally, a decision I feel a referee got wrong in a non-Arsenal match.

Referees are, after all, human. And humans make mistakes. VAR was added to reduce the number of mistakes made. It’s an acknowledgment of human fallibility, especially when referees have to make quick decisions on very fast interactions for which they may not have had the best line of sight. Notably, VAR wasn’t designed to get every call “right” and many of us, myself included, would do well to remember that for most incidents, there isn’t a “right” call per se. VAR exists to make officiating better i.e. more accurate and not perfectly accurate and to reduce the chances that a mistake has a determinative effect on a match.

In nearly every refereeing decision, VAR-aided or otherwise, there will be some degree of subjectivity. One referee might call something one way, and another might call a similar interaction another way. That’s just the nature of the beast. In a way, VAR doesn’t change that because it’s still human beings making the decision — they’re just making it with more complete information, which is a good thing!

The cynic in me thinks that the changes, especially the “streetwise” penalty change and the handball rule change will just shift the nexus of debate. The optimist in me believes the changes will improve the game and bring calls more in line with what we think football and calls should be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

1. VAR and Offside

The biggest critique of the VAR implementation in the Premier League last season was the interaction between the offside law and the excessively precise line-drawing exercise we saw last season. Players were deemed offside by the tips of their toes, the hem of their sleeve, or the crown of a leaning head. It felt against the spirit of the Offside Law that an attacker should be penalized only when he was gaining an advantage to being in an offside position. What advantage could possibly be gained on a margin so small?

The tl;dr version of the changes is that there will be fewer goals called back for offside.

ESPN’s Dale Johnson laid out the changes in a fantastic thread. Premier League Head of Officials Mike Riley said that under the new rules, 19 goals called back last season would not have been. The review officials will be using thicker lines to make their determination. And the determination will be made from the attacker’s armpit as opposed to the start of his sleeve (another change from last season). If the lines overlap at all, the attacker will not be deemed offside. Johnson estimates that the thicker lines should give attackers about 5 cm more leeway, which will eliminate many of those infinitesimally small offside margins that just felt wrong.

In another tweak, fans will not see the actual process of placing the lines on the pitch. We will still see the final line and whether there is overlap (onside) or no overlap (offside) like was shown at the Euros, but that’s it. I think this step away from full transparency, ironically, will make the system more palatable — ignorance is bliss.

Finally, assistant referees have been instructed that they can raise the flag earlier in cases of clear offside. Players were unhappy last season with how long moves continued after a player several yards offside received the ball. The instruction made sense, to a degree — with VAR you can let an attacking move play out, see if a goal is scored, and then bring it back if there was an offside. It avoids the dreaded “incorrect offside flag erasing a scoring chance” that drove fans nuts. But it did feel superfluous and silly to let an attack play out where my legally-blind-without-his-glasses father could see.

This rule change is geared towards eliminating that situation. To play devil’s advocate for a second: it does bring us closer to the flag going up when there actually is no offside, but it will always be a trade off. And the referee doesn’t have to stop play — the offside flag is advisory only.

I think these changes to VAR and offside are positive ones.

2. Curtailing “streetwise” penalties

Penalties were on the rise across Europe last season. The Premier League set a record with 125 awarded, a 37.5% increase from previous season. The Bundesliga saw a 50% increase, and in Ligue Un, they doubled in number per ESPN. A big part of that was the so-called “streetwise” penalties where a savvy attacker, knowing that VAR is looking for contact, would dangle a leg or throw themselves over upon feeling the slightest touch.

Said Mike Riley, head of Premier League officiating:

Fundamentally we want the approach to be one that best allows the players to go out and express themselves, allows the Premier League games to flow and means the refereeing team, both as referee and as VAR, don’t intervene for the trivial offenses. Let’s create a free-flowing game, where the threshold is slightly higher than it was last season.…contact on its own is only part of what the referee should look for; consider consequence and the motivation of the player as well.

The upshot is that this season, the referee will determine if the contact matches the consequences (i.e. how the player went over) and that contact alone is not enough to justify a penalty award. At the simplest level, the change should eliminate the situations where an attacker feels a brush on his foot and decides to crumple to the ground rather than taking his next, natural step with that foot that was in no way impeded or influenced by the contact from the defender.

As a general rule, trying to cut down on the number of penalties is a good thing because they are often result-determinative. The conversion rate was over 80% last season. When there are 2.69 goals per game, a penalty kick goal is significant. And “cheap” ones feel particularly awful when you’re on the wrong side.

The change is a good one in theory, but in practice, it will be more difficult to implement and won’t eliminate as much controversy and “bad feeling” calls as the offside changes. There is still plenty of referee judgment (and remember, they’re human and can make mistakes) involved. In fact, the change increases the amount of judgment required to award a penalty. The referee must now determine whether there was contact AND whether that contact was enough cause whatever reaction from the attacker.

Is that something we want referees doing?

Again in theory, the change should cut down on diving, or at least on the number of penalties awarded off what appear to be dives. But there’s also the old adage “you have to go down to win a penalty” which acknowledges that sometimes, players are punished by not winning a penalty because they tried to stay on their feet despite being fouled and managed a weak shot or a poor pass. Riley was quick to point out that referees have been instructed to award a penalty when there has been foul regardless of whether the attack goes to ground. But I’m not sure that I buy an instruction being enough to overcome years of experience and instinct from referees and players.

I think this change will turn out to be a good one, but I think it’ll be, at times, a painful growing process. And players, managers, and fans will still definitely feel aggrieved by the award / non-award of penalties. Then again, that will always be the case.

3. Handball

There are changes to the interpretation of the Handball Law for both attackers and defenders set to be implemented this season. For attackers, an accidental handball will only chalk off a goal if the ball strikes the scorer’s hand / arm and he scores immediately, with immediate meaning just that — if the attacker takes a dribble then scores, it’s unlikely to be called back per ESPN’s Dale Johnson. Intent still does not matter.

The change eliminates instances of accidental handball by a teammate who passes to a goal scorer. Those goals will count this season. “Deliberate” handball by a teammate will still count and cause goals to be disallowed. Last season, just 5 goals were ruled out for attacking handball. Under the changes, only 2 of those still wouldn’t count.

Much more interesting and nuanced (and good!) are the changes to defensive handballs, which, if you’ll permit me a bit of editorializing, have been an absolute mess in the past two seasons. The changes made in 2019 made the rule about as clear as mud and led to confusion and a bunch of nonsensical penalty awards / non-awards.

IFAB have essentially reverted those changes. This season, it will be incredibly unlikely for a defender whose arm is close to his body to be called for a penalty. The arm must be outstretched or creating a barrier in an unexpected position. Critically, the referee may now take into account the position of the arm relative to the defender’s movement. The change brings back the “natural position” analysis that the changes had ostensibly taken away (but I’d bet dollars to donuts still played a role in actual referee decisions). Basically, it’s a return to the understanding that human beings don’t move with their arms stapled to their sides / behind their backs.

In that same vein, they’ve also done away with the mandatory penalty award for the ball hitting an arm at or above shoulder level, so defenders can still jump using their arms, as human beings naturally do, with less fear of being called for a handball.

I think the changes are a step in the right direction for handball. Eliminating the majority of the differences in accidental handball in the attacking versus the defending phase is a common-sense move.

There will still be controversial cases at the margins because the change does increase the space for referee judgment in determining whether a defender’s arm was in a natural position, and that will vary from referee to referee and incident to incident. Realistically, you cannot make handball a black and white call, without creating at least some “feels bad” results for the defending team. My hope is that the defensive handball change eliminates some of the penalties awarded in “how can that be a penalty, what’s he supposed to do with his arm” situations.

4. Miscellaneous changes

  • Matchday squad will expand to 20 players instead of 18, allowing teams to name two additional substitutes to the bench. This most benefits teams, like Arsenal, with larger rosters. Teams will still only be permitted three substitutes, however.
  • Concussions substitutes trial extended through next season, which is a good thing.
  • A player who uses a “trick” (heading, chesting, etc.) to circumvent a goalkeeper handling the ball from a direct kick (including goal kick) will be cautioned. I believe the change here is the mandatory caution bit.
  • As mentioned above, offside will be measured from the bottom of the armpit instead of the end of the sleeve further down the arm.

Johnson also mentioned that VAR needs to be more careful and judicious with the use of slow-motion to assess the severity of challenges for possible red cards, but it’s not clear whether that is an actual change / point of emphasis or just his opinion. He’s right, for what it’s worth. The current protocol is for the VAR to show the referee the incident at regular speed, then slow-motion, then regular speed. But for several incidents last season, that order was not followed and / or the slow-motion was shown again and again, almost as if to convince the referee of what the VAR saw in the challenge. Slow-motion is useful for determining point of contact on the player fouled (i.e. on the foot or higher up the leg) and for how the contact occurred (i.e. studs up or foot down). But it can also make challenges look worse than they actually are. Hopefully the VAR and the referees this season are more cognizant of that and better stick to the protocol.

For more information / analysis…

Check out Dale Johnson’s original Twitter thread which has more picture / video examples than I’ve included here. You can also check out a similar breakdown from our friends at The Liverpool Offside.