Four-Point Plan to Improve VAR and the Officiating Process in Football

“Minimum interference – maximum benefit”. That is the philosophy underpinning the Video Assistant Referee’s (VAR) application in football, with its pioneers hoping that while “it will not achieve 100% accuracy, it will positively influence decision-making and lead to more correct, and fairer, judgements”. Yet VAR consistently dominates in-match and post-match discussion for the wrong reasons, with fans, players and pundits expressing their disdain over its application. From frustrations over its forensic analysis of offsides and handballs to its overreliance on slow-motion replays, many believe VAR has disrupted the spirit of the game in favour of excessive officiating.

Instead of spending time complaining, however, it is time everyone involved in football has an open debate about how we can achieve a fairer balance between the sport itself and the processes and laws that govern it. This blog attempts to kickstart discussion by highlighting a provisional four-point plan to improve VAR and the officiating process in football. Though it is constructed primarily through the lens of the Premier League, I believe these four proposals could be consistently applied across domestic leagues and across all regional and international competitions. At the very heart of this four-point plan is the determination to install more spirit of the game into the process so that fan enjoyment and player and management buy-in are prioritised.

What makes VAR so frustrating?

Before analysing each proposal in-depth, it is important to understand why VAR is so frustrating for fans, players, and managers. The main problem lies with the VAR process, which feels cumbersome – slow, complicated, and therefore inefficient. Though we all want to see correct decisions made, it should not take ages to reach them. Football is a fast-paced sport and VAR needs to compliment that style, not be a hindrance. Also, there are still too many inconsistencies with subjective decisions, whether that concerns which incidents are sent to the Referee’s Review Area (RRA), or what VAR and the referee finally decide as the outcome. Though you will never remove inconsistencies completely, it should be the governing bodies’ aim to minimise them as much as feasibly possible through VAR. At present, they are falling short of our expectations.

The other problem concerns its wider impact on football. The excessive officiating of offsides, handballs and fouls in the box, creates a feeling that the spirit of the game is diminishing. The game feels pedantically policed rather than free flowing. This is not so much a criticism of VAR as it is simply implementing the laws of the game as stated by FIFA. However, VAR faces the brunt of fan and player frustration in these situations even though attention should focus on whether current interpretations of these incidents align with how we want football to be played.

We do not want to see numerous penalties given when the large majority of these are considered “soft”. We do not want to see defenders give up on the art of defending because it is physically impossible to keep their arms out of the way of every pass or cross. We would prefer to see more goals from open play, but this is also difficult now, given that a striker could be adjudged as being offside simply for having a larger shoe size. The balance between the spirit of the game and the laws heavily favours the latter at present. Proposals aimed at improving VAR and the wider officiating should try to rectify this, striving for a more equal balance that sufficiently takes the spirit of the game into account.    

This four-point plan thus recommends: (1) softening the defensive handball law; (2) incorporating a margin of error/attacking allowance in offsides; (3) reforming the VAR process – independent VAR officials, automatic pitch-side reviews for subjective decisions and a replay/time limit; and (4) broadcasting the communication between officials. The first two concern changing current laws of the game and their implementation by VAR, while the final two are aimed at making the VAR process more transparent, consistent, and fast. All four are necessary to allow VAR and the on-field officials to arrive at “more correct, and fairer, judgements”.   

Softening of the Defensive Handball Law

The handball law has become a particularly controversial topic in the 2020/21 season following FIFA’s insistence that the Premier League apply defensive handball more strictly to bring it in line with other European domestic leagues and competitions. Under FIFA’s interpretation, arms only make the body “naturally bigger” when by your side, because that is how your arms sit. Therefore, if your arms are away from the body, even if it directly correlates to how you may be moving (jumping, running, etc.), it is considered making the body unnaturally bigger than it actually is and a penalty can be awarded if the ball strikes your arm. This is enforced even when the incident results from a deflection off another player, signalling a “zero-tolerance approach” to defensive handballs in the penalty box.

Throughout the first few game weeks of the Premier League, this stricter interpretation led to numerous penalties. Some, such as the ones given against James Ward and Victor Lindelöf against Everton and Crystal Palace respectively, caused outrage and resulted in the Premier League tweaking its handball interpretation on September 30th. There is now a supposed “corridor of subjectivity” in which players will have their movement taken into account. Referees should now consider whether: (1) there is an ability to react; and (2) the arm is in an expected position given the player’s action.

However, both Joe Gomez and Max Kilman were penalised for handball offenses against Manchester City and Leicester City respectively in gameweek 8 following this slight relaxation, even though one could argue that one or both could have been waved away under the new interpretation. The incidents thus highlight whether this “slight tweak” has actually changed how defensive handballs are interpreted by officials, and if not, what should be done instead. FIFA’s “zero-tolerance” approach to defensive handballs makes it impossible for a defender to react naturally to pressure in the box. While we all want more goals, this should not be achieved at the expense of the art of defending. FIFA’s defensive handball interpretation does just that. It disproportionately punishes defenders for having their arms in “natural” positions when moving in the box.

To address this, softening the handball law should be a high priority. There are two potential ways to do this, both of which come with their own advantages and disadvantages. The first solution is to expand the definition of what constitutes a “natural arm position” so that it includes natural movement relating to jumping, running, etc, as well as a player’s ability to react. This would offer defenders more insurance in the box. However, this would instil a higher subjective element to handballs which officials would have to accommodate. This could lead to a less consistent application of handball again.

As FIFA seem to prefer upholding a level of consistency, the alternative is to look at mitigating the outcome so that players are not disproportionately punished for unavoidable handballs. Awarding a penalty for accidental handball feels like too extreme an outcome when the ball is not goal bound. Instead, indirect free kicks could be given for handballs in these situations. This still gives the attacking team an advantage without gifting them a direct shot at goal with only the goalkeeper as the line of defence. Indirect free kicks are an underutilised aspect of the game and could provide a creative solution to the handball problem, allowing officials to maintain a “zero tolerance approach” without disproportionately punishing defenders. The potential disadvantage to this could be the development of the “tactical” handball foul in the box, as defenders would prefer to give away an indirect free kick than a penalty. Nonetheless, it is worth investigating whether the potential benefit outweighs this consequence.

Incorporating a Margin of Error/Attacking Allowance in Offsides

Along with handballs, offsides have also been under the magnifying glass this season following a rule change that now sees the shoulder/upper part of the arm count as a goalscoring element. Sadio Mane and Patrick Bamford are two players who have had their goals disallowed under this interpretation, with crosshair technology indicating that they were millimetres offside. However, it is not the rule change that has fans, players and pundits frustrated but how offsides are perceived and implemented under VAR.

Offsides are viewed as “factual decisions” that are based on the evidence provided by fully calibrated offside lines. Under this crosshair technology, the decision thus goes down to the millimetre and does not require input from the VAR official unless they are judging whether a player has blocked the goalkeeper’s line of vision. Though offside technology is heralded by FIFA as the best available, there are three systemic issues which makes it questionable to trust and believe it on such tight decisions.

Firstly, there are subjective aspects of the application of the offside technology, specifically the exact parts of the attacker’s and defender’s bodies nearest the goal. It falls under the VAR’s responsibility to determine these measurement points and various officials may arrive at different parts. Secondly, the availability of the definitive camera angle showing (1) the exact moment of pass; and (2) all the relevant body parts, can never be guaranteed. The VAR must choose the first frame where the pass has definitely begun and the nearest body part to goal in the available footage. While in some cases it may be correct, in others it may not (some defenders will always be obstructed by the camera, for example), thus how can one definitively say a goal is onside or offside? Finally, it typically requires excessive forensic analysis to arrive at a conclusion, which takes on average 3-4 minutes – too cumbersome for fans, players and managers.

These three issues build a feeling that the guiding principles of offside have been lost under VAR. While it was brought in to mitigate wrongful calls by lines-people, its purpose was not to make everyone pedantic about offsides. Historically, there was an unwritten rule that the benefit of doubt must go to the attacker, which fits with the want of having more goals from open play. It comes down to whether you believe the attacker is seriously gaining an advantage in situations where they may be a few millimetres offside, which could be the difference between having a size 9 and a size 9.5 football boot. Many would argue they are not.

To restore balance back to attackers, a margin of error could be built into the system. Though FIFA rejected the Premier League’s proposal to incorporate one, the Dutch Eredivise is using a 10cm margin of error in their domestic league. This corresponds to the lines of the attacker and the last defender touching, as the lines are each 5cm thick. They work this with umpire’s call – i.e. whether the linesperson originally gave it as offside or not. While this margin of error should be adopted by all domestic leagues, I believe umpire’s call could be problematic given that lines-people are being told to keep their flags down and let play continue until the phase is over. Home advantage, “big six” advantage or an unclear view could negatively impact their ability to make a fair call. Instead, adding an automatic benefit of doubt to the attacker would put the sport back in line with its older offside principle while still maintaining consistency in application.

Though this would ease some frustration with offsides, it would not make the process any quicker. Nonetheless, FIFA is working on a semi-automated offside system which will slash the decision time by approximately 75 per cent. It will more accurately calculate the exact moment of the pass through the mapping of each player. Therefore, offsides will automatically be signalled to the VAR rather than after a 3-4 minute wait; although the final decision will still fall to VAR officials as there remains the subjective element of deciding whether such player is active in play. This new system coupled with the incorporation of a margin of error/attacking allowance could make offsides feel less frustrating and unjust.

③ Reforming the VAR process – VAR officials, the standard for pitch-side reviews and a replay/time limit for decisions

VAR officials as independent advisors

Currently, VARs are match officials whose appointments are announced for each game week as part of the refereeing team. This means one week a match official may be the on-pitch referee, and the next they could be reviewing incidents from Stockley Park. Utilising referees in this rotation raises questions about whether the VAR process is truly independent and objective. This is compounded by the threat of exclusion from officiating the following gameweek if you are adjudged to have made a serious error – as the on-pitch referee or the VAR.

By using referees, we have created an environment of fear and upheaval that leaves VARs lacking the confidence and authority to evaluate incidents objectively. This lack of separation between the two spheres has contributed to the inconsistency in the decision-making process. VARs appear scared to send certain incidents for review and on-field referees appear reluctant to stick with their original decision and overrule the VAR.

Therefore, VAR as a system would work more effectively if the VAR officials were not current referees. While understanding the laws of the game is essential, previous experience officiating matches is not because it is not needed to review incidents independently. Rather, it is important that VAR officials have this separation from on-field referees as it gives them the freedom, confidence, and authority to make an accurate assessment without fear of retribution.

In addition, both the on-field referee and the VAR require different expertise and skillsets. The on-field referee is responsible for managing and officiating the game in real time. They are the ones that must make the big decisions in a split-second. On the other hand, the VAR official is there to judge offsides and cases of mistaken identity, and then to ensure that a red card or penalty has not been missed or harshly given by the referee. Therefore, for subjective decisions, the process would be more consistent if the VAR was viewed as an advisor or overseer rather than the decider. This would hopefully lessen the headline-grabbing performances by VAR as well.

Expand the number of VAR officials overseeing each game

In addition, an argument can be made for expanding the number of VAR officials overseeing each game. At present, there are two VAR officials – the VAR and Assistant VAR (AVAR) – plus a Replay Operator. The AVAR is there to assist the VAR when needed. However, the incident involving Jordan Pickford and Virgil van Dijk in the Merseyside Derby provides the perfect example for why a larger and less hierarchical team of VAR officials is required.  

During that particular incident, there were three separate elements to be investigated by VAR: (1) whether van Dijk was onside or offside; (2) if onside, whether there was a penalty to Liverpool; and (3) whether Pickford should have been sent off for his tackle on van Dijk? The post-mortem is not clear but it appear David Coote (the VAR) did not analyse the potential red card for Pickford, either due to a lack of time or because there was a miscommunication/misunderstanding as to whether it was relevant. This was a major failing for the VAR process and the officials operating it, highlighting that perhaps the current system is ineffective in dealing with complex incidents that comprise of various elements.

To resolve these shortcomings, there could be three “VARs” who can be used simultaneously to analyse different aspects. For example, when a goal is scored, one could check for offside (if needed), the other could review the attacking phase for a foul, and the final VAR could continue monitoring play. Utilising one VAR to review each aspect not only saves the time taken to make a decision as they can be reviewed simultaneously, but it also increases the probability or arriving at an accurate interpretation because they can devote their attention to just one aspect instead of being overwhelmed. This would help ensure complex situations are reviewed in an effective and efficient manner.

Automatic Review of Penalties and Red Cards on the RRA

The “high bar” standard used to decide whether an incident is sent to the RRA refers exclusively to subjective decisions – fouls in the build-up to goals, red cards and penalty decisions. Under the current interpretation, the incident must be “clear and obvious”, i.e. “is there any clear evidence that this should/shouldn’t be given?”. The VAR is thus looking for evidence that the on-field referee has definitely got it wrong, instead of observing the incident independently. This places doubt in the minds of VARs, who are clearly lacking in confidence – or authority – to advise more incidents to on-field reviews in the RRA. This is in spite of the fact that the Premier League Shareholders agreed to an increased use of the RRA for subjective decisions ahead of the 2020/21 season following calls from fans and pundits the previous year.

This is the wrong position to take given that we want to see the on-field referee taking ownership of subjective decisions. For this to occur, subjective decisions must be automatically referred to the RRA. The pace and intensity of football is too fast and relentless for the on-field referee to form a good understanding of every incident that happens in real time. They base their decisions on a gut reaction which could be due to an unclear view of the incident. Therefore, they need the VAR to tell them when an incident requires a further examination.

However, at present, sending incidents to the RRA has a feeling of confirmatory bias, that is, the on-field referee always sides with the VAR’s conclusion. In fact, only once this season has an on-field referee overruled the VAR and stuck with their original decision. This could indicate that the system is working, as only “clear and obvious” errors should be sent to the RRA. But this in itself is subjective, as the reversed penalty decisions against Aston Villa and West Brom in game week 9 showed, with fans and pundits arguing whether both situations met the “clear and obvious” threshold for review.

To make the RRA work more effectively and consistently, the “high bar” standard should be removed to give the VARs the freedom to send subjective decisions for review. If the on-field referee gives a penalty or a red card, these should be automatically reviewed by themselves in the RRA, while any missed incidents also should be sent to the RRA by the VAR official. This would allow the on-field referee to take ownership of major match decisions and should make the review process more consistent, removing confirmatory bias by placing emphasis on an independent assessment of the situation, rather than grading the referee’s original decision.

Incorporate a Replay or Time Limit

A consequence of sending subjective decisions for automatic review in the RRA could be that more time is lost during a match. Until the change is implemented, it would be impossible to determine how much this could be but there are two solutions that could help mitigate this by restricting the amount of time officials spend looking at incidents. You could either incorporate a replay or time limit into the decision-making process. A replay limit could consist of three replays – one in slow-motion to identify point of contact and two in real-time to check for intensity. Alternatively, the referee could be given a 30-second time limit to review incidents in the RRA, at which time if a decision is not reached, a penalty or red card cannot be awarded. Both would cut the amount of time used on VAR during matches, while also easing the perception that officials are overanalysing incidents. This would help make the VAR process faster and clearer for spectators and players.

Broadcast communication between officials

The final part of our four-point plan to improve VAR and the wider officiating in football concerns broadcasting the communication between officials. This has been called for by fans, managers, and pundits for many seasons now and would certainly (1) help make the decision-making process more transparent; and (2) help spectators and players understand the logic and reasoning behind certain decisions. Other sports such as cricket and rugby have managed to include referee communication into their game successfully and football would be no different. While it is certainly true that refereeing decisions are subject to intensified scrutiny, a significant proportion of the criticism comes from a lack of understanding of why a certain decision has been given. The officiating bodies should be striving to bridge this gap between referees and spectators, which will help alleviate some of the pressure on the matchday refereeing teams. Shielding them only serves as more ammunition for conspiracy theories regarding corruption and incompetence. It is time referees and spectators formed a more mature relationship, and broadcasting communication between officials will help achieve this, as well as keeping spectators up-to-date with developments and what the VAR and the on-field referee may be reviewing. It will engage spectators in the process and create a more favourable perception of VAR in the long run.

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