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Refresher: Demystifying the Late Offside Flag

Much maligned — and much misunderstood: it’s time to talk about the delayed flag

Philippe Countinho of Aston Villa in action during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Manchester City at Villa Park on September 03, 2022 in Birmingham, England.
Philippe Countinho of Aston Villa in action during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Manchester City at Villa Park on September 03, 2022 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

This past weekend Philippe Coutinho scored a brilliant goal against Manchester City for Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa, but the goal didn’t count because it was (seemingly incorrectly) flagged offside in real time.

Much of the resulting conversation made it clear that the perennially slated “late flag” conventions are perhaps misunderstood.

Under VAR, assistant referees keep their flags down when they think a play is offside until the end of the phase of play (unless it’s deemed extremely obvious, with a very high bar for that). While this is often the subject of complaints, it is in fact the only possible course of action under VAR. Let’s unpack why that is, now that Coutinho has modeled it for us.

Why delay the flag?

Put simply, delaying the raising of the flag in a situation where the official feels an offside offense has occurred is done to avoid robbing a side of a goal in the case of human error. VAR is here, most optimistically, to correct mistakes; it can only do so if something plays out.

Once a flag is raised, play is impacted, and VAR has nothing that it can review even if the assistant was wrong. In other words, because VAR cannot award a hypothetical goal, assistants delay the flag — even if it seems obvious to us, they know all too well it is always possible that they’ve seen the alignment incorrectly.

To account for human error in real time, they raise the flag after the chance has gone (whether a goal is scored or not), and an offside is called by the center referee. If a goal has been scored, VAR’s offside modeling will review the on-field call and make corrections if necessary. If no goal is scored, the call (or non-call, if an offside was missed) on the pitch will stand.

As we saw this weekend, if the flag is raised while the chance is still viable, there is no recourse for VAR if the decision is not correct: the officiating team is forced to stop the game.

If you don’t delay the flags, VAR can be used to rule out goals scored that were incorrectly called as onside (goals that were offside but not flagged) but cannot allow moves incorrectly flagged offside.

One of the main examples back when folks were arguing for VAR to come in was that Raheem Sterling chance in 2013/14 against Manchester City, when Sterling was flagged offside even though he was not goalside of the defender. To make VAR work in such a situation, you need it to not be flagged; it needs to play out so that human error doesn’t stop the play and render it null.

Remember, this looked obvious to us, but was still called incorrectly. Because human error in a fast-paced game is perhaps wider than we think when watching on television, we should perhaps be a bit more understanding of the delayed flag even when it seems so clearly offside.

By removing ego on the part of the assistants and delaying the flag except in cases that are extremely clear (often when there’s a lot less movement involved), officials can be sure onside opportunities are not unjustly stopped.

By arguing against the delayed flag, supporters are actually arguing for more human error, and fewer onside goals (surely not what we want).

While VAR itself is not above critique, the late flag is absolutely necessary for it to function at all fairly as it currently works.

Common Co-Occurring Critiques

Often arguments about the delayed offside flag get derailed into areas that are actually completely separate or just simply specious. I will touch on two here:

1. “The delayed flag only provides more time for players to get injured”

Players are no more likely to get injured in these instances than any other times. This does not logically refute the need for a late flag, and as injury could take place at any time. This does not seem to outweigh the potential of deserved goals being overruled.

2. Conflating this with other VAR issues.

Ignoring the misunderstanding on how VAR offside is called (it’s not, in fact, through drawing lines based on naked eye judgements of weird angles, though this assumption leads to much argument), it is true that the frame selection used for VAR can be unfair in being less precise in certain moments.

This issue is certainly a problem, but bears no impact on the issue of delayed flags. Once automated offside rulings come in, however, this will hopefully be solved — and so will the frustration with delayed flags themselves.

For now, though, they’re necessary: we want goals like Coutinho’s to stand as they justly should, and annoyance at a late flag should not be an excuse for further allowing for human error.

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