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Digging In: An In-Depth Look at the VAR and Officiating Changes for the 2021/22 Season

Have you heard about VAR, penalty, and handball changes this season but you’re not sure what they mean? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

Assistant referee raises his flag for an offside during the Carabao Cup fourth round match between Aston Villa and Stoke City at Villa Park on October 01, 2020 in Birmingham, England
Assistant referee raises his flag for an offside during the Carabao Cup fourth round match between Aston Villa and Stoke City at Villa Park on October 01, 2020 in Birmingham, England
Photo by Visionhaus

Ahead of the 2021/22 season there are a few important changes in rules and VAR applications that you probably want to know about. Hopefully this guide to the changes can save you from confusion in the pub as the season kicks off this weekend…

There are three areas of key changes, discussed in detail following this short TL;DR introduction:

  1. Offside calls will no longer be decided on a millimeter basis, and any decisions no clear result (e.g. the ~5cm lines touch) will go to the attacker’s advantage (e.g. will be deemed onside). The line-drawing process will no longer be shown. Linesmen do not need to delay flags in situations where a player is “obviously” offside.
  2. Officials will look to limit fouls called and penalties given for “soft” offenses, specifically targeting players who go down from minimal contact.
  3. Accidental attacking handball situations are limited to contact immediately before a goal is scored (or when contact with the hand/arm scores the goal), while last season accidental contact immediately prior to an assist/chance creation was also considered a handball offense. Not all accidental contact with hands/arms will be considered an offense. For all accidental handball offenses, specific references to body positions that are always or never called a handball has been removed; instead, officials will consider whether a player’s arm positioning is “justified” by their movement. If it is, no handball offense will be called.

In general, the changes this season are an explicit attempt to mitigate how VAR has arguably negatively impacted the game — last season I asked if we actually want more penalties, and if narrow offside calls might simply be both unfair and against the spirit of the game. The first two changes in implementation and officiating aim specifically to combat these issues, though they don’t necessarily fix all the problems, and they might create others.

The third change above is a continuation of the efforts to improve how accidental handballs are (or, as is more likely) are not called, and likely will result in fewer handball offenses.

There are also a few additional changes that don’t require lengthy explanations:

  • Teams will be allowed to name nine substitutes rather than seven on their benches, allowing for teams with more depth to have more options on their benches than teams with smaller squads.
  • Clubs will only be allowed to make three changes (rather than the five allowed in some leagues due to scheduling and COVID-related fitness concerns).
  • The concussion substitute trial period will be extended to August 2022.
  • 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.
  • Offside will be measured from the bottom of the armpit (rather than the top or sleeve)
  • VAR will improve on its use of slow-motion replays, which are not meant to be used to determine the seriousness of a challenge (instead, slow motion should be used only to determine point of contact for, for example, a potential handball). This is because the use of slow motion can make challenges look worse than they are and also make it appear that a player had more time to make a decision.

Below is a detailed explanation for the three main changes from above. Buckle Up.


1. Changes in VAR Application for Offside Calls (and Delayed Flags)

Following criticism on the “forensic” nature of offside decisions, the Professional Game Match Officials Board (POGMOL) have stated that narrow offside calls using VAR are set to go for the 2021/22 season, a shift in line with what we saw last season in the Champions League as well as in the Euros.

Rather than the extremely narrow 1 mm lines Premier League Video Assistant Referees used to determine positioning (note: these are the lines you saw in process video and not the colored lines used to show the final call), thicker lines will be used — and a player will not be called for offside unless there’s “a clear result.”

In layman’s terms, this means that if the lines touch the call is onside, which goes a long way toward bringing back the possibility of players being “level” to the naked eye. Importantly, this brings back the advantage that attacking players used to have, and which, to many, is a part of the spirit of the game.

Too often we saw attackers punished for being ever-so-slightly more alert to a situation than their defensive opposites, and we get those narrowly offside calls that I have previously criticized as impossible for players to discern and thus impossible to adjust their play for. Now, for marginal calls, the attacking player would get the benefit of the doubt and would be called onside.

This is notably different than the “Dutch model” that was often discussed last season. In that model, thicker lines were used and the call on the field would stand if the margins were close. This was a worry because it could mean that marginally onside players could be called offside if the linesman flagged. In the Premier League’s new offside application, this would not happen. If it’s close, it’s onside.

Put simply, this will lead to fewer goals being called back for offside calls, and thus more goals from open play. ESPN’s Dale Johnson noted in his thread on the new application that while the league has not confirmed the margin of error, the TV lines provide 5 cm for this “benefit of the doubt” for attackers, a margin that would have made 19 (nineteen!) goals that were ruled out last season stand (and Virgil Van Dijk would have won a penalty from the season-ending foul dished out by a reckless Jordan Pickford).

Liverpool, specifically, would have benefitted greatly in terms of goals scored had this new application been in place last season. In that same Merseyside Derby, Jordan Henderson’s late winner would have been onside, and Salah’s goal against Brighton, too, would have stood.

In terms of how the changes will look, in practice there will be no change in terms of process or time involved. While the Euros were a bit quicker on offside calls due to a dedicated VAR official for them, this is impractical for league play. As such, the timing for the calls to be made will remain the same. What will be different is what fans see: like in the Euros and the Champions League, fans will no longer be shown the line-drawing process.

While this seems like a lack of transparency, it’s actually a good thing: often incorrect or misleading process images were shared and debated out of context in previous seasons. Think of the Euros: there were far fewer complaints when just the final image, with the thin line, was shown. Less baseless argumentation from fans online and pundits on television is a good thing, actually, I promise.

A change that many of the loudest voices will like is a shift in the delayed offside flag. Many have complained about the lateness of flags under VAR, so before getting into how this will change next season we should first understand why delayed flags are inherently necessary in the first place.

The addition of VAR was, at its heart, meant to limit officiating errors made with the naked eye, with offside being a central issue discussed pre-VAR. Calling offside is difficult, as it requires a simultaneous aural and visual awareness of where a given player is located at the moment a ball is kicked. The difficulty of this, before VAR came in, was a massive argument for adding a video review option to ascertain positioning more fairly.

In order to rely on these replays, though, it’s necessary that plays are allowed to reach a natural endpoint in open play as teams will likely stop playing once the flag is raised (even if the central official’s whistle isn’t blown). As such, referees were instructed to let moves play out before flagging even if they were certain a player was offside to allow VAR to correct mistaken certainties.

But fans and players and managers hated this, especially when players were “obviously” offside. This has led to a change this season which will allow linesmen to flag when an attacker is “clearly” yards offside, presumably ending the annoyance of the late flag in seemingly obvious moments.

Is there a problem with this? There might be. Remember, after all, that one of the main moments used in support of the implementation of VAR was the Raheem Sterling mistaken offside in 2013/14, where Sterling was flagged offside despite being “obviously” onside.

A screenshot of a site called The Sport Review showing Raheem Sterling yards onside. Article title: “Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling Fumes Over Offside Decision”
A screenshot from The Sport Review showing the moment in question: Sterling clearly pictured as onside as the ball is played.

While the late flags are infuriating, removing them makes it impossible to correct any instances where what officials deem as “obvious” is not, in fact, either obvious or correct.

In other words, be careful what you wish for — and hope it’s not your team that provides an example of what delayed flags were meant to facilitate.


2. Limiting “Streetwise” Penalties

A more controversial change in VAR application and officiating is, in Mike Riley’s words, an attempt to maintain the “flow” of the game by having officials avoid getting involved in “trivial offenses.”

This change is intended to limit “soft” penalties, or penalties awarded due to how a player acts or responds to an alleged foul — the “going down too easily” moments where a player is said to have “won” a penalty rather than a penalty having been given due to an offense.

In a basic sense, the wording from Riley suggests that penalties will no longer be given unless, subjectively, it’s ruled that there was enough contact for a player to go down (in other words, whereas there was previously a difference between simulation — going down without cause/diving — and exaggeration — going down after being fouled to draw attention to this foul — there now won’t be).

The issue here is that fouls can occur that do not cause a player to hit the turf, and often players “throw themselves down” because, as we all know, often officials do not give penalties otherwise. While no one necessarily likes that this occurs, unless referees plan on calling fouls that don’t result in a player going down, players will feel they have to go down when impeded illegally.

Mike Riley is clear on this being an issue as well, and Dale Johnson cites a specific example where Phil Foden should have had a penalty given but didn’t get one — likely because he didn’t go down.

It’s not all bad, though: that Brighton penalty from Andy Robertson’s slight contact on Danny Welbeck would explicitly not be given under this new interpretation. If officials can begin to consistently give penalties for fouls without players having to go down while simultaneously aiming to give fewer “soft” penalties, this could be a major positive.

Limiting “soft” penalties is not, in itself, a bad thing. A penalty is a very good goal-scoring opportunity (penalty xG is usually somewhere around 0.7), and thus it makes sense to limit how often such a scoring advantage is given. Riley doesn’t want VAR to be used to give out penalties for the slightest contact in the box, and this goal is laudable. The combination of this change and the offside application change will likely be a decrease in penalties and an increase in goals from open play, which the majority of fans will probably like.

Regardless of the intentions, though, there will be an issue in consistency: as consistency across all referees is already a problem, it’s hard to see how this change will be implemented in the same way across all officials. Because the shift is inherently subjective in nature, what is a “soft” penalty to one official might not be for another.

A further concern is that subjective evaluations of what is and is not “soft” will inherently be impacted by referees’ assumptions about a given player — and certain players might get the benefit of the doubt more than others. (This might not affect Liverpool all that much, as Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané already seem to win very few given how many touches they take in the opposition box, but, you never know.)

While I think we can all agree that cracking down on “clever” play might be a good thing, ideally such a change would be paired with an emphasis of expanding what a foul in the box looks like. If players don’t have to go down to win penalties, we might get to the desired result anyway — in other words, if Mohamed Salah could ever win a penalty for getting stuck in a pure chokehold it would be grand; instead, the language Riley uses suggests that Salah would be punished should he drop to the floor to emphasize, you know, that he’s in a chokehold that no one is calling.

The outcome over the course of the season will, obviously, remain to be seen. It could be a positive addition to the game, but it could just as easily result in further issues of refereeing consistency and bias. Either way, it’s certainly more controversial than the already-popular shift away from “forensic” offside decisions.


3. Accidental Attacking Handball Further Restricted

The International Football Association Board (IFAB), who shape the laws of the game, have narrowed the rules’ language this season to further limit the types of “accidental” handballs that can be called (previously discussed ahead of the Euros here). Last season accidental handball offenses (the attacking handball rule, in popular speak) were limited to contact with the hand or arm immediately before the ball was put in the net or immediately before a chance was created (think assist). This season will be further limited, as “creating a goal-scoring opportunity” for a “team-mate” has been removed from the rule language, so only the goal scorer can be penalized.

As such, accidental handballs will only be called in the attacking phase if they occur as the goal is scored rather than at any point in the build-up. This narrowing puts the call more in line with accidental handballs in the defensive phase, which are generally not called as long as the arm is not in an odd position in relation to the players’ body movement.

Of course, deliberate handballs will still be called, and this language change will only affect incidental or accidental contact. The difficulty many have had in understanding these shifts largely stems from how this rule used to be applied: the idea that almost any contact with a player’s hand or arm would be called as a handball offense — but that hasn’t been the case for the past few seasons.

In recognition of the fact that players do in fact have arms and not all contact with a player’s arm provides an advantage, IFAB have been limiting what is considered a handball offense over the past few seasons. Central to this is the notion that “not every contact of the ball with the hand/arm is an offense,” a seemingly innocuous phrase that is nonetheless a massive change from “traditional” handball calls.

In general, assume referees will only call a handball offense if they deem a player to have positioned their arm in such a way as it is unnatural to how the player is moving — so the arm doesn’t need to be tight to a player’s side, but should not make the body bigger, for example, by reaching above the head in a way that doesn’t support the player’s body movement naturally. It is understood that a player cannot always get out of the way of a ball, and, as such, will only be penalized if the arm position is not “justifiable” by their movement (or if they deliberately handle the ball).

The exact language from IFAB is as follows, with the removed language (much of which had just been added last season) immediately afterward, crossed out for comparison purposes.

The new rule text:

(…)

Not every touch of a player’s hand/arm with the ball is an offense.

It is an offense if a player:

deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, for example moving the

hand/arm towards the ball

touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger. A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation. By having their hand/arm in such a position, the player takes a risk of their hand/arm being hit by the ball and being penalized

scores in the opponents’ goal:

directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper

immediately after the ball has touched their hand/arm, even if accidental

Old text (with deletions crossed out):

(…)

It is an offense if a player:

· deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball

· scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper

· after the ball has touched their or a team-mate’s hand/arm, even if accidental, immediately:

o scores in the opponents’ goal

o creates a goal-scoring opportunity

· touches the ball with their hand/arm when:

o the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger

o the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm)

The above offencss apply even if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.

Except for the above offenses, it is not an offense if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm:

· directly from the player’s own head or body (including the foot)

· directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close

· if the hand/arm is close to the body and does not make the body unnaturally bigger

· when a player falls and the hand/arm is between the body and the ground to support the body, but not extended laterally or vertically away from the body


And that’s all folks! You’ve successfully completed the 2021/22 edition of “rule changes that may or may not be horribly confusing,” and you’re ready to get into arguments about officials’ calls in the pub. Good luck!