After the 2020-21 Premier League season saw a record number of penalties, infuriating toenail VAR offside decisions and chaos over handballs, something had to change. And it has! The new season sees a revamp of how referees will interpret certain areas of the Laws of the Game. Here we set out how it could improve matches in 2021-22.
The 2020-21 season saw 32 goals ruled out for offside by the VAR, as well as marginal decisions by the assistant referee. The benefit of the doubt to the attacker had gone, and being level with the last defender had become nothing more than a romantic notion of the pre-VAR era.
But it's all changed for 2021-22. The Premier League will now use the same system brought in by UEFA last season, in the Champions League and at Euro 2020. The process is the same, but the final decision could be very different. If the two offside lines shown on TV touch or overlap, the goal will stand -- whether the linesman flagged or not.
"On marginal offside, we've now effectively re-introduced the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player," Premier League referees' chief Mike Riley said. "So it's the toenails, the noses of the players who are offside; they might have been offside last season but next season they won't be."
What difference will it make?
Riley says there were 19 goal incidents last season that would have been protected under the new interpretation. These include:
- Mohamed Salah's goals against Brighton & Hove Albion and Sheffield United
- Jordan Henderson's injury-time winner for Liverpool at Everton
- Patrick Bamford for Leeds United at Crystal Palace
- Aymeric Laporte for Manchester City vs. Wolves
There will still be offside goals which look "marginal," but players would have to be more than 5 centimetres (just under 2 inches) offside.
What will it look like?
The original VAR image shows the red (attacker) and blue (defender) lines on top of each other. It's impossible to see how the Wolves player could be offside.
Now when it's so close, the VAR will rule the goal onside and instead show a single green onside line.
Anything else different?
Yes. Fans will now no longer be shown the working-out process when the VAR uses the technology to move lines across the screen. It has proved too confusing, so now only the final result will be shown on TV.
Also, assistants have been instructed to raise the flag when a player is very clearly offside, to try to reduce the frustration of needless passages of play before the flag goes up. But it won't be as quick as at Euro 2020, as UEFA brought in dedicated offside VARs from the top leagues just to do that one job. The domestic leagues don't have enough assistant referees to copy this.
SOFT FREE KICKS AND PENALTIES
The Premier League saw a record 125 penalties awarded last season, a 37.5% season-on-season increase, with many soft spot kicks coming after an attacker seemed to be barely touched. But this wasn't just a problem in England, with the number of penalties doubling in Ligue 1 and rising by 50% in the Bundesliga.
Referees were widely praised at Euro 2020, due to the way they allowed the game to flow and ignore minimal contact between players. Now the Premier League wants its referees to officiate games in the same way.
"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 offences," Riley said. "Let's create a free-flowing game, where the threshold is slightly higher than it was last season."
This will be especially noticeable on penalties, with Riley saying "contact on its own is only part of what the referee should look for; consider consequence and the motivation of the player as well."
What does this mean? The principles established are:
- The referee should look for contact and establish clear contact
- Ask if that contact by the defender has a consequence
- Has the attacker used that contact to try and win a foul or penalty?
- Contact alone is not sufficient
This means that if an attacker goes to ground, the manner in which he goes to ground has to match the contact from the defender. So an attacker throwing himself to the ground because of minimal contact should no longer be a penalty.
One such example is the penalty won by Arsenal's Dani Ceballos against Everton (which was actually cancelled for offside). This would not be awarded this season as Ceballos was barely touched but used the contact to win the penalty.
Accidental attacking handball
In 2020-21, only five goals were ruled out for an attacking handball, so it might be that the volume of complaints exceeds the level of the problem. Last season, a goal could be ruled out for handball by the goal scorer or the creator.
This season, a goal will only be ruled out if the ball hits the arm/hand of the goal scorer and he scores immediately. Intent still doesn't matter, but if the ball accidentally hits the hand/arm of one player, and he passes to a teammate to score, the goal stands. Under this new interpretation, only two of those five goals would still be disallowed.
In an attempt to stem the tide of handball penalties seen across Europe, the law has been amended. It takes us back to where we were in 2019, and means handball should be judged on the expected position for the player's movement. It means a penalty should usually only be given if a player is making his body bigger by holding his arm well away from his body, or it's deliberate.
The clause which requires handball to automatically be penalised if the arm is above the shoulder has been removed. Tottenham's Eric Dier conceded a penalty against Newcastle last season, now his arm would be considered to be in a natural position for jumping. However, if a player has his hand in the air for no obvious reason, that will still be a penalty -- as seen here with the penalty Sheffield United's Jack Robinson conceded against Fulham.
Successful implementation of these changes is going to rest with the 22 Premier League referees. It's going to be tough to get consistency, especially on handball and penalty fouls.