Gabriele MarcottiSenior Writer, ESPN FC
VAR makes its Premier League debut on Friday, meaning English football will fall into line with Europe's other top leagues. Coupled with the International Football Association Board's (IFAB) changes and clarifications to the Laws of the Game that came into effect on June 1, it may take some players, coaches and fans a bit of time to get used to things. (IFAB is the ruling body in charge of determining and agreeing on the rules of soccer worldwide.)
Here's a primer to help you along ...
Q: We're already familiar with VAR. We've seen it in the World Cup, the FA Cup, the Women's World Cup, the Champions' League knockout phase, plus all those foreign leagues ... enough already! As for the Laws of the Game, they're here and they even made an app for them! Is this really necessary?
A: I know how you feel, but I guarantee you that at some point, maybe in Week 1, you'll hear a manager totally misconstrue the laws or their application. Or you'll get a talking head or ex-pro on TV not understanding the VAR protocol. Or my biggest pet peeve: folks lambasting a referee for applying the laws as they are, rather than as they think "common sense" dictates. So consider this like an annual trip to the dentist: annoying but necessary. Let's get one thing out of the way first though ...
Q: What's that?
A: Let's deal with VAR and the rule changes as they are, not as we think it should be. Are you philosophically opposed to VAR? Great, much respect, but it's here, so deal with it. Do you want to share the original thought that it would work better under a "challenge system" or by giving the final say to the official in the booth rather than the guy on the field? Wonderful, but that's not how it is.
Do you disagree with IFAB's changes? More power to you, just don't infect us with this, "Not for me, Clive" nonsense. It's not about you -- it's about whether referees and VAR officials are applying the protocols, laws and guidelines as they are written.
Q: OK, so will they do it, and will players, clubs, media and the public accept it?
A: I think the fact that most have had exposure to VAR will definitely help. There will be less standing around, looking confused. They'll know how it's supposed to work, but that doesn't mean it will be a seamless transition. There were teething issues in every league where it was introduced, from the A-League to MLS to Serie A to La Liga. The World Cup and Champions League had less controversy and confusion, but you have to remember that those two competitions feature the very best referees and often the most experienced VAR officials. That won't be the case in the Premier League; they must use their referees rather than taking them from other leagues and countries, as happens at a World Cup, when the best officials are selected.
It will also take time to train everyone up, especially VAR officials. Not only do they need to process visual information quickly, but they will also need to communicate effectively with the match official in real time and, on subjective matters, have a clear idea of what this specific on-field referee will and will not overturn. In other words, they need chemistry, and that takes time.
Q: But hasn't the Premier League said they want as few on-field reviews as possible?
A: Sure, but they also don't want craven errors. Ideally, referees get everything right the first time, but you can't guarantee it. We also need to remind ourselves that an on-field review doesn't just occur when VAR feels the referee will change his mind after he sees the replays. It can also happen when a referee doesn't see an incident or doesn't see it clearly enough.
Remember the penalty awarded to France in the 2018 World Cup final? That happened not because there was a "clear and obvious" error, but because the ref simply didn't see the handball. It's important to clarify when that happens.
Q: What about all the reviews and delays to the game? Won't we end up with 15 minutes of stoppage time?
A: I don't think so. First, on-field reviews aren't that frequent. In most European leagues, there's one every three or four games. In England, when it was trialled in the FA Cup, it was one in every five (14 incidents in 69 games). Second, there's an easy way around it: Just don't allot more than five minutes of stoppage time (unless there has been an injury or something crazy).
Q: What about the change to the penalty rule -- the goalkeeper must keep one foot on the line before the kick is taken and when diving to make a save -- that wreaked havoc during the Women's World Cup?
A: Yeah, and it shouldn't have. Before, you needed both feet on the line, but it wasn't always enforced. Now that it's one foot, but it will be more strictly enforced. It's not a big adjustment, not least because there are no penalty shoot-outs in the Premier League.
Q: And the offside law? As the rule is written, anything other than a hand or arm between the last defender and the goalkeeper before the ball is played forward has been enough for a goal to be disallowed ...
A: Yeah, but that's what the Law has been for years now. It's just that they have better tech than the human eye to determine matters. And no, it's not just about cameras, screen grabs and freeze-frames. They use 3-D imaging technology and the like;-- it's not just a guy drawing lines on a TV screen.
It's guaranteed folks will still quibble about the exact instant the ball first makes contact with the boot of the player making the pass (as the law now states) and how an image may be blurry, but surely that's more accurate than a linesman at full sprint with one eye looking across and the other looking 40 yards back down the pitch?
Q: My biggest concern, though, is handball. Don't the changes to the Laws -- goals will be disallowed if the ball accidentally strikes a player's hand before it goes in, and a free-kick will be awarded for accidental handballs -- mean many more handballs will be called?
A: This is a valid point and while it's not strictly a VAR issue, obviously with VAR there will be more scrutiny.
It's important, I think, to note why this was introduced. Simply calling it "deliberate handling" left a lot of room for interpretation and the upshot was that officials in different countries tended to deal with it differently. In Spain, for example, they were much stricter while in England they often let it slide unless it was obviously deliberate.
The changes regarding accidental handballs as noted above are meant to create more uniformity around the game. I think most would agree with some, like not being allowed to score with your hand/arm, even if accidental, not being allowed to score after gaining an advantage from a handball (even if accidental) or that when your hand/arm is above your shoulder, it's pretty much always a handball. It's the term "unnaturally bigger" that leaves a lot of scope for interpretation, just as there was scope with "deliberate." And I think you'll continue to see officials in England being more reluctant to call certain handballs than those elsewhere.
Q: So between VAR and the changes to the Laws, it's going to be a breeze?
A: Not at all. Like I said, there will be teething issues and potentially other problems, like the fact that being a VAR requires a different skill set from being a referee. They'll need to figure it out just as some defenders will have to adjust the way they defend and be more careful with situations in which they initiate contact or how they manage their offside trap. But these are professional athletes; they adjusted to the backpass rule and to the changes in how tackles from behind would be penalized. They'll adjust to this, too.
Expect a fair amount of media attention and complaints for the first few months, and then we'll all move on. Partly because the VAR officiating will have improved, partly because we'll grow bored with it and find something else over which to obsess. Provided, of course, they remember the most important thing.
Q: Which is?
A: Communication. Both in real time -- the Premier League has said it will communicate clearly, both via TV and in the grounds, as well as in the 18 venues that have big screens so that fans are able to understand what's going on -- and post-match, when it would be very helpful to explain just why the referee/VAR took the decisions they did. Do that and I think most will learn to live with it and maybe even embrace it.