Premier League referees’ chief Mike Riley says officials will cut down on soft penalties next season, while changes to VAR offside could prevent 20 goals from being disallowed.
Riley has held talks with clubs, players, managers and the Football Supporters’ Association over the past few months to try and reach a consensus on how the game should be refereed in the Premier League, both on the pitch and the VAR room.
A record 125 penalties (of which 29 came through VAR) were awarded last season, compared to 92 in 2019-20 and 103 in 2018-19. Many of these came from decisions where contact was minimal between defender and attacker, and referees must now “consider consequence and the motivation of the player.”
“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.”
Arsenal‘s Dani Ceballos won a penalty (though it was cancelled for offside) after minimal contact from Everton‘s Richarlison, while Marcus Rashford of Manchester United was barely touched by Newcastle’s Jamal Lewis. They are just two examples of many, with referees instructed to watch closely for players trying to win penalties following negligible contact.
“The principles we established are: the referee should look for contact and establish clear contact, then ask if that contact has a consequence, and then has the player used that contact to try and win a foul or win a penalty,” Riley added. “It’s not sufficient to say ‘yes there’s contact.’
“I think partly we got into that frame of mind by the forensic analysis that went on in the VAR world. Contact on its own is only part of what the referee should look for; consider consequence and the motivation of the player as well.”
The Premier League saw 32 goals ruled out for offside via VAR decisions last season, but Riley says that 20 of the overall total would have stood using the new process for 2021-22, which mirrors that seen at Euro 2020. Three examples are Jordan Henderson‘s injury-time winner for Liverpool at Everton (when Sadio Mane was marginally offside), Mohamed Salah‘s goal at Brighton and Patrick Bamford‘s effort for Leeds United at Crystal Palace.
“On marginal offside, we’ve now effectively re-introduced the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player,” Riley said. “Where we have a really close offside decision, we carry on following the same process that we did last season with the one pixel lines; we’ll then put on the thicker broadcast lines, and where they overlap those situations will now be deemed as onside.
“What we give back to the game is 20 goals that we would have disallowed last season by using quite forensic scrutiny. So it’s the toe nails, the noses of the players who are offside; they might have been offside last season but next season they won’t be.”
Refereeing and VAR was highly praised at Euro 2020, and Riley believes that can help going into the new season. By raising the threshold on VAR interventions, he hopes fans will be more accepting of the process.
“The Euros were really good in a lot of respects,” Riley added. “There was a greater acceptance about referees not intervening for small contact, and that allowed the game to flow. There was greater acceptance that the referee makes the on-field decision and unless the VAR has clear evidence he keeps out of it, so you raise the threshold.
“Inevitably, what we’ll all be debating is whether that threshold applies in a specific case. If you’re a fan of one team you will clearly think it does; a fan of the other might not. One of the encouraging things is we’re going into next season with people expecting that threshold to be in a higher place.
“We’ll take the positives from the Euros. Raising the threshold is a good thing, as is making sure the VAR only intervenes where we’ve got clear and obvious evidence. It’s not going to be same experience, but those principles and advantages we can harness for the benefit of Premier League football.”