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Johnny Phillips: Whisper it, but perhaps VAR is working better

One of the most encouraging signs from an entertaining opening weekend of Premier League fixtures was the unobtrusive nature of VAR.

Norwich City's Teemu Pukki with referee Andre Marriner
Norwich City's Teemu Pukki with referee Andre Marriner

In general, the standard of refereeing across the board was of a high standard and the on-field officials were surely helped by the noticeable reduction in VAR interventions.

The games were allowed to flow and there is an acceptance now from the governing body overseeing the officials – Professional Game Match Officials Limited – that over the past couple of years there have been major issues with the implementation of VAR.

During the summer I was able to spend a day at one of the FA’s pre-season training camps for officials from steps 2-7, held at Warwick University, which was attended by Anthony Taylor and Kevin Friend. The two elite level referees were there to provide advice and assistance for the young officials coming through the ranks.

Both men spoke of a desire to be refereeing more free-flowing matches. On too many occasions over the last couple of seasons their roles were compromised as VAR intervened and delayed, causing frustration amongst the players, confusion in the stands and dismay in the armchairs.

Nobody is in this game to watch lines drawn across frozen images of players in action to determine the tightest of offsides. Nor do we want to see countless slow-motion re-runs of tackles and handballs.

The offside law was introduced to prevent goal-hanging and the farcical tactics that would follow if players could just mill about in the six-yard box.

The PGMOL lost sight of this when VAR was first introduced in England. When Bruno Fernandes broke through to score one of his three goals against Leeds United last week, he may well have been marginally offside.

There will still be pedants out there who insist that offside is a binary concept – you’re either on or off – but that misses the whole point of the law.

Fernandes did not seek to gain an advantage when he timed his run the way he did.

He made his move on the basis of the Leeds defenders’ positioning.

The relaxation of the accidental handball rule will also help, although there were no specific examples from last weekend in support of that.

Handball is one of the most contentious areas of discussion amongst officials.

During the day at Warwick, I sat in on a lengthy technical session based around interpretation of handball. It is such a difficult area to referee, especially when players gain an advantage from accidental handballs.

As several officials pointed out, there will never be a situation where all fans are happy with the interpretation of the handball law. It is just a case of trying to get it as fair as possible.

There has also been a change in approach towards penalties after a record high of 125 were awarded last season.

This season, the referees will not only establish whether there is clear contact but whether or not that contact had enough of a consequence to award a penalty.

“It’s not sufficient to just say there was contact,” PGMOL chief Mike Riley said, in an interview with Jamie Carragher, for Sky Sports last week.

“Contact on its own is only one element the referee should look for. You also want it to be a proper foul and not the slightest contact that someone has used to go over to get a penalty.”

So, in all these areas there is a clear attempt to get away from the nit-picking fans became frustrated with, particularly during behind-closed-doors fixtures when the games were sterile enough as they were.

Officials come in for a lot of flak. Sometimes the issues can be of their own making but the vast majority of the time they get it right.

The implementation of VAR has shone a further spotlight on the officials and has frequently caused as many problems as its solved. The decision to decrease intervention on this front as well as allow some leeway in other areas is a positive one.

“It was a much better performance from all the officials in every game and it worked perfectly,” was the verdict of former England captain Alan Shearer on Match Of The Day.

“I think it moves us back towards the Premier League football we are in love with,” Riley added. “Physical contact, free-flowing game, competitive and compelling football. I think that’s a good thing for the game and a good thing for referees as well.

“But what I hope for is an understanding in that doing that, there’s always going to be subjectivity, we’re still going to be debating things. We’re better debating with an understanding of a higher threshold, a higher level for intervention of VAR, because that produces a more free-flowing game and that’s what we really want.”

That is an important point to finish on.

The debates about decision-making will never go away; let’s just hope we will be having fewer of them.

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