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Key rule changes approved for 2020-21 Premier League season

VAR modifications and substitutes rule among the decisions that needed to be made

Everton FC v Watford FC - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

The first Premier League season with VAR (Video Assistant Referees) was chaotic to say the least. The addition of a VAR official to every game sitting at Stockley Park was from most viewpoints a disaster, with egregious errors on multiple decisions in critical games. While the introduction of VAR has hardly gone smoothly elsewhere, it seemed more shambolic in England more so than most of the top leagues primarily because of the absence of pitch-side monitors for the referees to review actions on, and a general reluctance on their part to overrule a decision made by the VAR officials.

So it comes as no surprise that the implementation of VAR was one of the key topics to be discussed during the recent Premier League’s Annual General Meeting. With the International Football Association Board (IFAB) transferring the responsibility of VAR to FIFA, the Premier League has agreed to follow the full FIFA VAR protocol which will include changes in these five areas - (comments in italics are the writer’s)

  • Referee Review Area (RRA): Increased use of the RRA, which will be used for subjective decisions in the three key areas - goals, red cards and penalty kicks
    This includes the tv monitors by the pitch mentioned above.
  • Goalkeeper encroachment on penalty kicks: The protocol does not allow for tolerance levels, so if the goalkeeper saves a penalty and his foot is over the line then VAR will advise it is retaken. If the goalkeeper is off his line and the ball hits the post or goes over, it won’t be retaken unless the ‘keeper has a material impact on the kick being missed
    If I’m a manager I’m telling my goalie to jump forward and see if you can get the kicker to blast it against the framework or over, and we’ll very quickly see how subjective a statement ‘has a material impact’ can be.
  • Player encroachment on penalty kicks: It is now judged on any part of a player’s body that is on the ground when the kick is taken. So if any part of the foot is on the penalty area or arc line it is encroachment. The player must still have a material impact on the outcome of the kick
    Same as above.
  • Offsides: The protocol does not allow for tolerance levels
    Apparently armpits can be offside, and will continue to do so.
  • Keeping the flag down for tight marginal offside offences: When an immediate goalscoring opportunity is likely to occur, the assistant referee will keep their flag down until the passage of play is completed. Once the goalscoring opportunity is complete, either a goal is scored or the chance is gone, the assistant will then raise the flag to indicate the initial offence. If a goal is scored the VAR will then review the offside judgement
    Like we’ve all been drilled from when we first learned to kick a ball, ‘play to the whistle ’

Everton were particularly hard done by with some VAR decisions last season (see list below), and more than one on-pitch decision that should have been VAR reviewed but wasn’t (Dele Alli’s handball in the box, for one). In many of the VAR overrulings shown below and indeed for most teams in the league, a referee with a spine would have overruled his colleague on VAR duty, but that was not to be.

Everton net overturns: -1 (4 against, 3 for)

Overturns: 7
Leading to goals for: 2
Disallowed goals for: 2
Leading to goals against: 1
Disallowed goals against: 1
Net goal score: 0
Subjective decisions for: 2
Subjective decisions against: 2
Net subjective score: 0

Game: Brighton & Hove Albion (A; Oct. 26)
Incident: Penalty awarded (scored by Neal Maupay) for foul on Aaron Connolly by Michael Keane, 78th minute - AGAINST
Result - Everton were leading 2-1 at the time, the penalty turned the tide for the hosts, the Blues lost 3-2.

Game: Leicester City (A; Dec. 1)
Incident: Penalty for foul on Ben Chilwell by Mason Holgate cancelled, 34th minute - FOR
Incident: Kelechi Iheanacho effort, originally ruled offside, given as a goal, 94th minute - AGAINST
Result - Everton were drawing at the time of the goal, and in all honesty Iheanacho was onside and the goal should have stood and the Blues lost.

Game: Manchester City (A; Jan. 1)
Incident: Goal for Phil Foden ruled out for offside in build-up by Joao Cancelo, 12th minute - FOR
Result - Made no difference ultimately as the Blues were overwhelmed in a 2-1 loss, the only question here was how many City could have potted on the day if they went down that early.

Game: Brighton & Hove Albion (H; Jan. 11)
Incident: Goal for Dominic Calvert-Lewin ruled out for handball, 75th minute - AGAINST
Result - Didn’t matter in the end, as the Blues held on to their earlier goal in a 1-0 win.

Game: Manchester United (H; March 1)
Incident: Goal for Everton disallowed for offside against Gylfi Sigurdsson in front of David De Gea, 92nd minute - AGAINST
Result - A critical overturn as the Blues should have had a 2-1 win here which could have changed the whole complexion of their season, and how the European spots shook out.

Game: Leicester City (H; July 1)
Incident: Penalty awarded (scored by Gylfi Sigurdsson) for handball against Wilfred Ndidi, 13th minute - FOR
Result - Maybe a dodgy penalty to get, but we’ve seen worse given, including against us too (against Wolves, for example), so there’s that. Blues won the game on Sigurdsson’s spotkick.

Everton FC v Burnley FC - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

With the schedule getting condensed upon resumption from the COVID-19 enforced interruption along with the warmer weather, the Premier League also allowed a team to make up to five substitutions a gamefor players’ health and fitness reasons.

There has been some criticism of that policy with smaller clubs struggling to fill the bench with scrubs while teams with bigger squads experienced little or no drop-off in quality. Hot weather and up to half the outfield players changed made for some poor football with Carlo Ancelotti one of the managers who was loath to make more than three substitutions in a game unless enforced by injuries.

The Premier League has decided though that next season will see a return to just the three substitutes as before. There was no word whether the drinks break will stay or also depart, with more and more managers starting to use the pause as a tactical time out.