New Delhi: Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger ruffled feathers earlier this week when he suggested changes to the offside law. Wenger’s comments, which came on the sidelines of the Laureus Awards in Berlin, carry huge significance given that he is the chief of global football development at the sport’s world body Fifa.
Offering his take on controversies over marginal offside calls following the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), particularly in the Premier League this season, Wenger said: “The most difficulty that people have (with VAR) is the offside rule.”
Wenger added that the current rule, according to which no part of the attacking player’s body can be ahead of the penultimate defending player, should be altered to reduce the number of close calls. “Maybe there is room to change the offside rule a little bit so we don’t say a part of his nose was offside.”
According to Wenger’s suggestion, “you will not be offside if any part of the body that can score a goal is in line with the last defender, even if other parts of the attacker’s body are in front”.
As things stand, Wenger’s remark is nothing more than just an observation. Lukas Brud, who heads the sport’s law-making body International Football Association Board (IFAB), said the idea would not be up for vote in the meeting on February 29 as the deadline for submitting a proposal was November 1, 2019.
However, given Wenger’s stature at Fifa and a growing debate on VAR’s impact on close offside calls, it won’t surprise if his suggestion comes up for discussion next year.
So, why has VAR’s introduction brought the offside law under such close scrutiny?
Too close to call
A number of incidents in the Premier League this season have raised questions on how far VAR should be allowed to adjudicate on close offside calls. For instance, when Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino was flagged offside just after he scored in the 2-1 win against Aston Villa, VAR showed that only a very small part of the striker’s arm was over the offside line. While Firmino gained no advantage from his arm’s positioning, the goal was not allowed to stand according to the current law.
In a separate incident in December last year, Liverpool benefited from a close call, when Wolverhampton’s Pedro Neto had his goal ruled out due to teammate Jonny being marginally offside in the build-up. The game ended 1-0 in Liverpool’s favour.
Such decisions, where goals have been ruled offside despite players not benefiting from, say, an arm being offside, have spurred a debate among fans on whether VAR should be abandoned or the offside rule changed to help simplify the game.
It is unlikely that VAR, having just gone mainstream across European leagues over the past two years, is going to lose this battle.
It is also important to note that Wenger’s proposal will not significantly alter the law in favour of the attacking player.
In fact, his recent statement is consistent with his rejection of a suggestion in 2017 by former Fifa technical director and Dutch legend Marco van Basten to scrap the offside rule.
“Offside is what makes the team good together. It is an intelligent rule as well, it is important to keep that in the game,” Wenger had said at the time.
He had instead called for improvements to the rule. Given the new clash between VAR and close offside calls, Wenger sees his proposal as just that.
But will the Frenchman’s suggestion help simplify things?
While it is difficult to predict to what degree an alteration in the law affects the game, the conundrum for football here is that instead of a black and white law that clearly demarcates between what is offside and what isn’t, any change to it can only increase grey areas and make an interpretation more subjective for the match officials.
There is also hardly any certainty that this kind of change would reduce unnecessary VAR
For instance, it would be up to the referee to decide whether a player has gained an advantage from having an arm or a shoulder offside.
It would also complicate things for a referee’s assistants who would have new lines to track.
In a set-piece melee, it could create further confusion.
Roberto Rosetti, UEFA’s chief of referees, had said earlier this year that a VAR intervention should only come in the case of clear and obvious offsides.
“We want VAR to intervene only when the images show a clear error, not to re-referee games,” he told Italian sports newspaper ‘La Gazzetta dello Sport’.
Perhaps that is what the Premier League should do. Instead of deciding whether an attacker is offside by a few millimetres or not, VAR could be left to adjudicate only on the more glaring errors. It could also help save some time.