I was recently watching a UEFA Champions' League match in which there were three PKs awarded. Two of the fouls were on the referee's diagonal and may have been drawn to his attention by the additional assistant referee (AAR) who patrols the goal line in that sector of the pitch.
This started me thinking about this new concept of AARs, which was introduced as a trial in the Europa League last season, and is now being experimented with in the UEFA Champions' League and some domestic leagues in other countries.
THe AARs have come about as a solution to deal with those incidents near the goal line on the referee's diagonal that the referee possibly cannot see, and also to assist with decisions relating to the scoring of a goal in those cases where the ball comes back into play after crossing the goal line. Famous examples of such cases include the Thierry Henry handball on the goal line that led to a goal being scored by France, that had the effect of eliminating Ireland from the 2010 World Cup, and the failure to award a goal to England in the WC match this year after the ball had clearly crossed the goal line, but was grabbed by the goalkeeper and returned to play immediately.
But what was the underlying cause of these problems? You only need to look at the positioning and movement that referees are currently being instructed to follow. In the past, referees were always encouraged to get wide when the play went out on the left wing, and also to go deep to the goal line when play was in that zone. Now I observe that referees essentially stay in the central area of the pitch, mainly defined by the four corners of the penalty areas. When I assess referees and ask why they don't get closer to play in these situations, they invariably give me the same answer. It is that they would prefer to do so, but have been instructed not to do so, and that other assessors will subtract points and possibly fail them if they do so.
It is a similar story with positioning at attacking free kicks and at corners. The referee stays at the edge of the 18-yard line, and has to try to look through a mass of bodies, sometimes 16-18 players, many of them quite large, to try to see what is happening. One result of this is that we now have the laughable (and usually useless) spectacle of the referee blowing his whistle loudly and running into the penalty area before one of these set plays to admonish the jostling and pushing players, and giving the polyglot signal of the horizontal sweep of the arms to indicate "no more." Of course it does no good, because as soon as the referee retreats to his distant position, they start over again, mainly safe in the knowledge that the referee cannot see most of what is going on and so will not call a foul, (certainly not against the defenders anyway, and therefore award a PK!) A major exception to this was the foul called by the referee from Mali, against the USA that nullified a goal in the recent WC. If the referee were positioned nearer to or on the goal line, much of this behavior could be prevented by his presence. In the France-Ireland match, if the referee had been positioned nearer to the goal line for the attacking free kick that was floated over to the far post for Henry, he could have easily seen Henry control the ball with his hand. Then Henry would not have been more vilified than Oliver Cromwell by the Irish, the Irish might have got through to the finals, and the sad disintegration of the French team at the World Cup would never have happened. Referees' decisions can have profound consequences!
But we digress. The reason why referees are told not to go deep is very simple - the fear of the rapid counter attack which would leave them stranded, and with an extra 20 yards to make up in the chase downfield.
Our response to this is three-fold. First, the probability of a true counter attack is low. Mostly the ball will go out of play, or will be grabbed by the goalie, who holds it and waits for his players to clear the penalty area. If there is a clearance, many times the ball is sent right back into the goalmouth. Do the analysis for yourself and see how many real fast breaks there are in a match. Second, any referee should be able to sprint out that extra 20 yards or so to catch up with play a few times in each match. An experienced referee will also be able to anticipate that quick break and be ready for it. This is even more true these days when the fitness standards for top referees are far more demanding, and for FIFA referees there is the 45 age limit also. This was very apparent at the last World Cup where it seemed that some of the referees were selected based on their running abilities as opposed to their refereeing abilities. This charge has also been applied to some referees in domestic pro leagues also. Third, while it may be more true at World Cup, Champions' League and a few top domestic leagues. it certainly is not much of a concern at lower levels and in local matches.
So now we have the absurd situation of having ultra fit referees, but not allowing them to use that fitness, by instructing them to adopt conservative positioning. At the same time there is the tacit acknowlegment that the CR cannot see what is happening near the goal line from these positions, and so the AARs are appointed! Although the big competitions and wealthy leagues can afford to have 6 officials assigned to each match, this is way beyond the financial and manpower capabilities of most other competitions. Many are unable to provide even ARs or 4th officials as it is.
The problem is easily solved. Allow the referees to cover the pitch as was done successfully for many years. It works, referees can do it, we've done it ourselves, and there was no shortage of fast players then. If this were done, there would be no need for the AARs.
There are now additional problems. In matches with the AARs, the referee has to utilize completely different positioning patterns. Essentially they run up and down the central longitudinal axis of the pitch, in other words, straight up and down the middle. They don't go near either touchline, so they now do even less running than before! They are often looking out to the left, and therefore have their backs completely turned away from the AR. One additional drawback of this is that he is quite often now in the way of the players, taking up valuable space that they need, and often getting in the way of balls being passed laterally. In other words, he is interfering with play and causing the teams to adjust their playing styles.
One final ironic point: in the Europa League match between Napoli and Liverpool last week, the ball was cleared off the goal line by a defender who was himself clearly inside the goal. No goal was awarded, because the AAR did not indicate to the referee that the ball had crossed the line. However, for some reason, the AAR was NOT on the goal line; he was one or two yards inside the field. Thus he was unable to judge accurately the exact position of the ball. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!