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Howard Webb on transparent decision-making, the role of VAR and Manchester derby offside controversy

PGMOL chief refereeing officer Howard Webb aiming for consistent application of VAR in the Premier League; public announcement of VAR decisions on-field trialled in Club World Cup; extended stoppage time an option to deal with time-wasting

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PGMOL's chief refereeing officer Howard Webb opens up on Friday Night Football about wanting to see improvements in the standards of officiating in the Premier League, VAR and why Bruno Fernandes' Manchester derby goal would now not be given

PGMOL chief refereeing officer Howard Webb says he wants to "draw the curtain back" on officials' decision-making, and admits that Bruno Fernandes' controversial goal in the recent Manchester derby would now be deemed offside.

The former Premier League referee joined Sky Sports ahead of the Friday Night Football match between Chelsea and Fulham to discuss his first two months in the job.

While VAR and time-wasting were high on the agenda, Webb was also quizzed on recent high-profile incidents, among them the decision to allow Fernandes' goal against Manchester City despite the presence of Marcus Rashford in what would traditionally have been an offside position.

The goal sparked debate among pundits, fans and coaches alike, and Webb has now given his view of the incident.

Read on for that verdict and everything else the official had to say on Friday Night Football...

What are your priorities straight away?

One of the things we have to do is respect the way the Premier League is played - the flow and tempo of the game.

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I think we've done well with that in recent times, not trying to smother the game by allowing it to breathe. I've done a bit of a tour of the clubs in the last few weeks and the feedback I've had has been positive in that respect in the way referees are handling on-field stuff.

Howard Webb discussed all things VAR, time wasting and more on Sky Sports
Image: Howard Webb answers a question from Sky Sports' Jamie Carragher

But of course, a lot of talk is about VAR and how we use it. I want to use it as it was always intended: as a safety net for those clear errors, and allow the referee to referee the game. Our game throws up loads of subjectivity and if we get involved in the subjective situations, we could end up with inconsistency.

I'm trying to ensure the VAR [officials] know they've got a job to do to identify the clear errors, but don't get involved too much with the stuff that creates debate and difference of opinion.

If the decision stays with the referee, what is the point of VAR?

The point of VAR is to stop those situations I used to face when I made a decision on the pitch, got into the dressing room and thought 'oh my goodness, how have I missed that?' - that shouldn't happen now. The VAR is there as the safety net.

But what I don't want is there are some situations which could split opinion 60/40, not only for the people in the stands, but the media, the players, the coaches and also for the officials. One VAR in one week will recommend a review and in the same week, a different one won't. I think that would create a situation where people lose faith in what it's for.

VAR denies Arsenal a penalty
Image: VAR has sometimes been a controversial topic of discussion

But ensuring that our VAR officials have the skills to identify when something is clearly wrong, they will all consistently step in and rectify those situations that I used to hate where one look at the screen and you know you've got it wrong.

The officials like using VAR. It gives them the comfort of knowing that they're not going to make those errors that they're going to have to live with for the next few days.

Is the bar too high for VAR to get involved and change a refereeing decision on the field?

I agree and if something is clearly wrong, they should get involved. We don't want the bar so high that you never see VAR being used.

If there is a clear error tonight [at Stamford Bridge] on the field, I expect the VAR to recommend that Stuart Attwell goes to the screen, has a look at it and changes the call if he agrees it's a clear error. They've got the ability to keep their decision as well if they want to.

Howard Webb discussed all things VAR, time wasting and more on Sky Sports
Image: The PGMOL chief joined Gary Neville, Karen Carney, Jamie Carragher and Kelly Cates on Friday Night Football

Also, if we miss one because the VAR doesn't recognise it as a clear error, I will come out and say 'we should have got involved there' so people don't lose faith on where the bar is. Human error can happen on the pitch and in the VAR booth.

But it's here to stay. It's a really good tool and we're looking to ensure it enhances the game and it doesn't damage the game that we love so much with flow and tempo. We want to only use VAR for those times that it's clearly wrong, and we don't want to get involved and interfering with the game. I think that's the best way to use it.

Will we see open mic communication in the Premier League like they use in NFL?

I'm all for openness and transparency and trying to draw the curtain back on the decision-making. I think when people can see the rationale for a decision and understand it better, they might not agree with the outcome, but at least they're more understanding and accepting of why it happened.

We're trying to do some work with the broadcasters to tell the story to people back home, but also people in the stadium need to know too.

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Marcus Rashford was not given offside for Bruno Fernandes' goal against Manchester City, while Trent Alexander-Arnold was after Cody Gakpo's shot against Brighton. Were both decisions correct?

You will have seen in the Club World Cup as recently as the last couple of days in Morocco, referees have come out, looked at the incident on a video review and announced the outcome to the stadium. That's something we're going to watch closely and see if it works.

If it does, we'd be open in having a conversation in how we can use something like that in the stadiums. The fans are the important people that create the atmosphere and they need to know what's happening either via the video board or by some other means.

That's a possibility, so let's see how it works at the Club World Cup and if we can use it going forward.

Should VAR have got involved with Andy Carroll and Fabinho tackles last weekend?

Man Utd's Christian Eriksen was injured following a tackle from Reading's Andy Carroll
Image: Man Utd's Christian Eriksen was injured following a tackle from Reading's Andy Carroll in the FA Cup last weekend

The Fabinho one was one we acknowledged publicly that should have led to a video review. The referee showed a yellow card and the VAR didn't feel it reached that threshold of being a clear error.

We feel that was wrong, VAR should have got involved and overturned the decision. You can make a similar case for the tackle by Andy Carroll on Eriksen, which wasn't a great tackle.

There are some elements of subjectivity in a lot of tackles, but some stand out and we have to get involved. What we need to do is not only acknowledge that we should have got involved, but take the learning from that so it happens more rarely than often.

We mentioned we want to keep the ebb and flow of the game, we want to allow some contact and not penalise it. But we also need to recognise when there's a need to intervene, when there is a contact that does have a detrimental effect on a player or one that has an element of endangering the safety of an opponent. Those are the ones we have to step in on.

How did you analyse the Fernandes-Rashford incident in the Manchester derby with the officials after the game and how would you see it now?

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The Ref Watch panel debate whether Marcus Rashford did interfere with play from an offside position that saw Bruno Fernandes equalise against Manchester City

I think it was the most talked about incident in the Premier League so far this year. An offside player who doesn't touch the ball, the question then becomes does he interfere with the opponents.

Over time, the laws of the game have moved in a direction where to be penalised for being in a offside position without touching the ball, you have to one of four quite specific things. The aim was to be consistent with the application.

Rashford doesn't exactly do those four things, but you can make an argument that he does. There's definitely an element of interpretation needed, there's some subjectivity about it. On the day, the officials didn't feel he had interfered in the way it is defined in the law. That was supportable.

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Pep Guardiola believes Marcus Rashford was offside in Man Utd's equalising goal and his side would've defended differently if he wasn't in that position

The game has told us that there's an expectation that the situation should have led to an offside. We're here to serve the game and listen to the game.

If that same circumstance happened again, you'd probably see a different outcome now based on all we've taken on board since then.

When you say the game, who have you consulted?

We speak to other associations, like the LMA, PFA, the clubs. We speak to league executives, our officials, we discuss these situations and tweak things as we go.

You can't say it was an incorrect decision because the law is quite subjective, there's some flexibility in the way you can interpret the law. It's clear that most people would expect that to be offside if exactly the same thing happens again.

The issue with that one is that Rashford followed the ball for quite some distance and got really close. In general terms, he probably impacts Akanji or the goalkeeper in those circumstances and I think that's why the game expects that to be offside.

How do you plan to fix time-wasting if the ball hasn't been in play for as long as it should be?

Fourth Official,woman,female,linesman indicates after-game time, Wales (WLS) - England (ENG) 0-3 Group Stage Group B on 29.11.2022,Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium Football World Cup 2022 in Qatar on 20.11. - 18.12.2022 ? Photo by: Frank Hoermann/SVEN SIMON/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Image: Large quantities of injury time were added on during the World Cup, which is also an option for the Premier League, says Howard Webb

Apart from VAR, effective match time is the thing we talk about the most, how we can get more playing time.

One of the ways we can do that is by adding on a lot of time on at the end of the game like we saw at the World Cup, where normal things that wouldn't be added on - like goal celebrations - we were seeing every second of that being added on at the end of the game.

That doesn't normally happen in the top five leagues in Europe, hence why in the England game where they were winning 6-1 [against Iran], we saw nine minutes at the end of the game. You wouldn't see that in the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A. But that's what we saw and that's an option.

One of the things we also have to do is keep the momentum in the game, so we deal with time-wasting. Players will kick the ball away or stand in front of free kicks and they are clearly time-wasting.

One of the things that I want to do is give the officials the tactical awareness so they can identify those things more readily. We're putting a team in place with some really highly qualified, talented individuals to give the officials the tactical awareness and the physical preparation, all the things they need to deal with what they're presented with in a modern game.

There's no doubt the teams are better prepared than ever to get those marginal advantages and we need to be able to do the same to give our officials the tactical nous to deal with those tactics that are meant to delay the game.

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