Michael Pavitt

The latest meeting for the International Football Association Board (IFAB) was held earlier this week, with the tinkermen announcing the latest changes to solve the issues created by their last amendments to the game's rules.

I acknowledge that I may be harsh in my assessment of the group, which comprises of members of the Football Associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as FIFA. 

The IFAB has had to pick through and recalibrate the rules of the game to fit with the new reality of having Video Assistant Referees (VAR) in the sport.

Many fans, myself included, had been in favour of the introduction of greater technology to the sport without realising the extent to which rules would need to be fiddled with. Clearly, it is taking some considerable time to catch up. 

The IFAB has essentially been forced into a large-scale experiment, with each controversial incident on the field seeing fingers pointed directly towards the rulemakers.

The main takeaway from the latest meeting was that the IFAB had amended the handball rule, with the group determining that the "interpretation of handball incidents has not always been consistent due to incorrect applications of the law".

Another area of discussion was the implementation of the offside rule, which currently deems players to be offside if any part of their body they can play the ball with is nearer to the opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.

One of the main criticisms of the existing rule is the so-called "armpit" offsides. 

Fans have become increasingly critical when having celebrated a goal in their living rooms, they are then confronted with a screen where VAR officials seek to plot where any part of their body - which can score a goal - is beyond last defender.

This has led to a far higher number of fractional and frustrating decisions than I believe was anticipated when football opened its arms and embraced additional technology.

Narrow offside decisions have caused controversy in several European leagues ©Getty Images
Narrow offside decisions have caused controversy in several European leagues ©Getty Images

A proposed change suggested by Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, has received approval from IFAB to be trialled in the lower leagues in China.

Wenger, who has been FIFA's chief of global football development since the end of 2019, said that an attacking player should be deemed onside if any part of their body is level with the last defender.

"Arsène Wenger presented to us today as well what this could look like and obviously, in summary, it is if the attacking player is ahead of the last defender, or second-last player, but still with one part of the body that can score inline with the defender," FIFA President Gianni Infantino said.

“So it is giving the attacking player a bit more room and so favouring attacking football.

"Obviously such a change would need to be tested.

"We have to see what kind of impact this will have on the game - if positive, if negative. If it is positive, we might go ahead. If it is negative, we step back.

"But we are always here, like we did for VAR, to be open to new ideas and if we can make football even more attacking, even more passionate, then we certainly look into that. From there to say what is going to happen in a few years from now, we will see."

Arsene Wenger has suggestion amending the offside rule to favour attacking players ©Getty Images
Arsene Wenger has suggestion amending the offside rule to favour attacking players ©Getty Images

Despite being dubbed Le Professeur during his career, Wenger’s proposal seems to merely flip the current problem around from adversely impacting attacking players to clearly having a negative impact on defenders.

Some critics of the plan have suggested that the logical response of defenders would be the drop deeper to avoid playing their opponents onside. While Wenger’s thought may be intended to create a more offensive game, logic dictates that defences will find a way to level the playing field and nullify their advantage.

Wenger himself warned of meddling with the offside rule back in 2017, when then-FIFA technical director Marco van Basten suggested scrapping offsides altogether.

"Offside is what makes the team good together," the Frenchman said at the time. "It is an intelligent rule as well, it is important to keep that in the game. Overall football improves, people say it is too tight and compact but football has always been like that, defence creates a problem for the attack and the attack finds a solution."

There is an argument that football’s lawmakers, like Wenger, have moved some way from their initial intended use of technology to remove clear and obvious errors.

Lawmakers this week have been accused of attempting to make the game more sterile and increasing, rather than resolving, post-match arguments. This is perhaps best reflected in broadcasters increasingly having their own in-house ex-referee, with BT Sport’s coverage of the Premier League featuring more expected appearances of former referee Peter Walton than possible goals during its broadcasts.

There is a degree to which football should look towards the use of technology in cricket and rugby, with both sports having implemented their own systems to support officials on the field of play.

Rugby is among the sports where on pitch referees retain control over marginal decisions ©Getty Images
Rugby is among the sports where on pitch referees retain control over marginal decisions ©Getty Images

Both sports still place priority on the on-pitch officials decision making, with cricket using "umpire’s call" when a conclusive decision cannot be made on whether there is a wicket.

Similarly, television match officials in rugby can only rule on exactly what the referee asks them during matches, although they can also highlight instances of foul play which may have been missed.

The processes still create debate, as shown by England’s rugby team clashing with officials last week over their handling of their Six Nations defeat to Wales. "Umpire's call" has proved frustrating to both batsman and bowlers over time in cricket, with their ire directed towards on-pitch umpires should a marginal decision go against them.

I wonder whether football will reach a similar conclusion in its tinkering with the rulebook, with FIFA appearing intent on making VAR work rather than to scrap the use of replays.

Could we eventually see a referee/linesmen's call system in operation at some stage over unclear decisions, such as offsides?

It appears increasingly as though the sport will be unable to find the purity it seems to be seeking.