Whenever there’s televised football, the post-match discussions inevitably turn into a VAR debate. Pundits argue about the impact the technology will have on the game from an accuracy, spectator and player standpoint. But nothing is ever said about how the football assistant referee will impact goalkeepers, specifically.
Here’s what I think VAR will mean for professional keepers in the very near future.
What Russia 2018 Showed Us
Russia 2018 was the first World Cup to use VAR. Above anything else, the tournament demonstrated that huge positive steps have been made towards improving the accuracy of football decisions.
There’s a few areas that’ll impact professional goalkeepers to different degrees.
Fouls on the Keeper — Spotted
With VAR in place, goalkeepers should feel reassured that they’ll receive some extra protection from the referee when it’s required. In particular, it’ll highlight fouls committed on keepers during those moments where the penalty area is congested with bodies. Corners, free kicks and crosses, mainly.
Still, having more eyes on the penalty area is positive news for keepers.
Incorrect Offside Calls — Eliminated
VAR also grants referees the ability nullify offside goals which shouldn’t have counted, as well as award legitimate goals that should have. This was the area of football which most needed cleaning up.
But, again, the increased accuracy of offside decisions didn’t make for higher (or lower) scoring games in the World Cup. It’s business as usual for goalkeepers (and indeed every other player).
The World Cup did however reveal something highly significant for goalkeepers: the stark increase in penalties awarded with VAR in operation.
More Penalties Given Under VAR
Football fans have long believed that referees refrain from giving out too many game-changing penalties, only to contradict themselves by blowing up for ‘half-fouls’ elsewhere on the pitch. That’s precisely why you’ll regularly hear fans shouting words to the effect of “that’s a free kick anywhere else on the field, ref!”. And there’s evidence to suggest that statement is true.
The penalty count more than doubled in Russia, underlining the impact the tech has already made.
But why such a huge increase in penalties?
Well, referees weren’t afraid to blow the whistle in Russia 2018. They knew VAR was there to either confirm or overturn their decision.
VAR provides a safety net referees never had before. If a referee:
- Doesn’t give a penalty kick that should’ve been awarded, VAR officials can alert them of the foul and help reverse the call.
- Gives a penalty kick that shouldn’t have been awarded, VAR officials allow them overturn their mistake.
If you’re a football fan tired of seeing your team being on the receiving end of bad decisions, this might be welcome news. But as a pro goalkeeper, you’ve got no choice but to improve your penalty saving technique!
What we cannot say for sure is whether keepers will start making more penalty saves as a result of VAR — or if strikers will simply improve at scoring them. One thing is for sure: every team will be spending more time practising penalties — with their keepers and strikers — than ever before. They’ll influence a lot of results.
Side Affects From More Penalties
The result of more penalties in the modern game means professional goalkeepers are likely to experience other knock-on affects such as:
- Cagey defending. Keepers could be worked harder, as defenders play more cautiously to avoid giving away penalties. Softer challenges make for busier games!
- Foul-seeking opponents. Teams will be looking to exploit the increased chance of being awarded a penalty. The opposition will carry the ball into the box looking for a win-win situation: create a goal-scoring chance, or get awarded with a penalty for the trouble. This happens already — but it’ll become more extreme, and obvious. Fast, tricky players will be in higher demand.
- More high balls. I expect teams to put the ball in the air to increase tussles in the box. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the long throw has a resurgence — forcing defenders to panic and lose composure. More fouls, more penalties.
Defenders will need to adapt to VAR by giving away less penalties. Their aim should be to reduce the frequency of clumsy challenges without leaving the keeper exposed. Precision, fitness and alertness will more key than ever.
Perhaps professional keepers can look on the bright side: there’ll be more opportunities to make an impact and turn games with penalty saves. So that makes for more excitement (and heroics), at least.
Expect Penalty Rules to Tighten
With the increased accuracy of the game, I fully expect penalty rules to tighten up. It’s highly likely that keepers will be penalised for stepping off their line during penalties; a frequently broken rule.
This commonly breached rule won’t slip through the cracks for much longer. Keepers will need to adapt and remain disciplined.
Unfortunately I envisage that tightening up on penalty rules will only serve to put the odds even more in favour of the kicker. In theory, penalty conversions will rise slightly.
Here’s the full list of official penalty rules. The majority of fans don’t know them, because they aren’t enforced with consistency.
What do you think — will goalkeepers adapt to VAR by saving more penalties? Will defenders learn to evade being penalised? Share your thoughts in the comments.