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Q&A: Howard Webb

In the first of a new series that digs deeper into operations behind the scenes with members of the management team at PRO, general manager Howard Webb outlines the evaluation process that takes place after every game.

He explains the procedures behind Inside Review and addresses recurring questions about the role of the Video Assistant Referee.

Why does PRO publish Inside Review on a Friday, rather than the Monday after games?

It’s all down to the process that we go through to evaluate the performances of both the onfield and video officials. Every game has a match assessor, and it takes a few days for them to submit their observations.

We look at every single key incident in every game and give each one a rating on accuracy and difficulty; it’s only fair and proper that we go through that, and then the opinion we publish on our website is consistent with what the officials get in their evaluations.

What is a match assessor looking for when building their report?

They will focus on key incidents and the general performance of the officials, ready to submit for the Wednesday following the weekend. The general performance is marked out of four, with ‘four’ being best practice and ‘one’ highlighting there are significant areas of improvement. There are a range of competencies that we look for: control, position, movement, player management, how you work with your colleagues, etc.

How involved are you within the process?

I look at every Video Review and video assistant check and report to senior management in MLS. So, to put it through a process, no stone is left unturned; we look at all incidents and we get to know about everything that happens in our competitions. We’re clipping things all the time, sending them through to our head of training and our director of senior match officials so that we can feedback to the group: observations on what we’ve done well and where we could do better.

You’ve alluded to it already, but how is VAR evaluated following a weekend of matches?

Every Video Review that happens in MLS gets put onto our intranet on a Monday, and we ask the group to vote on it. Their opinions give us a benchmark that is representative of the wider soccer community. We’ll then give a definitive answer on all of them on a Friday before they go to their next round of games, giving feedback on a range of things, including what we thought was a good review, or what should have been reviewed that wasn’t.

Is there ever a split opinion?

Some situations are like that, and we discuss them in greater detail when we next get together. Even though they know that we’re working to a high threshold of clear and obvious, sometimes around that threshold, you get a difference of opinion.

VAR’s influence in soccer is clearly growing, but the soccer community still appears to be getting used to the new technology, with some confusion in the stadium as to whether a check is happening or not…

VAR is always working behind the scenes, and just because a situation doesn’t go to an actual Video Review, that doesn’t mean it’s not being looked at or that the system is not being utilized. Of course it is, it just means that no clear and obvious errors have been identified, so a check doesn’t progress to a Video Review.

In 2018, 1,299 goals were scored in the MLS, and only four should have been canceled that weren’t. This season, only three goals were incorrectly allowed to stand – that’s a really healthy stat. And regarding those occasions, well, that happens because we’re dealing with human beings.

With regard to that goal check, there’s a worry that VAR will take the euphoria out of scoring a goal…

We are talking about a low number of goals being canceled after a Video Review; 27 goals were canceled after review in MLS in 2019, which is roughly two percent of all the goals which were scored. So, when you score and celebrate, there is a massively high chance that your goal is going to be good and allowed to stand. With that being the case, it’s good to know that everything is being checked behind the scenes.

And with the extensive evaluation process that follows each game, it can only improve the ability of current and future officials both on the field and in the VAR room…

Visitors who come to our camps leave with a positive impression about the professionalism of the group and the way we introspectively look at what we do, because we all want to do better. We receive feedback from a range of stakeholders and every report makes a difference. Then we analyze things in the cold light of day with a rational head from a neutral, independent point of view, and we put in place what we believe is the most useful information for people to get them to the level we want.

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