The introduction of additional assistant referees in UEFA's club competitions has produced positive results – and expert training aims to improve performances even further.
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The deployment of additional assistant referees (AARs) in UEFA's major club and national team competitions is now being underpinned with specific training to further improve the match officials who are making the system such a success.
UEFA has held its inaugural course for additional assistant refereeing in Nyon, with 40 officials who undertake this duty at European matches invited for two days of feedback, analysis and training sessions designed to review how the AAR system has proved its worth since its introduction, and how the system and AARs' work can be fine-tuned for the future.
Under the system, the referee, two assistants and fourth official are joined by two additional assistant referees positioned alongside each goal, with the particular brief to watch for penalty-area incidents such as pushing or holding, or to decide whether the ball has crossed the line for a goal.
The experiment with additional assistant referees began in 2008. Following trial use in the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and UEFA Super Cup, football's lawmakers – the International Football Association Board (IFAB) – agreed in July 2012 that the use of two AARs should be anchored in the Laws of the Game, and UEFA is now deploying the system in its club competitions.
UEFA chief refereeing officer Pierluigi Collina was joined in Nyon by deputy officers Hugh Dallas and Marc Batta to guide 40 AARs from across Europe through the course. UEFA's referee fitness and training expert Werner Helsen was on hand with his team to take the training exercises.
Dallas emphasised the positive results that have emerged from the implementation of the AAR system. "We've seen a huge reduction in errors on offside decisions by assistant referees, because the assistant referee is concentrating solely on [that]," he said. "He doesn't need to worry about foul play in the penalty area. The [AAR] has brought more control in the penalty area for the referee – we are seeing fewer infringements, and a huge reduction in holding and pulling [there], because of the preventative action that AARs take. In addition, the referee feels a lot more comfortable because the penalty area is much more under control."
At the Nyon course, the AARs were given expert guidance in areas such as positioning, focus, concentration and anticipation, movement and active behaviour on the goalline, and the need for clear, concise communication and effective teamwork with the referee. "Additional assistant referees play such an important role in UEFA's top club competitions, so it's vital that we continue to educate them and assess their abilities," said Dallas. "There are additional [training] benefits, in that some of the officials here are not AARs; they are referees who are also operating with AARs.
"We need to make sure that AARs are prepared to the highest level, so we are working on several aspects. As a referee, you follow the ball. What we're trying to do is train a splitting of focus. The referee and AAR have to know who is watching what, such as when things are happening off the ball. We need to make sure that two officials do not watch the same area. One official should be looking at the next phase of play, so we're especially trying to train anticipation of what's going to happen next."
"The role of AARs is totally different to assistant referees and referees from a physical point of view," Werner Helen reflected. "In terms of perception and decision-making, they have a very important role to play, and this is where our expertise comes in.
"The very small details are important, such as the position of the head in the event of 'goal/no goal' decisions. A movement of the head of five centimetres can actually make a big difference. When AARs have to decide whether [the ball has crossed the goalline], they should be able to draw a line from the back side of the first post to the back side of the second post. If they can do this, they will be in a perfect position to judge if the ball has fully crossed the line or not."
UEFA's training for AARs now also involves online and special website preparation though the study of match incidents and situations. "It became clear that this is a 'practice-poor' environment," Helsen explained. "Officials have used matches to learn and gain experience.
"What we now want to do is give them additional tools to gain very important experience before they go on to the pitch. The [AARs] have been asked to log on to the website and address 60 incidents online. We were able to follow the results, and [in Nyon], they have been given feedback on how they did."
Collina offered positive encouragement and insight to the participants. "UEFA trusts this system very much, we are convinced of its benefits," he said. "We have already seen important [on-field] decisions taken thanks to the AARs; you are helping the referee to have better control. But we must always look for improvement. We feel that working with you will help improve your performances because you are part of a team – a very important part."