Tactical Thinking for the Referee

By: Bill Wagner, NISOA National Clinician and Assessor, Florida

All of us who have refereed for any length of time have probably heard of tactical fouls committed by the players. We spend time in clinics learning how to recognize and deal with these actions. How many of us have ever considered Tactical Thinking for Referees?

There are numerous situations in the course of a ninety minute soccer match where the referee can be better prepared if that referee has spent some time thinking about tactical approaches to these situations. Have you given any thought to your strategy for certain restarts? What do you do to prepare for corner kicks, free kicks near the goal line, or a throw – in near the opponent’s goal line? Ask yourself some questions when you encounter these restarts. What have the players been doing during the match thus far? What are my responsibilities?

Free kicks near an opponent’s goal line normally result in a wall being formed in an attempt to deny access to the goal. Players are maneuvering for position. The referee has to be prepared to prevent encroachment and gamesmanship. Where does the referee take up a position? You must quickly assess the situation. You must know the time remaining in the game. You must know the score. You must determine where the action is likely to be. Analyzing this data could result in the referee vacating a more normal position wide of where the ball is placed and moving to a position near the goal line to serve as goal judge while the assistant referee maintains position with the second to last defender and be able to judge offside.

A throw-in near the opponent’s goal offers many of the same conditions as the free kick. However, there is no offside on a throw-in and the referee and the assistant referee both need to be in positions that have been discussed during the pregame conference. Once again the referee may take a position near the goal line to be in position to observe action behind the line of defenders. The assistant referee then maintains position with the second to last defender.

The referee must also consider tactics to be employed during dynamic play. You must learn how to read the game so that you know where to go and, more importantly, where NOT to go. Tactical thinking during dynamic play requires consideration of space and time. Remember, any time the referee is in front of the player with the ball you may be using space the players could use. How do we get out of this problem situation? Consider the following options. You may choose to change your position relative to the ball by either waiting for the player in possession to move ahead of you or actively seeking a position behind the ball. As an alternative, you may be able to take up a position behind an opponent of the attackers and temporarily “hide” in order to not be in the way of the attack. As necessary, the referee can choose to move into space that the players may not use such as off the field of play or into a position the players would not be expected to use at that time such as moving wide of play toward a touchline.

Finally, give some thought to the tactics required to observe off the ball incidents. As players develop their skills they are taught to make use of their time away from the ball. Movement off the ball is an ongoing concern for the referee. To often incidents happen off the ball that none of the officials have observed. Players become understandably frustrated if they are being mauled and it not be noticed by the referee or assistant referees. How can the referee protect the players from off the ball transgressions? Consider the following suggestions. When the referee is behind the player with the ball during dynamic play, it is possible to see downfield without much difficulty. Get in the habit of doing so. Scan the horizon. At times when the player with the ball has no opponent nearby, the referee may safely take a look down the field to observe what may be happening. It can be amazing what the referee can observe if the eyes are regularly scanning the field of play instead of always concentrating on the action near the ball.

This article may not have addressed every possible opportunity that a referee might have considered some tactical thinking. Its purpose was to identify several situations that arise in every game you will serve as the referee. I have attempted to point out some practical approaches to keep the referee either in position or out of the way so that players can be allowed to play without undue interference from either the referee or their opponents. Each reader is encouraged to consider other situations and solutions that show they have done their own tactical thinking as referees.