Video Assistant Referee causes controversy every week in the Premier League, but how are decisions made, and are they correct?
After each weekend we take a look at the major incidents, to examine and explain the process both in terms of VAR protocol and the Laws of the Game.
Possible penalty: Sanchez foul on Haaland
What happened: In the 19th minute, Brighton & Hove Albion goalkeeper Robert Sanchez appeared to catch Erling Haaland as the striker attempted to take the ball around him. Referee Craig Pawson gave a goal kick.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Sanchez clearly catches Haaland, which makes this about that level of contact being enough to make the striker go to ground in the way he has.
Most would expect the VAR, Lee Mason, to award a penalty, but he chose not to because the ball was going out of play and he deemed there to be minimal contact.
The argument that the ball was going out doesn’t seem to hold water, as a foul remains a foul — although it can of course be used when deciding upon a yellow card, or a red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. Minimal contact should only be a consideration when the challenge is shoulder to shoulder or a regular tackle. When a player catches an opponent with the sole of the boot (studs) leading, then it should result in a penalty kick.
VAR overturn: Penalty for Dunk foul on Silva
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Haaland.
VAR review: Play continued while the VAR reviewed the incident and came to a decision (2 minutes, 15 seconds from foul to the penalty being awarded), in line with the protocol. If the ball had gone out of play at any point in this period, Pawson wouldn’t have allowed play to restart. This happens in most games, so a match can carry on while a review takes place and not be interrupted if the VAR clears the incident.
One of the key things a VAR should look for is whether a player has initiated contact to draw the foul, which makes this VAR overturn confusing.
Mason felt it was more of a foul from Dunk, rather than contact initiated from Silva (no push was considered in the review.) It’s subjective whether you believe the Manchester City forward did position his leg or he was caught by Dunk, but for that very reason the VAR getting involved seems wrong.
Had Pawson given the penalty himself, then there is enough doubt for the VAR not to get involved to overturn too. It should have stayed with the on-pitch outcome. For the VAR to be the one to overrule the referee on such a subjective call doesn’t seem to fit with the Premier League’s overriding protocol for reviews. The referee will have the final decision at the monitor, but the VAR will usually show the evidence to support the overturn, rather than to have another look from several angles.
There are similarities with Bukayo Saka‘s booking for simulation against Southampton, although it was a harsh decision from referee Robert Jones to show the yellow card. Duje Caleta-Car made an attempt to tackle Saka outside the area, so the VAR cannot review, but the Arsenal forward placed his leg into the defender’s to initiate the contact.
The best decision in both cases would have been no action and for play to continue.
Possible foul: Wilson on Lloris before scoring
What happened: Newcastle United took the lead in the 31st minute when Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Hugo Lloris came out of his area and attempted to take a touch on the ball, then collided with Callum Wilson. The striker picked up the loose ball and lofted it over the Spurs defence to score (watch here.)
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: The VAR process took 2 minutes, 11 seconds because Stuart Attwell had three things to check: offside, the foul and handball by Wilson.
Referee Jarred Gillett decided it was a coming together between striker and goalkeeper, with Lloris having rushed out of his area to intercept the long ball over the top. There was no offside or handball.
The only evidence of a possible foul, rather than an accidental clash, was Wilson’s left arm coming out as he bumped into the Tottenham keeper, but it feels as though that would be searching for a reason to disallow the goal. Remember Jarrod Bowen on Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy?
The same applies to Haaland’s challenge on Adam Webster before his first goal on Saturday. The City striker showed great strength and some referees might have given a foul at the time, but the VAR shouldn’t be disallowing a goal in situations like this.
As discussed in last week’s VAR Review around the disallowed Man City goal at Liverpool, decisions are far better when they are keeping with the way a referee is managing the game. Gillett was allowing the play to flow, so to disallow the goal for what was a questionable foul situation wouldn’t fit.
This incident might also show us how the VAR process is being improved. There are similarities to the goal West Ham United‘s Maxwel Cornet had disallowed last month for the foul by Bowen; there was contact between attacking player and goalkeeper and the match referee deemed it not enough to rule out the goal, but it was cancelled through the VAR (who just so happened to be Gillett.) PGMOL then deemed it a mistake for the VAR to get involved.
Possible penalty: Handball by Royal
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: We discuss handball on a weekly basis, and there is a tendency for supporters to take individual aspects of certain decisions and apply them exclusively to other incidents rather than as an assessment that takes in all criteria.
For instance, while proximity could be the same on two handball decisions, that doesn’t mean arm position itself might not be the overriding consideration on one compared to the other.
All handball decisions are subjective, and each one has its own unique factors — how has a player made a challenge, ergo is he taking a risk with his arm in that situation? Would you expect a player to have his arm in that position? Has the ball come at the player from a short distance with no time to react? Has his arm moved towards the ball?
Royal had his arm in a position that would be expected when jumping to block the ball, even though it was out from the body. If the ball had hit his leading arm, or the arm it hit had been above shoulder level, there is a far greater chance it would have led to a penalty.
Compare this with two other incidents this month, both with Michael Oliver as referee. The first involves Arsenal defender Gabriel against Liverpool when no penalty was given due to proximity — although while Gabriel was using his arms as balance, a penalty through VAR might have been the better outcome.
Then there’s Aston Villa‘s Matty Cash against Fulham this past Thursday. Although proximity might be similar to with Gabriel, it’s the way Cash is making the challenge with arms away from his body that creates an obvious barrier to the cross and is high risk. There’s very little doubt the VAR would have advised a penalty if Oliver hadn’t awarded it, but the Gabriel incident is more subjective.
Possible offside: Kane when scoring
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: While Kane was onside from Clement Lenglet‘s initial flick on, the VAR review was about a possible touch from Davison Sanchez before the ball reached the England captain, which would have made him offside.
There was no definitive proof that the ball had touched Sanchez on the way through, so the VAR cannot intervene to disallow the goal.
Possible penalty overturn: McTominay foul on Broja
What happened: Chelsea were awarded a penalty in the 84th minute when Armando Broja was held by Scott McTominay as the ball came over on a corner routine. Referee Stuart Attwell pointed to the penalty spot.
VAR decision: Decision stands.
VAR review: This situation provides the perfect example of how VAR protocol, and the edict that the decision on the pitch carries most weight, will never give the game consistency of decision-making.
Attwell gave the penalty to Chelsea because the Manchester United midfielder had both of his hands around Broja’s body, enough to restrict the forward’s movement and his ability to challenge for the ball. But if the referee hadn’t seen it clearly, it’s unlikely to have been a situation in which the VAR, Michael Oliver, would have advised a penalty kick.
We can look back to Southampton vs. Arsenal, with Gabriel Jesus going to ground after holding from Caleta-Car, who initially got a touch on the ball. It’s far less prolonged than McTominay on Broja, and while Arsenal fans might believe the defender having both arms around Jesus should result in a penalty, it really is a decision that is not going to be given by the VAR. Again, the pitch decision carries the weight.
We can also compare it to the incident from last weekend, when West Ham United boss David Moyes accused Southampton‘s Romain Perraud of producing a “judo move” on Tomas Soucek. The referee didn’t give a penalty in that game, nor did the VAR advise an overturn.
If you take each incident in isolation, most would say the Perraud foul was a clear penalty and Broja/Jesus were less certain, but the more obvious foul isn’t given.
The VAR’s role is purely to assess each individual incident based around the referee’s original decision rather than to take precedents.
VAR overturn: Gordon onside for goal
VAR decision: Goal awarded.
VAR review: Sometimes an assistant just gets it badly wrong. It doesn’t happen very often, but we do see situations when a player is a long way onside (or indeed offside by a large margin) and the flag goes up. It’s the exact reason why we have the delayed flag, as frustrating as that might be sometimes.
Gordon was well onside, and the VAR was quickly able to advise that his goal should stand.
VAR overturn: Luiz sent off for violent conduct against Mitrovic
VAR decision: Red card, three-game suspension overturned by an independent regulatory commission.
VAR review: The three-man commission — usually made up of a chairman and two former players who are members of the Independent Football Panel — isn’t deciding whether the red card is right but judging only the suspension and whether that should be removed. It came as a huge surprise that Aston Villa won their appeal against Luiz’s suspension for wrongful dismissal.
The VAR, Paul Tierney, told referee Oliver he should visit the monitor to review a red card as a serious missed incident, meaning the officials hadn’t seen it. While both players went chest-to-chest against each other, Luiz appears to make contact with his head on Mitrovic’s (whatever you might think of the Fulham player’s reaction.)
PGMOL hasn’t yet received the written reasons behind the decision, but the only possible explanation is the panel either didn’t feel there was head-to-head contact or felt it was accidental due to the way they confronted each other. Either way, exonerating Luiz when there is no obvious evidence that the officials made a mistake was very unexpected.
It’s rare that a red-card appeal is won when there is evidence in support of the referee. Take the VAR dismissal of Everton midfielder Allan against Newcastle last season; it was a very harsh dismissal for serious foul play that Frank Lampard’s team appealed but ultimately unsuccessfully.
Information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL was used in this story.