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.
– How VAR decisions have affected every Prem club in 2023-24
– VAR in the Premier League: Ultimate guide
In this week’s VAR Review: Why did Manchester City get a penalty in the derby? Was it correct to give a penalty to Newcastle United against Wolverhampton Wanderers? Did the VAR miss a handball by Crystal Palace’s Jordan Ayew? And what happened with the long offside check in AFC Bournemouth vs. Burnley?
Rasmus Højlund holds on to Rodri as he runs onto Julian Alvarez’s free kick. BBC
What happened: The game was in the 22nd minute when Julián Álvarez floated a free kick into the area from the right wing. Rodri went to ground under a challenge from Rasmus Højlund, but referee Paul Tierney didn’t see anything. Several City players appealed for a spot kick and the VAR, Michael Oliver, conducted a check while play went on.
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Erling Haaland.
VAR review: You can’t argue that Højlund was holding Rodri, but was this enough for a VAR intervention? It will go down as a correct decision in law, but it doesn’t feel consistent with many other possible VAR penalties involving holding inside the area. A VAR in the Premier League rarely intervenes in such cases. It was soft, it would have been better if it had remained as given on-field.
Indeed, in the second half Haaland went down when he appeared to be being held by Harry Maguire, but there was no intervention.
So how can similar incidents be treated differently?
One of the considerations for the VAR is whether the attacking player has the realistic possibility of challenging for the ball. It’s not the only factor, but it’s used so VAR doesn’t get involved in all kinds of holding — usually only when that holding could have a material impact on the outcome of the play.
In the Rodri situation, Oliver believed the Man City player could have challenged for the free kick from Álvarez. Indeed, when Tierney was at the monitor, you see Oliver replaying the ball coming across to show the referee it was a chance to play the ball.
Michael Oliver shows the VAR that Rodri is being prevented from challenging for the ball. BBC
With the Haaland situation later, it was considered that as Jack Grealish had played a square ball across the six-yard box for Phil Foden any holding offence, if present, would not have impacted the play. Added to that, Haaland was also holding Maguire too.
But it’s a subjective area. Take the possible shirt pull on Callum Wilson towards the end of the Wolves-Newcastle game. The striker was attempting the head the ball when a defender had a chunk of his shirt. Surely that has to have a material impact? In that case it was judged that the holding itself was not prolonged or enough to be judged as a foul.
Possible penalty overturn: Hwang on Schar
What happened: Referee Anthony Taylor awarded Newcastle United a penalty on the stroke of half-time when Fabian Schär went down after appearing to be caught by Hwang Hee-Chan. The VAR, Jarred Gillett, began a check on the spot kick.
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Callum Wilson.
‘They know nothing!’ – Leboeuf fumes at VAR after Newcastle penalty
Frank Leboeuf and Steve Nicol question why VAR didn’t overturn Newcastle’s penalty against Wolves.
VAR review: This was a lengthy VAR review, and the better outcome would have been for the penalty to be cancelled. You can see why Taylor would award it from his position on the pitch and while contact was present, it didn’t seem enough to make Schar go to ground.
When a penalty has been given by the referee for lower body contact, it will usually be upheld if the VAR identifies this was present. There’s an exception when an attacking player has initiated the contact, and there has been no challenge by the defender.
Gillett has perhaps taken the evidence of contact and decided there couldn’t be a clear and obvious error. Hwang’s first touch is heavy, and he then goes to clear the ball. At the last moment he realises that Schar is coming across so tries to pull out and put his foot on the ground. Schar gets to the ball (which then rebounds off Hwang’s standing foot) first, his left foot makes contact with Hwang’s kicking leg and he goes to ground very easily.
There is evidence of contact on Fabian Schar, which led to the VAR supporting the on-field decision. BBC
The starting point for the VAR is that the on-field decision is a penalty. Hwang was making a challenge (that he may have tried to pull out can only be a consideration), there was contact between the two players, but not clearly initiated. Gillett decided there wasn’t enough evidence for him to send Taylor to the monitor.
This is where VAR protocol and penalty judgements collide. If we are saying that contact has to have a consequence for a penalty to be awarded, surely the VAR should be able to make judgements to those standards? But in the VAR hub it’s “clear and obvious” which carries the weight, rather than the consequence of the level of contact in a challenge.
It took almost four minutes from the award of the spot kick to Wilson actually striking the ball. Gillett was in two minds about the nature of the contact — but opted against a review.
VAR overturns are down a third year-on-year in the Premier League as VARs try to not re-referee games, but you can’t help but feel this also leads to some second-guessing.
It was the same refereeing team for the Arsenal vs. Manchester United game last month — Taylor in the middle and Gillett in the VAR hub — when a penalty for a foul by Aaron Wan-Bissaka on Kai Havertz was cancelled on review. The Independent Key Match Incidents Panel ruled that spot kick shouldn’t have been overturned (an opinion that won’t be shared by PGMOL) because there was evidence of contact by Wan-Bissaka.
Perhaps the experience of that game at the Emirates was on Gillett’s mind. It remains the only overturned penalty awarded for a foul this season.
Possible handball: Ayew when scoring
What happened: Crystal Palace gave themselves a glimmer of hope with a goal in the fourth minute of added time. Jordan Ayew latched onto a ball from Joachim Andersen, chested it down and fired past Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario. However, there was a long VAR check for a handball offence.
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: This wasn’t about the handball law for the VAR, Stuart Attwell, as any touch of the ball on the arm means the goal would have to be disallowed. It was about finding definitive proof that the ball definitely did brush off Ayew’s arm.
It took 2 minutes, 36 seconds, and perhaps in trying to be thorough the VAR talked himself out of a decision. Attwell identified a possible handball offence from one angle, but wanted to be sure by looking at others — which were inconclusive.
But the angle from behind the goal appeared to show the touch on the arm after the ball had rolled off Ayew’s chest, and the goal should have been ruled out.
Attwell also tried to use slow motion to identify a touch, yet in this instance it didn’t offer any clarity to the slightly deviation of the ball.
The ball appears to touch Jordan Ayew’s arm before he scores. Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images
We saw a very similar situation last season, when Gianluca Scamacca scored for West Ham United against Fulham. The ball appeared to brush the striker’s hand before he put it into the net, and the VAR decided he couldn’t be certain from the replays that it did so. That went down as a missed VAR intervention, and it feels likely Ayew’s infringement will too.
Gianluca Scamacca’s goal for West Ham against Fulham should have been disallowed. BBC
Deciding there’s enough evidence for a VAR overturn for handball is often tricky. “Open VAR,” Serie A’s TV show to broadcast VAR audio, looked at Christian Pulisic’s late winner for AC Milan against Genoa earlier this month. The VAR did not intervene because he didn’t have the necessary evidence, though the failure to intervene had angered Genoa.
Il vicedesignatore Gervasoni fa chiarezza sull’episodio del gol rossonero e sulle parti punibili e non punibili per tocco di mano#OpenVar #DAZN pic.twitter.com/7v0RNQFywV
— DAZN Italia (@DAZN_IT) October 23, 2023
Possible disallowed goal: Offside, handball
What happened: Charlie Taylor gave Burnley the lead in the 11th minute with a shot from just outside the area, but there was a VAR check for handball and offside.
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: The first possible offence was offside by Anass Zaroury, but he wasn’t in the goalkeeper’s line of vision to the ball. While the goalkeeper is leaning to his left to see the ball, his view is actually obscured by teammate Philip Billing and Burnley’s Zeki Amdouni, who wasn’t in an offside position. There’s no offside offence by Zaroury.
The VAR also checked that the ball hadn’t touched Amdouni’s arm on its way to goal.
Anass Zaroury wasn’t actually in the goalkeeper’s line of vision. BBC
Possible onside: Rodriguez when scoring
What happened: Jay Rodríguez latched onto a through-ball from Nathan Redmond and finished past goalkeeper Andrei Radu — but the assistant’s flag immediately went up to disallow the goal. The VAR, David Coote, worked with the replay operator to apply the technology and check the decision.
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: A strange situation which saw the game stopped for an unacceptable 5 minutes and 27 seconds while the VAR tried to get the offside decision right.
The replay operator places the lines on the pitch and the players, with the process being approved at each step by the VAR. There was an issue plotting to the correct place on Rodriguez, and the lines where then locked in prematurely — which meant TV viewers saw a single green line displayed to suggest the striker was onside.
Coote was animated at this point and he wanted the line changed, as Rodríguez’s head was further forward.
VAR David Coote is animated as an incorrect onside image is shown on the screen. BBC
Why the line was recalculated from a different camera angle, rather than just being redrawn, is unclear, but Coote did make sure the right decision was reached.
This will only increase the calls for semiautomated offside technology (SAOT) next season. The Premier League clubs (rather than PGMOL) rejected the chance to bring it in this season, leaving Italy as the only major league to embrace this technology, as used in the Champions League.
SAOT wouldn’t necessarily have had an impact on the Luis Díaz offside error at Tottenham Hotspur last month, because the issue was the communication of the decision and identifying that a player was onside. But it should stop the really lengthy offside checks when the VAR has issues making the decision manually.
SOAT will bring more reliability, better visualisations and, usually, quicker decisions. However, there are still many long checks in the Champions League because the offside has to be verified — SAOT is not yet at the stage whereby a decision can be taken as absolute fact.
And with increased accuracy the tolerance level has been removed from SAOT. And that means more disallowed goals, and the return of the so-called “toenail” offside when a player is offside by millimetres.
Indeed, Juventus striker Moise Kean had a goal ruled out against Hellas Verona this weekend when the back of his heel was just in front the last defender as he ran back up the pitch.
Moise Kean is shown to be offside by millimetres using semi-automated offside technology. Serie A
FIFA believes that this technology should now be seen as reliable as goal-line technology, saying that no one complains when that shows the ball is one millimetre over the line. Yet fans feel a player should be gaining some kind of advantage to be given offside (which isn’t in the law), so the millimetre offsides will cause controversy.
The Premier League wasn’t convinced that an increased number of marginal offside decisions was an acceptable trade-off for the benefits. But taking human error out of the process must happen, and the SOAT visualisation of the final decision is far better (though takes several minutes to be produced) than what we have now.
LaLiga has already made the decision to introduce it for next season, and it’s time the Premier League clubs accepted progress and voted it through.
Possible penalty: Handball by Mepham
What happened: Deep into added time Charlie Taylor played a ball into the area. Sander Berge jumped with Chris Mepham, with the Burnley midfielder seeing his effort saved by Radu before he put the rebound over the bar. However, did the ball hit the arm of Mepham on the original chance?
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: If a defending player is involved in a duel with an opponent and the ball hits the arm as a consequence of this, the VAR is unlikely to get involved and advise a penalty kick. Not only is Mepham in a challenge, but Berge is also pushing down on him and limiting his movement.
We’ve seen it a few times this season, including with Destiny Udogie in Tottenham’s game at Arsenal, and Declan Rice when Arsenal played Nottingham Forest. Both those handball claims were correctly rejected, according to the independent panel.
Sander Berge was pushing down on Chris Mepham when the ball struck the Bournemouth player’s arm. BBC
Possible red card: Palhinha challenge on Groß
What happened: João Palhinha challenged Pascal Groß just outside the area in the 19th minute and appeared to catch the Brighton & Hove Albion player. Referee Michael Salisbury didn’t give a free kick and play continued.
VAR decision: No red card.
João Palhinha catches Pascal Groß. BBC
VAR review: As the referee didn’t see this incident clearly, the VAR, Peter Bankes, is making a judgement on whether the challenge reached the threshold for a red-card intervention.
Palhinha is fortunate because he catches Groß in the face and there does appear to be some kind of movement, but he escapes sanction because there was no definitive swinging motion or deliberate act. That he caught Groß with his upper arm rather than his elbow would also have been factored into the VAR’s decision.
A yellow card on-field would have been the better outcome, but the VAR cannot relay this to Salisbury.
Possible penalty: Roerslev on Sterling
What happened: Raheem Sterling went to ground inside the penalty area in the 24th minute. The Chelsea striker wanted a penalty for a barge in the back from Mads Roerslev, but referee Simon Hooper wasn’t interested.
VAR decision: No penalty.
Mads Roerslev takes a huge risk by nudging Raheem Sterling off the ball. BBC
VAR review: Roerslev took a chance in attempting to nudge Sterling off the ball as the forward looked to latch into a ball through the centre, but the England international went down theatrically and there was never any real prospect of a VAR intervention from Craig Pawson.
There are comparisons to be made with Matt Doherty’s push on Ollie Watkins a few weeks ago in Wolves vs. Aston Villa. The VAR didn’t get involved in that incident either, and that was supported by the independent panel.
Possible red card: Caicedo for challenge on Nørgaard
What happened: Moisés Caicedo was booked in the 77th minute for a challenge on Christian Norgaard. The Chelsea midfielder had attempted to win the ball, but mistimed the challenge and caught Nørgaard on his shin. Was there a case for a red card for the VAR?
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: There will no doubt be Liverpool fans who will question why there was no VAR red card for Caicedo’s challenge, as Curtis Jones received at Tottenham.
As we discuss regularly, this is all about what is an acceptable disciplinary outcome, based upon the original on-field decision.
In many ways it can be argued that Caicedo’s tackle was worse, yet the independent panel will agree a caution wasn’t incorrect.
Point of contact on an opponent is important, but the VAR will also look for excessive force to upgrade a card to red. With Jones, we saw Yves Bissouma’s leg buckle due to the nature of the challenge. Yet with Caicedo, this wasn’t present and he didn’t lunge in at speed.
All season we will see variations of challenges, each with their own merits. From Caicedo to Jones, or Malo Gusto to Mateo Kovacic. In all three of the previous cases the independent panel has supported the decision of the VAR.
Possible foul or offside: Mbeumo goal
What happened: Brentford made sure of the points in the sixth minute of added time on a break from a Chelsea corner. But there was a lengthy VAR check while Brentford’s players and fans celebrated.
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: It seemed to be a long review for something that seemed so straightforward. The VAR looked several times at a possible foul on the edge of Brentford’s box which gave them possession for the break, yet there was never a realistic case for an intervention.
There was also a brief check for offside, with Neal Maupay passing to Bryan Mbeumo to score into an empty net.
Bryan Mbeumo was behind the ball when it was played to him, so could not be offside. BBC
Even though there was only one opposition player (Robert Sánchez) between Mbeumo and the goal, the Brentford player was behind the ball when it was played so he cannot be offside.
The ball may have been played on by Sánchez anyway, but that didn’t need to be a consideration.
Possible penalty: Foul by Norwood on Vieira
What happened: Fabio Vieira was challenged by Oliver Norwood on the edge of the area in the 85th minute, but referee Tim Robinson wasn’t interested. The VAR, Michael Salisbury, checked for a possible foul.
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Vieira.
VAR review: An easy intervention for the VAR, yet the whole process still took three minutes.
Robinson hadn’t given a free kick, but the replays clearly showed that Norwood had caught Vieira from behind above the boot. The contact was on the line of the penalty area, which is part of the box so a spot kick should be given.
Fábio Vieira was clearly fouled by Oliver Norwood. BBC
Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.