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 on Jesus
What happened: Arsenal won a free kick on the right in the 60th minute. Martin Ødegaard delivered into the area and the ball was met by Takehiro Tomiyasu, who headed over the bar. However, goalkeeper Robert Sánchez had rushed out and collided with Gabriel Jesus when trying to punch the aerial ball. Referee Chris Kavanagh restarted play with a goal kick to Chelsea.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Understandably, Arsenal fans have argued that the challenge is no different to that of Manchester United goalkeeper André Onana on Wolverhampton Wanderers attacker Sasa Kalajdzic. That incident came in the final moments of the opening game of the season at Old Trafford, with the VAR failing to intervene and advise a penalty kick. It led to PGMOL acknowledging that an error had been made and a spot kick should have been awarded.
But there are differences which certainly mean PGMOL won’t react as they did to Onana, by taking the referee and VAR off the next round of games.
The VAR must decide whether the goalkeeper is making a genuine attempt to play the ball. That, of course, doesn’t mean a goalkeeper can play in a reckless manner — which many will feel Sanchez did and it could easily have been given. Unlike Onana it’s more of a borderline situation, in terms of how VAR is applied for a clear and obvious error. Sanchez collides with a group of players, including Jesus and his own teammates, in trying to punch clear.
There was also some holding of the shirt on Tomiyasu by Thiago Silva, but certainly not enough for a penalty.
While Onana was initially trying to play the ball, the Manchester United goalkeeper had become aware he had no chance of winning it and pulled Kalajdzic to the ground with both arms. It was an additional action to foul an opponent after failing to win an aerial ball.
Each week, the VAR Review has many incidents which have created a big reaction on social media and among pundits. When these are assessed by the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel within the framework of the laws, very few are judged to be errors. Indeed, in the last week before the international break there were a series of controversial situations — including red cards for Pascal Groß and Mateo Kovacic, and a penalty against Matt Doherty — but no VAR errors were logged.
Possible red card: Palmer challenge on Jesus
What happened: Cole Palmer was booked in the eighth minute after catching Jesus with a late challenge. But should the referee have shown the red card? The VAR initiated a check.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: This clearly wasn’t a good tackle from the Chelsea midfielder but it certainly doesn’t reach the threshold for a VAR intervention for a red card.
The contact was low, not above the ankle, and without excessive force. A yellow card was an acceptable disciplinary outcome and the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel will certainly support it. Indeed, the panel said Kovacic’s tackle on Ødegaard was not a clear and obvious error for the VAR to intervene with a red card — though referee Michael Oliver should have made the decision on-field, both for the initial red and the possible second yellow card.
Possible penalty: Handball by Saliba
What happened: Raheem Sterling crossed the ball into the 11th minute, with Mykhailo Mudryk attempting to get a header on goal under pressure from William Saliba. Chelsea players demanded a penalty when the ball hit the Arsenal defender, but referee Kavanagh played on.
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Palmer.
VAR review: It’s one where the intended application of the law and what fans feel is fair collide. But we now have several examples to show how such decisions are judged.
The rule of thumb is simple: if the arm is fully extended from the body there’s a very high probability a penalty will be awarded.
While the expected position of the arms for a player’s action and proximity are important, these are only mitigating factors which will be superseded if the arm is well away from the body, creating an obvious barrier.
It can be expected that Saliba’s arm would be in that position when jumping, but at the same time he is considered to be taking a risk in having the arm fully extended.
We can compare it to the penalty appeal not given against West Ham United‘s James Ward-Prowse at Luton Town: while his arm was up it wasn’t fully extended or raised above for head, and for that reason he escaped a VAR review.
Then there’s Nicolas Jackson, also avoided a penalty review on the opening weekend of the season against Liverpool, largely because the ball was flicked onto his hand from close range. So we’re back to proximity? Partly, but also Jackson’s arm was close to his body rather than being fully extended.
Compare those to the spot kick Wolves gave away at Luton, when João Gomes made a block and the ball deflected onto his arm, which was raised above his head. Despite the ball being diverted off his own body, the arm being so high nullified that mitigating factor.
As explained in a VAR Review in August, there are always likely to be borderline decisions and that was the case with Cristian Romero‘s possible handball for Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester United. While Romero’s arm was away from the body, he was saved by it not being fully extended — unlike with Saliba and Gomes.
The panel has not yet judged any VAR decision over a defensive handball decision to be incorrect this season.
Possible penalty: Foul by Patterson on Diaz
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: This remains consistent with VAR reviews for penalties this season. While there might have been a small amount of contact by Patterson as he slid in to block a likely cross by Diaz, it didn’t seem to be enough to make him go up into the air.
While we have seen some penalties awarded by the referee for a small amount of contact — see Dominik Szoboszlai going to ground under a challenge from AFC Bournemouth‘s Joe Rothwell — that usually isn’t the case from the VAR.
Possible penalty: Handball by Keane
What happened: Diaz attempted to cross into the area in the area, and the ball hit the outstretched arm of Michael Keane. Referee Pawson chose not to award the penalty but the VAR, David Coote, soon became involved (watch here.)
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Mohamed Salah.
VAR review: An easy decision for the VAR, and one that should really have been made by the on-field team without the need for the video assistant.
The ball may have hit Keane from close proximity but as was the case with Saliba, the arm was fully extended away from the body. It’s an obvious offence by Keane and always going to be penalised with a penalty kick.
Possible penalty: Handball by McTominay
What happened: Sheffield United were awarded a penalty in the 31st minute when Scott McTominay was judged to have handled a cross from James McAtee. The VAR, John Brooks, checked that the decision from referee Michael Oliver was correct.
VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Oliver McBurnie.
VAR review: While McTominay’s arm was close to his body there was a clear movement towards the ball. That makes it a deliberate act and a penalty.
If the ball had hit McTominay’s arm while he was trying to withdraw it into his body, that wouldn’t have been a spot kick.
Possible offside overturn: Ajer on Maupay goal
What happened: Brentford thought they had taken the lead in the seventh minute. Bryan Mbeumo took the free kick, it was helped back across the area by Nathan Collins and headed home by Neal Maupay. However, the flag immediately went up for offside.
VAR decision: No goal.
VAR review: Much of the confusion around this decision came from a mistake with the big screen inside the stadium. It displayed that the offside decision was against Collins, but it was actually Kristoffer Ajer who had been flagged.
When Mbeumo plays the ball, Ajer is holding back Burnley‘s Lyle Foster and the assistant has judged this prevented an opponent from challenging for the ball from an offside position. It’s doubtful the VAR would have got involved to disallow the goal for this, but it’s also subjectively an acceptable decision.
The assistant doesn’t have to feel that Foster will win the ball or even decide to make a challenge, he’s only judging that the player in an offside position has affected his ability to do so.
Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.