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.
In this week’s VAR Review: What happened with Newcastle United‘s winning goal against Arsenal, plus possible red cards for Kai Havertz and Bruno Guinares. Why Scott McTominay‘s goal was ruled out for Manchester United against Fulham, and more VAR frustration for Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Possible ball out of play / foul / handball / offside: Gordon goal
What happened: Newcastle took the lead in the 64th minute when Anthony Gordon stabbed the ball home from close range. However, the VAR needed to check a series of incidents before deciding whether to clear the goal (watch here.)
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: This unique and complicated review took four minutes and six seconds and included three possible reasons to disallow the goal. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was fuming after the game, calling the decision “embarrassing,” with Arsenal doubling down on that criticism as a club on Sunday.
It was a remarkable reaction and completely removed from the reality of the situation. You could understand Liverpool’s anger when Luis Díaz‘s goal wasn’t allowed against Tottenham, but this isn’t remotely close to that. It’s a series of situations which are fully explainable. There’s no smoking gun over a VAR error. Arsenal’s reaction was over the top and unnecessary, creating added pressure when unwarranted.
The Gunners have a fair argument about a possible foul, but it doesn’t justify the reaction.
PGMOL’s promise of greater transparency under chief refereeing officer Howard Webb since the start of the year has backfired to a degree, as now fans and clubs on the wrong side of 70/30 or 60/40 subjective decisions think they have been cheated. Yet truly egregious mistakes are rare, and in most cases a decision will always leave one side feeling aggrieved — which is why this system of VAR is always going to have serious issues.
The Independent Key Match Incidents Panel has logged fewer VAR errors than last season, but debate around them has intensified. Errors like that for the Diaz goal cannot happen, and that has understandably added to the furore about refereeing standards. But Arsenal’s statement adds nothing, and there will be no response from the Premier League or PGMOL
One incident outside of the three was straightforward: the claim that the ball touched the arm of Joelinton before Gordon scored. Accidental attacking handball before a goal now only applies to the scorer, so Joelinton would need to deliberately handle or have his arms in an unexpected position for his movement; neither applied so the VAR would not consider the handball further.
The other situations are more contentious, but for two of them the only outcome for the VAR was to stay with the on-field decision.
The first concerns Joe Willock and whether he managed to keep the ball in play by the corner flag. As it happened so far away from the goal area, it was out of shot of the camera on the goal-line, which is concentrated on the area around the goal.
When Rasmus Hojlund’s goal was disallowed for Manchester United against Brighton & Hove Albion in September, Marcus Rashford‘s attempt to keep the ball in play was in shot on that goal-line camera, allowing the VAR to take the decision that the ball was definitely out.
The VAR in this game, Andy Madley, has to take into account the angle of the camera and the curvature of the ball; it’s impossible to say — without doubt — that the whole of the ball was out, so the decision stays with the on-field call. Remember the goal Japan scored against Spain at the World Cup, when it looked like Kaoru Mitoma had failed to keep it in before Ao Tanaka scored? Initial television replays had viewers convinced it was out, but later angles proved the VAR was correct to allow the goal; the curvature from other angles had been deceptive.
There’s no prospect, in the near future at least, of technology to track whether the ball stays in play outside of goal-line technology. There’s too much space to cover.
Then there’s the possible offside against Gordon. When Joelinton touches the ball, Gordon needs to be behind it to be onside. But there is no camera angle which shows both the ball and the whole of Gordon’s body.
It’s very possible that Gordon was marginally ahead of the ball, but the VAR cannot change the on-field call on a hunch — so the decision of onside must stand.
Even with the increased number of cameras being used for offside this season, it will never be possible to completely rule out a situation like this. Indeed, it wouldn’t be solved by semi-automated offside as the system used by UEFA, which was adopted by Serie A in January and will likely be added by the other top European leagues next season, doesn’t have a sensor to track the ball, only the players.
So while Gordon’s position could be calculated, it wouldn’t be possible to manually plot the front of the ball — and create the offside line. UEFA had a similar problem last season when a lengthy offside review led to a late Harry Kane winner for Tottenham against Sporting CP being ruled out for offside. That decision needed a manual process to see the ball, but it was in view which meant the decision could be made.
The only part of this decision that Arteta can have legitimate complaints about is the potential foul on Gabriel, when Joelinton appeared to push down on his back with extended arms. The freeze-frame images look damning, but in real time it doesn’t look anywhere near as incriminating. Indeed, on the initial replays few people seemed to think there was even a foul to look at. It’s a borderline decision for a VAR overturn; some will think this is definitely a foul, others that there’s not enough in it. Is it clear and obvious? Arteta at least has a case on this, but the series of events on the goal didn’t warrant the response from Arsenal.
Possible red card: Havertz challenge on Longstaff
What happened: Sean Longstaff had the ball by the touchline when Kai Havertz jumped into a challenge on the Newcastle United player. Referee Stuart Attwell produced a yellow card, but was it worthy of a red?
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: Havertz is fortunate, because he could easily have been sent off, but the caution from Attwell is just about an acceptable disciplinary outcome. As with Gabriel, if the referee gives this the VAR wouldn’t get involved.
The Arenal player leaves the floor to make the tackle — but leads into the space in front of the ball rather than at Longstaff.
Earlier this season Eddie Nketiah made a similar challenge on Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario in the North London derby. The striker led with his right foot in front of Vicario, but caught his opponent with his folded trailing leg as he landed into the tackle. The independent panel agreed that a yellow card for Nketiah was an acceptable on-field decision, and will likely made the same judgement on Havertz.
Possible red card: Guimarães challenge on Jorginho
What happened: Just before half-time, Bruno Guimarães raced into a challenge on Jorginho and appeared to leave his arm up to make contact with his opponent’s head. The referee had his back turned to the incident, with the VAR checking for a possible red card.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: When does an arm to the head become violent conduct? It’s a good question, because we’ve seen three incidents this season — coincidentally all by Fulham players — with different judgements reached by the independent panel.
It was said that Carlos Vinicius‘ actions towards both Chelsea‘s Thiago Silva and Sheffield United‘s Auston Trusty did not cross the threshold for violent conduct, yet on a split vote, the panel felt João Palhinha should have been dismissed against Brighton last weekend.
As Attwell could not have a view, it came down to the opinon of the VAR, who has decided contact with the forearm rather than the elbow wasn’t enough for a red card. Yet the Newcastle player runs in at speed and has no concern for the safety of his opponent when he leads with his forearm.
Guimaraes is luckier than Havertz, and probably should have received a red card through a VAR intervention for a serious missed incident.
Possible offside: Maguire on McTominay goal
What happened: Manchester United scored in the eighth minute when Christian Eriksen lofted a free kick into the area, Alejandro Garnacho helped the ball into the six-yard box and Scott McTominay netted from close range. The VAR, Jarred Gillettt, began a check on the goal for a possible offside.
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: This decision took too long, three minutes 25 seconds in total from goal scored to the signal that it was disallowed, but it was the correct decision and a textbook example of a player “clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent.”
The VAR first checked the position of Garnacho, as this would be a factual and a straight-forward offside. Gillett then checked Harry Maguire, who did not touch the ball but had followed its flight towards Garnacho.
Maguire was shown to be in an offside position, which then makes it a subjective assessment of the player’s impact on the play. As the ball went close to Maguire, and he attempted to play it, with Fulham‘s Rodrigo Muniz in close proximity, the United defender has to be having an impact on an opponent.
On all subjective offside overturns the referee has to go to the monitor and make the decision himself. We saw it in September when Jonny Evans had a goal disallowed against Burnley with Rasmus Højlund interfering with goalkeeper James Trafford from an offside position.
Semi-automated offside would have reduced some of the time taken, though the subjective element around Maguire’s offside offence took up the majority.
It’s the kind of offence that often only gets picked up through a VAR review, which is why it tends to annoy and surprise supporters. That said, Brentford did have a goal disallowed against Burnley two weeks ago when the assistant identified a similar offence by Kristoffer Ajer, though in that case it happened in front of the official rather than in a crowd of players.
Possible penalty overturn: Silva foul on Baldock
What happened: Sheffield United were awarded a penalty in the seventh minute of added time when referee Robert Jones adjudged that Fábio Silva had tripped George Baldock. The VAR, Chris Kavanagh began a check on the spot kick.
VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Oliver Norwood.
VAR review: It was Groundhog Day for Wolves boss Gary O’Neil, who saw his team on the wrong end of a controversial penalty decision for the second successive week.
There are similarities with the Silva incident, though the error to intervene here is not quite so clear as the Wolves player is challenging into his opponent. Evidence of lower body contact, as explained week’s review, will usually lead the VAR to stick with the on-field decision. Think of the Marcus Rashford penalty decision against Nottingham Forest, when there was evidence of contact on the striker’s thigh.
But both Wolves situations have similar levels of contact, with the attacker going to ground very easily. An intervention to cancel this penalty against Silva would have been the better outcome, as there really is negligible evidence of a foul having taken place from the available replays.
Possible penalty: Handball by Barkley
What happened: Luton Town took the lead in the 80 minute through Tahith Chong, but it came after Liverpool players had appealed for a penalty against Ross Barkley on the corner which the home team had broken from.
VAR decision: No penalty, goal stands.
VAR review: It would have been a dramatic moment, as Luton’s goal would have been disallowed and Liverpool awarded a spot kick. It has happened on one previous occasion in the Premier League, when Bournemouth scored at Burnley but the play was pulled back for a penalty at the other end of the field. Bournemouth thought they had made it 1-1, and instead ended up trailing 2-1.
Virgil van Dijk headed towards goal and the ball hit the elbow of Barkley from close range, As Barkley had his back to goal and his arm was in a position for jumping, the VAR should not get involved to award a penalty. If the ball had hit the Barkley’s raised hand, rather than his elbow, there would have been a much stronger case for a spot kick.
Possible offside: Dunk when scoring
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: No one wants to see a wonder strike ruled out by the VAR, but Dunk was leaning in front of the last defender.
The offside line is drawn through to the upper part of his arm, where handball begins, and not to his lower arm; the line continues vertically.
Possible penalty: Veltman on McNeil
What happened: Dwight McNeil fell into the area after appearing to be pushed by Joël Veltman and looked around at referee Tim Robinson asking for a penalty, but play went on. VAR Michael Oliver checked the incident.
VAR decision: No penalty
VAR review: A quick and easy decision for the VAR, as the possible foul contact on McNeil took place outside the area. You couldn’t blame McNeil for asking as he would have felt a big knock to the back.
In any case, Veltman was pushed into McNeil by Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and that would have been taken into consideration if the contact was inside the box.
Possible handball: Bowen when scoring
What happened: West Ham took a 2-1 lead in the 26th minute when Jarrod Bowen scored after the ball had come back off the post. But did the ball touch his arm?
VAR decision: Goal stands
VAR review: A situation where the VAR is trying to find definitive evidence that the ball has hit the arm of the goal scorer.
The angle behind the goal appears to show it came off Bowen’s chest rather than his left arm, so the VAR, Michael Salisbury, was right not to intervene.
Possible handball: Akanji when scoring
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: Much like with Bowen, the VAR needs to sure the ball came off Akanji’s back rather than his elbow.
Alexis Mac Allister had a goal chalked off for Brighton at Tottenham last season in similar circumstances. Then the VAR felt he had the evidence that the ball had hit his arm, rather than just his hip.
The replays seem to show the ball did hit the elbow, so it’s a surprising there was no intervention from the VAR, Simon Hooper, to disallow this goal.
Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.