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: How did Liverpool’s Diogo Jota get a penalty for Martin Dúbravka’s challenge in January, but Nottingham Forest’s Taiwo Awoniyi was denied this weekend? Plus handball penalties in the game between Luton Town and Sheffield United, and a possible red card for Everton’s Ben Godfrey.
Possible penalty: Dúbravka challenge on Awoniyi
What happened: Nottingham Forest were on the attack in the 62nd minute when Matz Sels played a long ball over the top for Taiwo Awoniyi. The striker ran into the area but got the ball stuck under his feet slightly, preventing him from getting a shot off, before he stumbled into Newcastle United goalkeeper Dúbravka. Referee Anthony Taylor gave a goal kick, but was there a case for a penalty? (watch here)
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Last month, Taylor awarded a penalty to Liverpool against Newcastle when Dúbravka brought down Diogo Jota with the slightest of touches. The Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel ruled that spot kick shouldn’t have been awarded on the field, but also said it wasn’t a “clear and obvious” error for the VAR to intervene on.
If you were to ask most fans, they’d likely say the Forest incident is a clear spot kick, while Liverpool’s shouldn’t have been given. Yet VAR protocol means the opposite is true. It’s why VAR causes so much frustration with fans.
Jota gets a spot kick because the VAR found a small amount of contact; the Newcastle goalkeeper catches the leg of Awoniyi with a raised arm, and there’s no VAR intervention. Opposing outcomes can only promote inconsistency in the minds of supporters, yet it’s always likely to happen while VAR uses the weight of the on-field decision over the subjectivity of whoever is sat in the VAR chair.
But that doesn’t mean that the VAR, Tony Harrington, was right not to intervene at Forest. Awoniyi hadn’t changed the direction of his run or placed his foot into the goalkeeper; Dúbravka’s raised arm made contact with the striker when he reached out for the ball as it went past him.
Most perplexing is that Harrington appeared to find the angle which showed clear evidence of the impact of the raised arm, and this should have been given as a spot kick through a VAR intervention.
The incident came when the score was 2-2, with Newcastle going on to win the game 3-2 thanks to a Bruno Guimarães goal a few minutes later.
Possible penalty: Handball by Trippier
What happened: Forest pushed forward two minutes into the second half, with Callum Hudson-Odoi closing down Kieran Trippier. As the Newcastle defender waited for the ball to run across him, it bounced up and touched his hand. Should there have been a penalty?
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Any movement of Trippier’s hand is purely natural, there’s no swiping motion to suggest he was trying to knock it away from Hudson-Odoi.
And most importantly, Trippier was just outside the area so it wouldn’t be a decision for the VAR.
Possible penalty: Delcroix challenge on Jota
What happened: Wataru Endo crossed the ball into the area in the 38th minute, with Jota going to ground under pressure from Hannes Delcroix. Was he pulled to the ground?
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: While there was some holding from the Burnley player, Jota appears to fall into him to give the impression he has been pulled to the floor. Referee Tim Robinson gave a goal kick with the ball floating out of play, and it’s not a situation the VAR, Stuart Attwell, would get involved in.
Possible disallowed goal: Foul by Mac Allister on Ramsey
What happened: Liverpool went 2-1 in front in the 52nd minute when Luis Díaz headed home at the near post from Harvey Elliott’s cross. The VAR began a check for two possible offences: firstly offside, then a foul in the buildup.
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: The offside check was against Elliott, but the midfielder was clearly shown to be behind the last defender. Even though the ball ran to Elliott from the boot of Zeki Amdouni, the deflection off the Burnley player couldn’t be considered a “deliberate play.” That means the offside phase remains active from the touch of Endo onto Amdouni; imagine the reaction had the goal been disallowed under these circumstances.
The possible foul in the buildup by Alexis Mac Allister bears all the hallmarks of an offence, yet there appears to be absolutely no impact on Ramsey. In fact it’s the Liverpool player who ended up on the ground in pain.
Aaron Ramsey takes a heavy touch intercepting a pass from Jota, with Mac Allister appearing to attempt a snap-shot of the loose ball. The Burnley player gets a toe to it first, onto Mac Allister, who then makes a small amount of contact on Ramsey’s shin with his follow through. Ramsey continues playing as Endo makes the challenge on Amdouni, resulting in the goal.
There’s a case for a foul on the field, but despite the nature of Mac Allister’s play of the ball it had no effect on the opponent. A VAR intervention in a situation like this would be against how the Premier League wants it to operate.
Would it have been different had Ramsey had gone down? Very possibly, as the VAR would then have had evidence of impact.
Possible penalty: Handball by Burke
What happened: Sheffield United were on the attack in the 33rd minute. A corner was played in and Vinicius Souza attempted to get a header on goal, which was blocked by Reece Burke. The ball was cleared, but a short time later the VAR, Paul Tierney, told the referee, Chris Kavanagh, to stop play for a review for a possible handball.
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by James McAtee.
VAR review: This is the ultimate modern VAR penalty: a situation which wasn’t noticed by either the officials or any of the Sheffield United players, but which is always likely to result in a spot kick upon video review. The deflection off Burke’s hand affected the trajectory of the ball, causing it to loop up into the hands of goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski. It’s strange that no one actually appealed (the Sheffield United supporters were at the opposite end of the pitch) considering how the handball affected the header.
Burke’s arm is fully extended and creating a clear barrier to Souza’s header. Just as with the VAR penalty which Arsenal’s William Saliba conceded against Chelsea, it might be controversial, but there’s no doubt that the law intends these to be penalised and, in law, it’s a correct VAR intervention.
Possible penalty: Handball by Souza
What happened: Luton Town won a corner in the 49th minute. Elijah Adebayo got his head to Alfie Doughty’s delivery, with the ball hitting Souza. Sheffield United cleared their lines, but again the VAR advised the referee that play should be stopped and he should got to the monitor to look at a handball offence.
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Carlton Morris.
VAR review: Would Tierney have advised a penalty if he hadn’t given the earlier spot kick? Perhaps it created a situation in his mind where he felt he had to give both due to the raised arms, but by the Premier League’s interpretation of handball this shouldn’t be given.
It’s the first of its kind we’ve seen through a VAR intervention this season. While Souza’s arm is raised, it hits him from point-blank range. While having your back to the play isn’t an automatic exemption from handball, you are usually only penalised if if the arm is very clearly away from the body, or outstretched above the head. The arm being high isn’t in itself an automatic handball offence, as we’ve seen on a number of occasions this season.
The expected position of the arm for a player’s movement is a key factor, and this is underlined when there’s an aerial duel.
Take the penalty that Bryan Mbeumo conceded against Newcastle in September, given on the pitch and overturned on review. Trippier had nodded the ball onto the raised arm of the Brentford player from close range, yet the small deflection off his head led to the intervention.
Then in October, Brentford’s Vitaly Janelt headed the ball onto the raised arm of Nottingham Forest defender Nicolás Domínguez as they both jumped for the ball. The VAR chose not to intervene on the grounds of proximity.
Before this game, there had been only two VAR penalties for handball in the Premier League. This was an incorrect VAR intervention and should have been left on the field. It was a great opportunity for a referee to stand by his own decision at the monitor, for what would have been only the second time this season.
Possible red card: Godfrey challenge on Ederson
What happened: Ben Godfrey ran onto a pass from Dwight McNeil in the eighth minute. The ball was running away from him, and he stretched to get a toe it as Éderson came rushing out. The two players collided and the goalkeeper stayed down with an apparent head injury. Was there a case for a red card against the Everton player?
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: If you’re not on social media, then you probably won’t be aware of the controversial aspect of the challenge. It’s not about the collision between Godfrey and Ederson, which was a natural coming together of two players going for a ball. In fact, the City goalkeeper was credited with a save as Godfrey poked the ball towards goal before they slid into each other.
Ederson was down for a couple of minutes with a facial injury, but from one angle it looked like it was caused by kick out from Godfrey, rather than an inadvertent boot to the head. It appeared to be incriminating, yet every other angle gave the impression it was just two players tussling for a loose ball. Neither Ederson nor City defender Nathan Aké, who was stood over them when it happened, made any protests to suggest they thought Godfrey had tried to cause harm.
The incident was checked and cleared by the VAR, Michael Oliver, while Ederson received treatment.
The VAR could have considered two possible red-card offences. Violent conduct for deliberately kicking out at another player, or serious foul play for endangering the safety of an opponent for the way Godfrey tried to reach the ball by throwing his leg forward.
Only Godfrey can say if he knew where Ederson was when he thrust his boot, but it would be difficult for the VAR to be certain the Everton player’s actions were enough to warrant a red card.
Possible penalty: Handball by Tarkowski
What happened: Manchester City had a corner in the second minute of added time in the first half. After a melee inside the area James Tarkowski blocked a shot from Manuel Akanji, but was there a case for a handball penalty?
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Tarkowski had his arm tucked into his body, so while the ball did hit his arm when stopping the effort from Akanji there wouldn’t be a spot kick.
Possible red card: Álvarez challenge on Saka
What happened: The game was only nine minutes old when Edson Álvarez went in for a tackle on Bukayo Saka. Referee Craig Pawson produced a yellow card, but was there a case for the West Ham United player to be sent off?
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: A caution was the correct outcome. While it was a strong challenge and Álvarez was sliding in, contact wasn’t high above the boot. It was reckless, but not dangerous.
Possible red card: Areola challenge on Saka
What happened: Arsenal were awarded a penalty in the 38th minute when Alphonse Areola brought down Saka, who was through on goal. There was no doubt about the spot kick, but was there a case for a red card against the West Ham goalkeeper?
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: The law on denying a goal-scoring opportunity for a foul inside the area was relaxed further at the start of the season. Now, if a player is making an attempt to challenge an opponent for the ball rather than just attempting to play the ball, only a yellow card should be produced.
It means a player is only going to be sent off for the most cynical of challenges, or if an opponent is dragged to the floor.
Even though Saka had pushed the ball past the goalkeeper, there wouldn’t be a VAR review for a red card as the law stands today.
Possible offside: Dawson when scoring
What happened: Wolverhampton Wanderers thought they had equalised in the 50th minute when Craig Dawson scored from close range, but there was a VAR check for a possible offside.
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: A simple offside decision for the VAR, Peter Bankes, thankfully made quicker (by recent standards at least) by the grounded foot being the reference point for both players — meaning there’s no need to plot parts of the upper body to the pitch.
Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.