VAR Review: Why Liverpool, Arsenal penalties stood; why Wolves' goal was disallowed

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: Liverpool and Arsenal both got contentious penalties in their respective games against Manchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion, while Wolverhampton Wanderers were furious that their late equaliser against West Ham United was ruled out for offside. Here’s what happened across all the big incidents over the weekend.

Possible penalty overturn: Wan-Bissaka challenge on Elliott

What happened: Harvey Elliott broke into the penalty area in the 82nd minute, nudged the ball past Aaron Wan-Bissaka and went to ground. Referee Anthony Taylor immediately pointed to the spot, but was there contact on the Liverpool player?

VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Mohamed Salah.

VAR review: Elliott uses the challenge of Wan-Bissaka to win a penalty, but this doesn’t make it a dive, or simulation.

We see many variations on this kind of penalty, when a defending player dives in and gets nowhere near the ball with the attacker accepting the contact and going down. Elliott is under no obligation to hurdle Wan-Bissaka as the defender stretches out in front of him.

If Elliott had clearly moved a leg out of his running stride to ensure there was contact that could be grounds for a VAR review, but this was a quick and easy check for the VAR, John Brooks.

Possible offside: Chirewa on Kilman goal

What happened: Wolves thought they had equalised in the ninth minute of added time when Max Kilman headed home from a corner. However, while the home team celebrated, the VAR had begun a check for a possible offside offence by Tawanda Chirewa, with referee Tony Harrington sent to the monitor.

VAR decision: Goal disallowed.

VAR review: “It was a terrible decision,” Wolves boss Gary O’Neil said after the game. “It is possibly the worst decision I have ever seen. If your knowledge and understanding of the game is really poor, you could reach the conclusion that is offside.”

O’Neil has had plenty of reason to complain this season, with a number of terrible VAR decisions going against his team. Wolves have suffered three VAR mistakes — only Liverpool and Nottingham Forest have more — while they are the only team in the Premier League not to have a single VAR overturn in their favour all season.

You can argue against the law, but his anger is misplaced against the officials and it’s a very easy overturn for the VAR, Tim Robinson.

If a player is stood directly in front of the goalkeeper in the line of vision to the ball, the goal will almost always be ruled out. Line of vision doesn’t only have to mean that goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski can’t see the ball; Chirewa’s presence so close to him can impact his decision-making to move for it as well.

It’s not a consideration that Fabianski has no chance of saving the ball, the law only requires that Chirewa’s actions prevent him “from playing or being able to play the ball” — ergo, could Fabianski have done something different if the Wolves player wasn’t stood in front of him?

Arguing that Fabianski should move out of the way of Chirewa only underlines that the goalkeeper is impacted. If goals such as this aren’t disallowed, it effectively gives attackers the right to stand in front of a goalkeeper when offside as long as the shot on goal isn’t straight at them.

These offside decisions, where the ball goes into the corner, always look harsh but if the shot is from a close distance there’s little chance the goal will stand — and it’s not the first time this season the law has been applied in this way. However, on the previous occasions the disallowed goal did not affect the result of the match, which may be why it caused less controversy.

In September, Manchester United’s Jonny Evans had a goal ruled out for offside as Rasmus Højlund was stood in front of James Trafford when the ball was headed — though admittedly it went much closer to the Burnley goalkeeper. The referee for that match was also Harrington.

Another goal was disallowed in a Burnley game when a Harvey Elliott strike for Liverpool was chalked off at Turf Moor when Mohamed Salah was in front of Trafford when the shot was taken.

And in February, it was Burnley’s turn to have a goal disallowed when 3-0 down at Crystal Palace. David Datro Fofana headed home from just inside the six-yard box, but a VAR review ruled Lorenz Assignon was in an offside position in front of Sam Johnstone. It’s unlikely the goalkeeper would have prevented the goal, but the VAR only has to determine that he was impacted.

In all three games, the Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel unanimously voted that offside was the correct decision.

And these kind of offside decision are given without a VAR intervention too. A near carbon copy incident came in the match between Norwich City and Leicester City in August 2021. Kenny McLean headed home from a corner with the goal being ruled out because Todd Cantwell was in offside and stood directly in front of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. McLean’s header went into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal, away from Schmeichel, but it was still disallowed.

The frustration of decisions like this is the unexpected nature of them — goals being disallowed for seemingly innocuous situations, unseen as it happened, is one of the most annoying aspects of VAR. Moving to a “challenge” system, whereby managers get a set number of appeals per game, would reduce some of the negative impact but to suggest goals such as this wouldn’t go to VAR is fanciful.

If you have a challenge system, clubs would have a member of staff whose sole job was to look at a goal and to find a case for an appeal. As soon as the West Ham bench saw Chirewa in front of their goalkeeper in an offside position there would be an immediate challenge.

Possible penalty overturn: Emerson challenge on Aït-Nouri

What happened: Wolves were awarded a penalty in the 30th minute when Rayan Aït-Nouri was brought down in the area by Emerson. Referee Harrington pointed to the spot with the decision checked by the VAR.

VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Pablo Sarabia.

VAR review: There might only have been a small amount of contact on Aït-Nouri, but Emerson dived in as the Wolves player ran in on goal and there’s no prospect of a VAR overturn once the spot kick has been given on-field.

Possible goal: No foul by Emerson on Semedo

What happened: West Ham had a goal ruled on in the 63rd minute when the referee deemed Emerson had fouled Nélson Semedo before he headed home at the far post. The VAR checked for a possible foul.

VAR decision: No goal.

VAR review: While it may seem a soft on-field decision, Emerson stands on the foot of Semedo as the cross comes over, causing the Wolves player to go down and leaving a free header for the attacker.

Once the VAR identifies that Semedo has been stood on, the referee’s decision won’t be overturned.

Possible penalty overturn: Lamptey challenge on Jesus

What happened: Arsenal were awarded a penalty in the 31st minute when referee John Brooks deemed that Tariq Lamptey had brought down Gabriel Jesus just inside the area. It looked like Lamptey got a slight touch on the ball with the decision checked by the VAR, Robert Jones (watch here).

VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Bukayo Saka.

VAR review: Getting a touch on the ball can have a bearing on a penalty incident, and the VAR would have considered this; yet just as important is the context of the situation and the nature of the challenge.

If two players are involved in a 50-50 battle for the ball, and there’s contact on the opponent after a touch on the ball it’s far less likely the referee, and indeed the VAR, will see an offence — especially if the contact on the other player is also slight.

However, in this case Jesus had control of the ball and was moving forward into the box. Even though Lamptey did get a small touch on the ball, this wouldn’t have prevented Jesus from maintaining possession into the penalty area. Lamptey then makes clear contact on Jesus on the shin with a sweeping motion, and hooks the Arsenal attacker’s leg.

Even if this hadn’t been awarded on the field it would likely have been a VAR review for a spot kick.

Possible red card: Violent conduct by Maddison on Yates

What happened: James Maddison and Ryan Yates were involved in an altercation just before half-time, with the Nottingham Forest player going to ground holding his stomach. When the ball went out of play, Yates made the VAR signal to referee Simon Hooper three times. Michael Salisbury checked for possible violent conduct and a red card for the Tottenham Hotspur player.

VAR decision: No red card.

VAR review: This is a review for a serious missed incident, as it wasn’t seen by any of the on-field officials. It then comes down solely to the VAR’s discretion to determine if there’s definitive proof.

Maddison took a huge risk, but is there enough evidence to confirm an act of violent conduct? The laws around this were relaxed several years ago to prevent the kind of red card England’s David Beckham received against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup — effectively making a distinction between a petulant act and a violent act.

From the available replays it’s not possible to identify a clenched fist from Maddison, while it’s difficult to say that the act involved “excessive force or brutality.” If there were more conclusive angles available to the VAR it’s more likely he’d get involved, but there doesn’t seem to be enough to fully justify a red card review.

Yates is also lucky, however, as he was already on a yellow card when he made the VAR sign. This is a yellow-card offence, though only if the player does it excessively. Whether making the signal a few times crosses that threshold for a yellow card would be up to the referee, who chose to give the Forest player a warning instead.

No retrospective action is possible from the Football Association because it was reviewed by the VAR.

Possible red card: Danilo foul on Lo Celso

What happened: Danilo made a clearance in the 78th minute, and caught Giovani Lo Celso around the knee area with his follow-through. The referee showed a yellow card, with the decision checked by the VAR.

VAR decision: No red card.

VAR review: This is about judging how a player has gone into the challenge as well as the force involved. That Danilo is clearing the ball, rather than attempting to challenge an opponent, makes a difference — and we have an example of an incorrect VAR intervention from a previous season in similar circumstances.

West Ham’s Fabián Balbuena cleared the ball, with his foot landing on the leg of Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell. After a VAR review Balbuena was shown a red card, a decision which the Hammers got overturned on appeal.

Possible red card overturn: O’Shea foul on McNeil

What happened: Dara O’Shea was sent off in the 67th minute after he brought down Dwight McNeil. The Everton midfielder had pounced on poor control from O’Shea to get a foot on the ball. Referee Michael Oliver deemed that McNeil would have been through on goal, and produced a straight red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO).

VAR decision: Red card stands.

VAR review: This was a questionable red-card decision, and the frustration of Burnley boss Vincent Kompany is understandable.

While McNeil wins the ball and pushes it forward towards goal, it goes a long way in front of him and there has to be clear doubt that he would be able to get onto the ball before goalkeeper Aro Muric — therefore this shouldn’t be considered as a DOGSO offence.

David Coote, on VAR, should have told Oliver to review it to downgrade to a yellow, and it’s very likely there will be an appeal against the red card.

Possible penalty or red card: Berge challenge on Beto

What happened: Beto raced through on goal in the 87th minute before going to ground under a challenge from Sander Berge. Referee Oliver wasn’t interested in claims for a foul.

VAR decision: No penalty or red card.

VAR review: While there is a case for a foul by Berge, the contact on Beto is inside the D rather than in the box, so there can be no penalty.

As the possible foul is outside the area, that opens up a case for a DOGSO red card. Luckily for Berge, Beto takes a heavy touch which brings Muric into play and means there probably wasn’t an obvious goal-scoring chance, so the VAR cannot get involved.

Possible penalty: Rodriguez challenge on Garner

What happened: James Garner had the ball just inside the area in the third minute of added time and looked to move the ball to right. Jay Rodríguez made a challenge and made some contact with Garner, but referee Oliver waved away the penalty claim.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: Much like Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s penalty appeal against Bournemouth last weekend, there wasn’t enough contact by Rodriguez for the VAR to judge that Garner has been brought down.

The Independent Panel ruled that 4-1 that the challenge on Calvert-Lewin wasn’t a penalty.

Possible red card: Robinson challenge on Palmer

What happened: Jack Robinson was booked by referee Robert Jones in the 58th minute after a bad challenge on Cole Palmer. The VAR, Paul Tierney, checked for a possible red card.

VAR decision: No red card.

VAR review: There have been four missed red cards for serious foul play in the Premier League this season, and there’s a chance this will be a fifth. Robinson goes into the challenge with force and catches Palmer around the calf area.

That Palmer didn’t have his leg planted probably saved him from injury, and gave the impression that a yellow card would be an acceptable disciplinary outcome — but this is right on the borderline.

Casemiro made a similar challenge on Luis Díaz in the final minute of Manchester United’s game against Liverpool. The Brazilian was shown a yellow for that tackle, and the low point of contact saved him from a possible red card — a yellow card may be seen as acceptable in this case but there’s an argument that he was off the ground and out of control.

Possible penalty: Gvardiol challenge on Eze

What happened: Eberechi Eze looked to collect the ball inside the area in the 45th minute, but went to ground under a challenge from Josko Gvardiol. Referee Paul Tierney ignored the claims for a spot kick with the decision checked by the VAR, Stuart Attwell.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: Gvardiol is clumsy in the way he challenges Eze, but with Tierney having a clear view of the incident it’s not going to be given as a penalty on VAR review.

Possible foul: Burn on Bassey before Schär goal

What happened: Newcastle United took the lead in the 75th minute from a corner routine, with Fabian Schär firing home at the back post after the ball had evaded everyone in the centre of the box. However, the VAR initiated a review for a possible foul by Dan Burn on Calvin Bassey.

VAR decision: Goal disallowed.

VAR review: After Anthony Gordon’s goal for Newcastle against Arsenal was allowed to stand despite Alexander Isak having his hands on the back of Gabriel, Gunners fans might ask what the difference is for the VAR to get involved at Craven Cottage.

These situations are always going to be subjective, and rely on the opinion of the VAR for each individual game and what their threshold for a foul is.

Jarred Gillett as VAR has deemed that by leading with his arms into the neck of Bassey, Burn has prevented the Fulham player from being able to challenge for the ball. It’s a strong for the VAR intervention to be warranted, but there will doubtless be other incidents that appear similar which don’t lead to the goal being disallowed.

Possible penalty: Jorgensen challenge on Carlos

What happened: The game was in the 34th minute when Aston Villa had a corner. As the ball was delivered into the area, Diego Carlos went to ground in a tussle with Mathias Jorgensen. Referee Michael Salisbury gave a free kick to Brentford, but Villa wanted a penalty.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: This could easily have been a spot kick, and it certainly wasn’t a foul by Carlos — though the VAR will only get involved if they think a penalty incident has been missed, rather than a free kick being wrongly awarded.

The VAR, Chris Kavanagh, has deemed that Carlos was leaning into Jorgensen before the Aston Villa player went to ground. That’s probably just about an acceptable interpretation of events, but Jorgensen was fortunate.

Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.

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