Video assistant referees cause 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 main events to examine and explain the process in terms of both VAR protocol and the Laws of the Game.
– How VAR decisions have affected each Prem club in 2023-24
– VAR in the Premier League: The Ultimate Guide
In this week’s VAR review: Should Robert Sanchez have accepted a penalty for a challenge on Gabriel Jesus? Also handball decisions involving William Saliba, Michael Keane and Scott McTomine.
Possible penalty: Sanchez on Jesus
What happened: Arsenal win a free kick on the right in the 60th minute. Martin Odegaard Delivered into the area and the ball met Takehiro Tomiyasu, who headed over the bar. However, goalkeeper Robert Sanchez ran out and collided with Gabriel Jesus to try and punch the aerial ball. Referee Chris Kavanagh restarted play with a goal kick for Chelsea.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR Review: Understandably, Arsenal fans have argued that the challenge is no different for Manchester United goalkeeper Andre Onana than for Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Sasa Kaladzic. The incident came in the dying minutes of the opening game of the season at Old Trafford, with VAR failing to intervene and advise a penalty kick. This is the PGMOL admitting that an error was made and a spot kick should have been awarded.
But there are some differences which certainly mean that the PGMOL will not react like Onana, removing referees and VAR from the next round of play.
VAR must decide whether the goalkeeper is making a genuine effort to play the ball. Of course, that doesn’t mean a goalkeeper can play recklessly — which many would think Sanchez does, and that could easily be a given. Unlike Onana this is more of a borderline situation, in terms of how VAR is applied for a clear and obvious error. Sanchez clashed with a group of players, including Jesus and his own teammates, as he tried to punch clear.
Tomiyasu was also tackled by Thiago Silva, but certainly not enough for a penalty.
As Onana initially tried to play the ball, the Manchester United goalkeeper realized he had no chance of winning and dragged Kaladzic to the ground with both arms. It was an extra step to foul the opponent after failing to win the aerial ball.
Every week, there are many incidents in the VAR review that have created a big reaction among the social media and the pundits. When these are assessed by an independent Key Match Incidents Panel within the framework of the law, very few are considered errors. Indeed, there were several controversial situations last week before the international break — including red cards Pascal Gross And Mateo Kovacic, and a penalty against Matt Doherty — but no VAR error was logged.
Potential red card: Palmer’s challenge to Jesus
What happened: Cole Palmer was booked in the eighth minute for catching Jesus with a late challenge. But the referee should have shown the red card? VAR has initiated a check.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR Review: It was clearly not a good tackle from the Chelsea midfielder but it certainly did not reach the VAR intervention threshold for a red card.
Contact was low, not over the ankle and without excessive force. A yellow card was an acceptable disciplinary result and the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel must have upheld it. Indeed, the panel said that Odegaard Kovacic’s tackle was not a clear and obvious foul for VAR to intervene with a red card — even though referee Michael Oliver should have made the decision on the field, both for the initial red and possible second yellow. card card
Possible Penalty: Crucifix Handball
What happened: Raheem Sterling crossed the ball in the 11th minute, Mykhailo Mudrić headed home under pressure from William Saliba. The Chelsea players called for a penalty when the ball hit an 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 the fans think 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 is a very high probability that a penalty will be awarded.
While the expected position of the arms is important to a player’s action and proximity, these are only mitigating factors that, if the arm is well away from the body, create an obvious barrier.
It can be expected that Saliba’s arm will remain in that position during the jump, but at the same time he is considered to be risking the arm fully extending.
We can compare this to the penalty appeal against West Ham United’s James Ward-Prowse at Luton Town: when his arm was up it was not fully extended or raised above his head, and therefore escaped VAR review.
Then there’s Nicholas Jackson, who avoided a penalty review on the opening weekend of the season against Liverpool after the ball hit his hands from too close. So are we back to proximity? Partially, however, Jackson’s arm was close to his body rather than fully extended.
Compare that to the spot kick awarded by Wolves at Luton, when Joao Gomes made a block and the ball hit his arm, which went over his head. Despite the ball moving away from his own body, the arm is so high that it negates the mitigating factor.
As a VAR review in August explained, there is always the possibility of a borderline decision and this was the case with Christian Romero’s potential handball for Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester United. When Romero’s arms were away from the body, he was saved by not being fully extended — unlike Saliba and Gomez.
The panel has yet to make any judgments on VAR decisions on defensive handball errors this season.
Possible Penalty: Foul by Patterson on Diaz
What happened: Luis Diaz asked for a penalty in the 70th minute when he felt he had been caught. Nathan Patterson. Referee Craig Pawson was not keen on the spot kick.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR Review: This is consistent with the VAR review for penalties this season. Although there may have been a small amount of contact with Patterson as he slid in to block a potential cross from Diaz, it didn’t seem like enough to get him up in the air.
Although we’ve seen a few penalties awarded by referees for minor contact — see Dominik Soboszlai go down under a challenge from AFC Bournemouth’s Joe Rothwell — that’s not usually from VAR.
Possible Penalty: Handball by Keane
What happened: Diaz tried to break into the area and the ball hit Michael Keane’s outstretched arm. Referee Pawson decided not to award a penalty but VAR, David Coote, soon got involved (See here.)
VAR decision: Mohamed Salah scored from the penalty.
VAR Review: An easy decision for VAR, and one that really should have been made by the on-field team without the need for a video assistant.
The ball could have hit Keane from close range but as was the case with Saliba, the arm was fully extended away from the body. This is a clear offense by Keane and is always going to be punished with a penalty kick.
Potential Penalty: McTomin’s handball
What happened: Sheffield United were awarded a penalty in the 31st minute when Scott McTominay was adjudged to have handled James McAtee’s cross. VAR, John Brooks, checked that referee Michael Oliver’s decision was correct.
VAR decision: Oliver McBurney scored from the penalty spot.
VAR Review: There was a clear movement towards the ball when McTomin’s hands were close to his body. This is a deliberate act and makes a fine.
If the ball had hit McTomin’s arm as he tried to retract it into his body, it would not have been a spot kick.
Probable offside overturned: Ajer on Maupay goal
What happened: Brentford thought they had taken the lead in the seventh minute. Brian Mbeumo took the free kick, Nathan Collins helped it across the area and Neil Maupe headed home. However, the flag immediately became offside.
VAR decision: no goal
VAR Review: Much of the confusion surrounding the decision came from a mistake on the big screen inside the stadium. It showed that the offside decision was against Collins, but it was actually Christopher Azar who was flagged.
When Mbeumo played the ball, Hazard held up Burnley’s Lyle Foster and the assistant judged that this prevented an opponent from challenging for the ball from an offside position. It is doubtful that VAR was involved in denying the goal, but it is also an acceptable decision subjectively.
The assistant does not have to feel that Foster will win the ball or even decide to make a challenge, he is simply judging that the player in an offside position has affected his ability to do so.
Portions of this article incorporate information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.