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 2022-23
– VAR in the Premier League: The Ultimate Guide
In this week’s VAR review: Should West Ham United have been awarded a penalty for handball on Manchester United defender Victor Lindelof? Was it right to have their goal disallowed for Micheal Antonio’s foul on David De Gea? Why was Newcastle United’s penalty disallowed against Arsenal? And when a fine is a soft punishment?
Possible Penalty: Handball by Lindelof
What happened: With West Ham already 1-0 up in first-half stoppage time, Side Benrahma attempted a cross into the box and the ball hit the hands of Manchester United centre-back Victor Lindelof. Referee Peter Banks waved away the penalty appeal and United cleared the field.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR Review: The confusing state of handball law, the list of factors a VAR must take into account and the high threshold for interference all combined in the incident, meaning West Ham were denied a penalty that should have been awarded.
A high threshold is intended to limit the impact on the game, but a VAR can sometimes overthink an incident, when a reversal is the most obvious result. A VAR may find a reason not to change a subjective decision, rather than achieving the result that most fans and players would expect.
With the high bar also comes limited use of pitchside monitors, allowing a referee to change his decision and not just take a second look. So, VAR won’t just send the referee off if he thinks it might be wrong — he must be convinced it was wrong.
The VAR for this game, Stuart Atwell, applied the disqualification rule that the player’s hands were not far from his body and the ball would have hit his chest if it had not hit his hands. The argument is that he did not prevent the ball from reaching its intended destination, as it would have been stopped by his body. However, an apparent deliberate hand movement to the ball by Lindelof negated this, and a penalty should have resulted.
On Monday, the Premier League will for the first time release audio of some controversial VAR decisions in a pilot show, intended to improve transparency. Being able to hear how the decisions were reached would be a huge step, although it is unlikely to help in situations where VAR reaches the wrong result.
Howard Webb, the chief refereeing officer, wants to roll it out more regularly this season, but it can only be in the days after a match because FIFA still bans any competition from playing VAR discussions live.
Possible goal: Foul by Antonio on De Gea
What happened: In the 52nd minute, West Ham thought they had scored a second goal when Michael Antonio challenged David de Gea, and poked home the loose ball. However, referee Bankes disallowed the goal for a foul on the goalkeeper.
VAR decision: no goal
VAR Review: Perhaps a soft foul we can see, but when a striker puts himself in a position where the goalkeeper cannot use his arms to get to the ball, it can always be given and certainly not reversed. VAR
That said, De Gea doesn’t always benefit from such decisions. In December 2019, he conceded a goal against Everton in apparently similar circumstances. Dominic Calvert-Lewin had his hands all over the Spain international during which no foul was given; VAR backed it up and did not intervene to sanction it.
Penalty overturned: No handball by Cuyo
What happened: Newcastle United thought they had a chance to take the lead from the penalty spot in the seventh minute when referee Chris Kavanagh booked Jakub Kiwior for handball on Bruno Guimaraes’ shot. VAR had to check there was an offence.
VAR decision: Penalty waived.
VAR Review: It took a while for VAR, Michael Salisbury, to decide to send the referee to the monitor, in what appeared to be a fairly straight-forward review.
It soon became clear that the ball had come from Kiwior’s thigh, and even if it had touched his arm, it had not been far from his body. Also, if a player pulls his arm across his body that carries a concession against handball. The only possible case of a spot kick is if the goalkeeper deliberately moves his hand towards the ball without trying to put it into his body.
It took a long time, about three minutes from award to cancellation, but eventually came to the right conclusion.
Possible Penalty: Foul on Solanke Silva
What happened: In the 67th minute, Dominique Solanke felt Thiago Silva should have been awarded a penalty kick after going under a tackle. Referee John Brooks turned down the appeal.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR Review: This weekend marks the first of a series of penalty decisions that go to the heart of VAR protocol and when an intervention is expected.
The ball goes to the right from Silver’s challenge, which will give the referee the impression that a Chelsea defender has received the ball.
However, the replay shows that it actually got touched by Solank, so does that make it a clear and obvious error? If the referee doesn’t have the incident as described in the VAR, does that automatically mean he should be sent to the monitor? This would probably be the case if there was a lower threshold for intervention, but VAR in the Premier League, in which case Peter Banks would be looking for a smoking gun. Can he really be sure that there is a foul challenge, even if the defender doesn’t actually touch the ball?
Silva’s contact with Solanke was minimal, so not awarding the penalty kick would not have been considered a mistake if the referee felt the defender had received the ball. But as we’ll see in the next match, evidence of contact can mean a penalty must stand even if the award is soft.
Possible Penalty Reversal: Surrey fouls Lavia
What happened: Southampton received a penalty in the 94th minute. Referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot after seeing Sam Surridge’s contact with Romeo Lavier’s boot. But was it enough for the penalty?
VAR decision: James Ward-Prowse scored the penalty.
VAR Review: A very soft penalty, but once the referee awards it and the VAR, Paul Tierney, detects the defender’s contact with the attacker, the penalty should stand.
If Oliver hadn’t given the penalty, the chances of a penalty being awarded via VAR are slim — just like Solank’s. Since the level of communication was insignificant, not punishing would not be considered a clear and obvious error. But since familiarity was present, it is not a clear and obvious error to award it. You can forgive fans for being confused about this.
The protocol is the same across leagues right up to UEFA competitions.
Potential penalty overturned: Leno foul on Vardy
What happened: Leicester City were awarded a penalty in the 64th minute when Jamie Vardy got the ball past Fulham goalkeeper Bernd Leno. Referee Robert Jones points to the penalty spot.
VAR decision: The penalty stands, Vardy misses.
VAR Review: Another review that seemed to take much longer than necessary with VAR, Jared Gillett, looked at different angles to determine if Leno had touched the ball before colliding with Vardy.
A penalty appeared to be the correct decision from the first replay, and if the VAR needed to look at so many different angles for evidence of touch, it is questionable whether it could be considered a clear and obvious error to award the spot kick.
Potential Penalty Overturned: Palhinha fouls on Madison
What happened: Leicester were awarded a second penalty in the 80th minute when James Maddison tripped Joao Palhinha as he turned inside – but the Fulham player was adamant he did not touch the midfielder.
VAR decision: Maddison scored the penalty.
VAR Review: For all Palhinha’s protests, there was precise contact with Maddison, with the Fulham midfielder giving up a back foot to stop his progress.
As with other on-field penalties awarded this weekend, VAR had no chance of overturning. The contact was there and the penalty was paid, so it will not be overturned.
Potential Penalty Reversal: Struik foul on Foden
What happened: Phil Foden won an 83rd-minute penalty after he was brought down by Pascal Struijc and referee Andy Madley pointed to the spot. VAR, Simon Hooper’s decision was quickly scrutinized.
VAR decision: Ilkay Gundogan missed the penalty.
VAR Review: The Leeds United player’s reaction said it all, with Struik clearly playing the man rather than the ball. Strujczak puts his left foot across Foden, which forces the Man City player to the ground.
It will always stand as a penalty and there is no reason for VAR to get involved.
This story uses information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.