VAR causes controversy every week in the Premier League, but how are decisions made and are they correct?

After each weekend, we take a look the most high-profile incidents and examine the process both in terms of VAR protocol and the Laws of the Game.

This weekend saw most of the contentious incidents wrapped up in just two matches — Arsenal vs. Manchester United and Liverpool vs. Everton.

VAR’s wildest moments: Alisson’s two red cards in one game
How VAR has affected every Premier League club
VAR in the Premier League: Ultimate guide

Arsenal 3-1 Man United

Possible penalty: Cedric handball

What happened: Arsenal were 1-0 up in the 23rd minute when United’s Jadon Sancho attempted to burst into the box ahead of Cedric Soares. The Arsenal defender had lost his balance and ended up in a crawling motion as Sancho tried to go past him. The ball hit Cedric’s hand and Martin Odegaard was able to collect the loose ball and clear.

VAR decision: No penalty. The VAR, Jarret Gillet, ruled that Cedric’s arm position was justifiable by his body movement and therefore no spot kick should be awarded.

VAR Review: This is a subjective handball decision which would certainly have stayed as a penalty if referee Craig Pawson had awarded it on the field of play. In fact, had handball been awarded it may have resulted in a red card for Cedric for denying a goal-scoring opportunity.

There are two key points the VAR took into account when making the decision:

– Not every contact between the hand/arm and the ball is a handball offence.
– Referees must judge the “validity'” of the hand/arm’s position in relation to what the player is doing in that particular situation.

Having fallen to the floor, it was justifiable that Cedric’s arm would be where it was, supporting the body. In fact, guidance issued to referees specifically says that this should not be considered as handball.

However, there is a separate question of a deliberate act of handball, which would supersede any other consideration. Did Cedric scoop the ball rather than it simply hitting his arm? It’s fair to say that had the VAR advised a red card here no one would have been too surprised, but the Premier League’s high bar ensures we don’t always get the decision we might expect.

Goal disallowed: Offside against Nketiah
Penalty: Foul by Telles on Saka

What happened: Arsenal still held a 1-0 lead when Eddie Nketiah thought he had added a second goal. As the ball was played through, Bukayo Saka went to the ground under a challenge from Alex Telles.

VAR decision: First of all the VAR reviewed the goal, and Nketiah was shown to be offside when the ball came off Saka. Therefore, the goal was disallowed. There was then a second review for Telles’ challenge on Saka and a penalty was awarded.

VAR Review: The first decision to disallow the goal for offside was undoubtedly correct, as Nketiah was ahead of the last defender when the ball hit Saka. But the penalty decision is more subjective.

It’s an area of VAR which will always bring perceived inconsistencies, because each VAR is making judgements on individual situations, taking into account what the referee says he has seen. Every VAR will have his own subjective judgement, just as referees will often disagree on penalty incidents.

There is no doubt that in this incident Saka is about to control the ball when Telles uses his upper body to send the Arsenal forward off balance. But would this have resulted in a VAR penalty if Nketiah’s shot was saved by David de Gea?

In fact, referee Pawson had already judged the challenge as a penalty but allowed to play to run for Nketiah to score. But once Nketiah has scored, the goal cannot be allowed due to the offside offence. Pawson and the VAR still had to go through the VAR protocol of reviewing the incident at the monitor, though the referee already believed it was a penalty.

After this penalty was awarded, United fans will ask questions about two challenges on Anthony Elanga by Tavares. On these, Gillet decided it was not a clear and obvious error by the referee. The challenge from Telles on Saka was certainly more forceful and there was no attempt to play the ball, but many will feel there wasn’t a huge amount of difference in Nuno Tavares‘s challenges on Elanga. On the first there was an arm on the shoulder, and the second Tavares looked to be leaning into Elanga. There’s no doubt that had referee Pawson given a penalty in either of these situations, VAR Gillet would not have advised the referee he had made an error.

Goal disallowed: Ronaldo offside

What happened: Cristiano Ronaldo thought he had made it 2-2, but the flag went up for offside after he had scored.

VAR decision: The VAR upheld the decision of the linesman, with Ronaldo judged to be marginally ahead of the last Arsenal defender, who was Ben White.

VAR Review: At the start of the season there was a change to the way VAR offside is operated in all the major leagues, and in UEFA competitions, to remove “toenail offsides.” What this actually means has been slightly misunderstood, as while the really close decisions have now been removed you will still get marginal offsides. There will always be a point when a player becomes 0.1cm offside, wherever the “benefit of the doubt” tolerance level ends.

Offside is given if the blue defensive and red attacking lines do not touch. If the lines touch, a single green line is used to show an attacker is onside within the “benefit of the doubt” tolerance.

In the case of Ronaldo, this is one of the closest decisions of this kind we have seen, but the lines do not touch so the only decision can be offside.

It is similar to Brighton’s 78th-minute disallowed goal against Southampton, as Pascal Gross was shown to be marginally ahead of the last defender. We have seen many decisions such as this, and they aren’t palatable to fans, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.

Xhaka goal allowed: No offside against Nketiah

What happened: Granit Xhaka scored Arsenal’s third goal in the 70th minute, firing home from long range. Nketiah appeared to be offside in De Gea’s line of vision when the the shot was hit.

VAR decision: The goal was allowed to stand as Nketiah was judged not to have had a material impact on goal due to the distance the ball travelled and the Arsenal striker not being close to the goalkeeper.

VAR Review: Subjective offside, specifically when a player is in the line of vision of the goalkeeper, has been a big talking point this season. What has become clear is the VAR will only get involved in such decisions when he feels there is a clear offence, and it will largely be left to the on-field officials.

When goals have been disallowed for contentious subjective offside calls, for instance both Leicester’s goals at Brighton earlier in the season, the decision was taken on the pitch. As the decisions were not subjectively wrong the VAR did not get involved.

We have seen several examples similar to the Nketiah offside situation, and in each one the VAR has not advised an overturn due to the distance the ball has travelled, which means the goalkeeper is judged to have time to react.

These include, but are not limited to:
Rodrigo‘s goal for Leeds against Norwich
Mateo Kovacic‘s goal for Chelsea against
Daniel Podence‘s goal for Wolves against Leicester

Whether a goalkeeper will save the ball isn’t a consideration, only how much he has been impacted. If the assistant had disallowed this goal, it would not have been allowed by the VAR.

Possible red card: Fernandes challenge on Tavares

What happened: In the 76th minute, with Arsenal 3-1 up, Bruno Fernandes caught Tavares with a late challenge. Referee Pawson, who could see the challenge clearly, gave the Portugal international a yellow card.

VAR decision: No red card. The VAR decided that a yellow card was justifiable and should not be upgraded.

VAR Review: This comes down to how VAR is used in the Premier League, and the high threshold for interventions. Most would say this should have been a red card for Fernandes.

Fernandes has previous for this type of challenge, including when he caught Xhaka after the ball had gone in the meeting between these sides in January 2021.

The VAR will try to assess whether or not the decision of the referee to show a yellow card is incorrect. The contact by Fernandes on Tavares wasn’t high above the ankle, and didn’t have a high level of force. For that reason, it wouldn’t be considered a clear and obvious error to show a yellow card.

The issue is that Fernandes’ only intention is to make contact with his opponent, and he does so with the sole of his boot (studs) leading. There is no intention to play the ball, in fact he doesn’t even begin his challenge until the ball is gone.

It means that the Premier League’s “high bar” makes it difficult for the VAR to advise a red card, but you’d expect this to be a red card in any other top league, and in UEFA competition.

Possible red card: Mane on Holgate

What happened: Players from both teams had a heated exchange after Richarlison was down for an extended period and the ball remained in play. Liverpool striker Sadio Mane had altercations with two Everton players, first with Allan and then with Mason Holgate, after which the Liverpool forward was booked for adopting an aggressive attitude.

VAR decision: Neither incident was deemed worthy of a red card, thus the VAR, Darren England, did not advise referee Stuart Attwell to go to the monitor.

VAR review: This is all about how referees now judge players who raise their hands, and the limitations of VAR protocol.

It used to be that if a player raised his hands to another player’s face it was judged as a red-card offence, but this has changed. A referee will now take into account the level of force or brutality used. If this isn’t present, only a yellow card will be shown.

In Mane’s case, the on-pitch refereeing team saw the one instance of the Liverpool forward raising his hands, and he was booked for this. So why wasn’t Attwell advised about the second? Quite simply, it would only be a yellow card and the VAR cannot get involved. Only direct red cards can be advised by the VAR, and not second yellows leading to a red.

Possible penalty: Matip on Gordon

What happened: It was 0-0 when Anthony Gordon went down in the box under a challenge from Joel Matip. Referee Attwell waved away claims for a penalty.

VAR decision: It was reviewed for a possible penalty but ruled not to be a clear and obvious error by the referee.

VAR review: A lot of people may feel this should have been a penalty to Everton, and there is no doubt it wouldn’t have been overturned had Attwell pointed to the spot. Which of course brings us, once again, to the high threshold in the Premier League.

We’ve seen many incidents like this across the season, and it’s not too dissimilar to the first incident between Elanga and Tavares in the Arsenal vs. Man United game.

There isn’t definitive evidence in the replays of a clear foul by Matip, even with the arm on the shoulder, which is why the VAR chose not to advise a pitchside review for a penalty. It does appear to be consistent with other such VAR decisions.

Possible red card: Richarlison on Henderson

What happened: In the first minute of added time there was a skirmish between on the touchline which saw Richarlison push his leg through into Jordan Henderson‘s.

VAR decision: As referee Attwell had shown a yellow card, like other decisions this was not judged to be incorrect.

VAR review: The key factor is that Richarlison did not pull his leg back and connect with Henderson, thus using force as part of the challenge.

While Richarlison was definitely high on Henderson, this was more a consequence of how he had fallen to the ground rather than a conscious raising of the leg. While he pushed through on Henderson’s leg, it was not considered to have the intensity necessary to warrant a VAR red card — though it would not have been downgraded had Attwell sent the player off on the field.

Chelsea 1-0 West Ham

What happened: Chelsea were awarded a penalty in the 85th minute after Romelu Lukaku was dragged back inside the box. Referee Michael Oliver showed a yellow card to Craig Dawson.

VAR decision: The VAR, Paul Tierney, told Oliver that Dawson had denied Lukaku a clear goal-scoring opportunity and advised he upgrade the yellow card to a red. Triple jeopardy, whereby a player is only booked inside the area for denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity, does not apply when the offence is pulling.

VAR review: Was it a clear and obvious error for Oliver to only show a yellow card in this incident? It’s hard to say that it was, when you consider other incidents we have discussed under this banner and the Premier League’s high bar for intervention.

You can certainly argue that Lukaku was denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity, but at the same time you can also make the case that goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski would have got to the ball before the Chelsea striker.

It’s a harsh VAR red card, and again reminds us that the subjectivity of the VAR is crucial. On another day with a different VAR this would not have been advised as a red card. Dawson can count himself very unlucky to miss Sunday’s game at home to Arsenal through suspension. It doesn’t mean the red card is incorrect, just that it probably wasn’t necessary for the VAR to get involved.

Information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL was used in this story.

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