The Video Assistant Referee causes controversy every week, and we're taking a look at all the big incidents. On Saturday, Marcus Rashford thought he had given Manchester United the lead in their 3-1 win over Reading in the FA Cup (stream a replay on ESPN+, U.S. only), only for the goal to be ruled out for offside in the buildup. Was it correct, and how does it compare to other recent decisions?
- How VAR decisions affected every Prem club in 2022-23
- VAR in the Premier League: Ultimate guide
What happened: In the 35th minute, Casemiro attempted to play a through-ball that Reading defender Thomas Holmes tried to intercept. The ball looped up and fell to Wout Weghorst, who headed across the face of goal for Rashford to score from close range.
After a VAR review, the goal was disallowed as Weghorst was in an offside position when Casemiro played the ball, and the striker was the next United player to become involved (watch here.)
Marcus Rashford gives Manchester United the lead, but the goal is disqualified after VAR rules offside.
VAR review: Even though Casemiro wasn't attempting to pass the ball to Weghorst, this is irrelevant in the offside law. The moment of the pass sets the offside position for all attacking players against the second-last opposition player, and it then depends how the ball comes to an attacker.
This drills right into the definition of a "deliberate play" in the offside law. We hear about this a lot in the modern game, even though it has existed within the laws for many years. The IFAB tried to clear up a lot of the mystery behind its interpretation in the summer, but it's application still remains incredibly subjective and very frustrating for many supporters.
Merely calling it a "deliberate play" is confusing in itself, because in almost all cases a player is trying to play the ball deliberately. The definition is far more complex and concerns, most importantly, a player having control over their actions and where the ball goes.
If a player is stretching, making a reflex action, or blocking a shot or cross, this shouldn't be seen as a "deliberate play." This isn't the same as a poor attempted clearance in which the player has the time and space to play the ball.
"Deliberate play" is when a player has control of the ball with the possibility of:
- passing the ball to a teammate
- gaining possession of the ball
- clearing the ball (e.g. by kicking or heading it).
The criteria to identify a "deliberate play":
- the ball travelled from distance and the player had a clear view of it
- the ball was not moving quickly
- the direction of the ball was not unexpected
- the player had time to coordinate their body movement, i.e., it was not a case of instinctive stretching or jumping, or a movement that achieved limited contact/control
- a ball moving on the ground is easier to play than a ball in the air
For Holmes, two of these clauses are important. Firstly, the ball didn't travel from distance, Casemiro was relatively close by when he played the ball. And most crucially, the Reading player didn't have time to coordinate his body movement. In attempting to cut out Casemiro's pass, Holmes made a blocking action with the outside of his right boot, causing the ball to loop up. It was not an attempted pass or a controlled clearance and absolutely fits the definition of a movement with limited contact/control.
There was no doubt Weghorst was in an offside position, so as soon as the VAR, Lee Mason, identifies the play wasn't deliberate, the only possible decision is to disallow the goal. That said, as this was a subjective call, referee Darren England really should have been sent to the monitor to confirm the decision, rather than it just being made by the VAR alone.
The problem with subjective decisions, of course, is that consistency is ultimately impossible because the judgement comes down to each individual referee, assistant and VAR. And these elements of offside are so complex we are always going to get outliers, such as Rashford being given onside for Bruno Fernandes' goal against Manchester City. As confirmed by the Premier League's independent assessment panel, that wasn't an incorrect decision in law by referee Stuart Attwell, and the VAR was right not to intervene to disallow the goal.
Look at Mohamed Salah's goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup earlier this month (stream a replay on ESPN+, U.S. only). Liverpool took the lead in the 52nd minute when Cody Gakpo tried to find Salah with a ball over the top. Wolves defender Toti made a failed attempt to clear with a header, and Salah collected the loose ball to score.
An attempted header is judged more in favour of the defender than a kick. This is because there is, generally, less control in heading a ball. If a defender has to stretch or jump to head the ball, this is an extra layer for determining that it's not a "deliberate play." The VAR in this case, Mike Dean, chose not to intervene as he decided this was just a poor attempted header by Toti, who had control over the action. It might have been a better decision to disallow the Salah goal, and it does provide an excellent example of how two seemingly similar situations within the same area of law can provide opposite outcomes.
On Friday, in Man City's 1-0 win over Arsenal (stream a replay on ESPN+, U.S. only), we saw two other incidents that raised questions from supporters, with both teams having a player ruled offside without touching the ball.
In the first half, Bukayo Saka was given offside despite making no attempt to play or run for the ball. Arsenal's players were left confused, and while it was harsh, there was a valid explanation in law for the assistant to raise the flag.
After the ball is played forward by Fabio Vieira, defender Nathan Ake seemingly has to evade Saka before getting to the ball and making what was a poor clearance. The presence of Saka in Ake's path was enough for the assistant to raise the flag, even if there's an argument that there wasn't really any interference with the defender. Again, this is subjective to the assistant and you might see similar instances where the flag does not go up.
This is completely different to Rashford's offside position in the Manchester derby, whatever you think of that decision, as no City player was ever within playing distance of the ball or made an attempt to run past the offside player.
Then in the second half against Arsenal, moments after coming off the bench, Julian Alvarez was given offside after Kevin De Bruyne had played the ball.
Alvarez had come back from an offside position, and made an attempt to challenge Albert Sambi Lokonga. Even though he didn't actually touch the Arsenal player, this is deemed to be interfering with an opponent and a valid offside call.