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 protocol led to Man United's second goal
VAR review: In games pre-VAR, this goal simply would never have happened. Tottenham were on the attack and the ball was played in to Kane, who was in an offside position. However, as VAR protocol is for the assistant to keep his flag down in clear attacking situations until the end of the phase, play was allowed to continue.
Once Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea made the save from Kane and the loose ball fell to Luke Shaw, the assistant then raised his flag. However, as Shaw was carrying the ball out of the area, referee Simon Hooper acknowledged the flag but allowed play to continue as United were in possession. A few seconds later and Fernandes had the ball in the back of the net.
Before VAR existed the flag would have been raised and the whistle blown as soon as the cross was played to Kane. But the edict to allow the attacking phase to play out creates the possibility of an attacking advantage for the defending team, and United fully embraced it.
VAR overturn: Penalty awarded for foul by Gomez on Bowen
VAR decision: Penalty, missed by Bowen.
VAR review: Gomez tried to win the ball with a high tackle from behind, not dangerously and clearly in an attempt to get to the ball first, but it was Bowen who was able to chest it down.
If referee Attwell believes Gomez got a touch on the ball, that gives the VAR, Craig Pawson, grounds to tell the referee he has missed a possible penalty. Bowen was taking control of the ball but the force from Gomez knocked the West Ham player to the ground.
It was a clumsy challenge from the Liverpool defender and a simple VAR review once it was clear that he got nothing on the ball.
Possible penalty: Foul by Burn on Gordon
What happened: Dan Burn challenged Anthony Gordon inside the area in the 42nd minute, with the Everton forward going to ground. Everton appealed for a penalty, which referee Tony Harrington turned down.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: There was contact by Burn, who leant into England under-21 international Gordon, but not enough to warrant a penalty kick -- or to be judged as simulation either.
We can compare this to Gomez on Bowen, with the Liverpool defender off the ground and making a high challenge trying to win the ball that clearly brought down the West Ham forward.
Burn's challenge was upper-body contact without trying to win the ball, and there can be a penalty for this offence, but there's not enough for the VAR to become involved -- especially if the referee has a full view of the incident.
It's similar to the penalty claim Brighton & Hove Albion had at Manchester United on the opening weekend of the season, when Lisandro Martinez bundled over Danny Welbeck. No penalty was given by the VAR then either, but that was a much stronger claim with greater force, and one that should probably have been given.
Possible penalty: Handball by Guehi
What happened: In the 82nd minute, Nelson Semedo crossed into the box and the ball flicked off Marc Guehi. Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Ruben Neves appealed for a penalty, which referee David Coote waved away.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: The VAR, Lee Mason, didn't advise a penalty kick because the ball deflected off Guehi's knee before possibly brushing his arm. There's doubt over conclusive evidence of the ball hitting the arm, but the deflection off the knee made the VAR's decision for him. Guehi's arm is in the same, justifiable position when the ball is crossed to when it hits him.
The handball law is confusing enough to supporters, even more so when it comes to deflections off the body onto the arm. The IFAB's guidance around handball has several exceptions, but there are differences in interpretation -- and that hasn't been helped by UEFA.
The overriding factor for handball should be the hand/arm making the body unnaturally bigger, and its position not being a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player's body movement.
This can be overridden by:
- contact is a consequence of the player deliberately playing the ball with another part of the body (against himself/herself).
- the player's arm is already extended when there is no expectation of the ball coming at, or near, the player from a teammate.
We can look to the penalty Tottenham Hotspur had cancelled by the VAR at West Ham earlier in the season, when the ball came off Aaron Cresswell's face and onto his arm. There's an argument that the VAR shouldn't have become involved in the Cresswell incident, because the West Ham player was not deliberately playing the ball, it merely hit him in the face and then hit a raised arm; it's a grey area, and every situation is judged on its merits.
It doesn't mean that all contact off the player's body will cancel a handball offence, ergo is the position of the arm more decisive than the deflection itself?
Last month, AFC Bournemouth were awarded a penalty against Nottingham Forest when Lloyd Kelly turned his body into a shot from Neco Williams and the ball hit his hand. Five days later, in near identical circumstances, Manchester United gave away a spot kick at home to Real Sociedad on Matchday 1 of the Europa League group stage when Lisandro Martinez attempted to block a shot, and the ball rebounded off his leg and onto his arm. United fans thought the VAR would intervene but the decision of Italian referee Marco Di Bello stood; in the Premier League the deflection would almost certainly see the VAR overturn the penalty, as with the Cresswell example.
UEFA has a stricter application, as seen by the penalty FC Copenhagen conceded against Manchester City in the Champions League last week, and Rodri's disallowed goal in the same game after the ball inadvertently touched the arm of Riyad Mahrez. Then there's the spot kick Rangers conceded through a VAR decision against Union St.-Gilloise in a Champions League qualifier when the ball came off a teammate's back and rebounded onto Connor Goldson's arm. There's an exception in the laws, yet in UEFA competition it was still penalised.
UEFA's strict approach only adds to the confusion, with the guidance that was issued in the summer of 2021 supposed to make clear it's not an offence every time the ball hits a defender's arm. UEFA doesn't seem to take arm position being in a justifiable position for a player's movement into account much at all.
Possible penalty: Handball by Salisu
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: A good example of how a player having his arm close to his body in an expected position for his body movement. Unlike, for example, Kelly vs. Nottingham Forest and Martinez vs. Real Sociedad, Salisu doesn't have his arms raised from his body creating a barrier.
The ball in fact hits Salisu on the arm when it is almost touching the body, and being retracted, so despite the appeals there is no chance the VAR, Peter Bankes, gives a penalty for this.
Sharing the VAR audio
It's against FIFA's protocol for any league to broadcast VAR discussions live during games, and that doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon, but there are exceptions to share it in the days afterward for educational purposes.
This happens most often in Major League Soccer, where at the end of the following week each VAR call is analysed in its "Insider Video Review." The current head of MLS refs, Howard Webb, moves to the Premier League at the end of the year.
There's been a common misconception that the Australian A-League always broadcasts the audio during games, when in truth select incidents have been released the following week. Whenever a league shares this audio, it tends to be for non-contentious incidents.
This happened again this week after Newcastle Jets' Jordan Elsey was sent off against Perth Glory, though it was only for a second yellow card upgraded to a straight red, and a change from a free kick to a penalty -- and a clearly incorrect decision.
However, there was confusion among the TV commentators about the process behind the decision, which of course doesn't help the watching fan understand what is going on.
This video shows how hearing the VAR discussion helps the whole process; a clear description of what is being reviewed, the possible outcomes and the final advice. No one would be left guessing.
🗣️"That's serious foul play."— Isuzu UTE A-League (@aleaguemen) October 20, 2022
It's the audio that will help fans understand how a VAR turns a 🟨 into a 🟥 AND a penalty.
We have released the full audio of the conversation between VAR and the referee that saw Jordan Elsey dismissed on the weekend. pic.twitter.com/qR9oESOoNz
There were reports at the start of the season that the Premier League would be sharing the audio, but this was always an aim rather than an immediate intention. It wouldn't be a surprise if we finally got to hear some audio after Webb takes up his new role as the boss of referees at PGMOL, but don't expect it to be one of the high-profile incidents.
Serie A referee designator Gianluca Rocchi said last month it was too early to allow a live broadcast.
"It's complex, those on the pitch and those off it must have adequate communication skills," Rocchi told the Social Football Summit in Rome. "We're improving a lot, even compared to last year, but it still takes time.
"On the referees' side there is total openness, there're no secrets. The problem with broadcasting live is that there's no filter, the whole world would hear what happens on the pitch.
"Italian referees are working hard to move towards communication that can be heard by everyone, but we are on a path of growth. Today I couldn't send a live audio, because the level is not yet adequate, but we're working a lot. We're doing a huge amount of training, in some cases holding back isn't easy because you risk limiting your spontaneity and it would become a problem in reverse.
"It depends on the results, when we know we're ready. Then we will still need permission from FIFA; we cannot do as we please. The important thing is to be ready when the time comes."
Information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL was used in this story.