The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) causes controversy every week in the Premier League, but how are the decisions made and are they correct?
After each weekend, we take a look at the highlights and examine the process in terms of both the VAR protocol and the Laws of the Game.
– VAR’s wildest moments: Alisson’s two red cards in one game
– VAR in the Premier League: the definitive guide
Possible penalty: Martinez on Welbeck
What happened: Brighton & Hove Albion were 2-0 up at Old Trafford when Lisandro Martinez got in behind Danny Welbeck in the box and pushed him to the ground.
VAR decision: No foul, subjective decision of the referee not to give a penalty.
VAR review: It should have been a penalty. Martinez had no intention of playing the ball and challenged Welbeck with his upper body, forcing him to the ground. The referee, Paul Tierney, may not have seen the nature of Martinez’s challenge. But VAR, John Brooks, ruled that Tierney had made no “clear and obvious error” in not awarding a penalty.
The Premier League said before the start of the season that it would continue with its high bar on interventions, doubling down on its policy from last season, and it is situations like this where it is tested to the limit. There hasn’t been a single VAR overturn in the first weekend, when the average is usually just under one every three games; which probably tells its own story.
In the German Bundesliga, they go the other way. Instead of setting such a high bar, they have instructed VAR to tell the referee to “take another look” at situations where they might change their mind if they see it again. In the Premier League, the pitchside monitor is essentially there for a referee to confirm a throw-in. The official still retains the right to reject it, but it didn’t happen once last season.
When you have such a high bar, the VAR is effectively looking for reasons to support the referee, rather than assessing an incident on its merits. That is why this penalty was not given, and why other incidents will not be punished at times. This high bar of “clear and obvious” removes much of the VAR’s subjectivity in advising a review, which is why fans are so frustrated.
Would they have told the referee to look again if this game was in Germany? Probably. We don’t want the game to be stopped all the time for the referee to go to the monitor, but it seems the Premier League still has work to do when the VAR advises a review.
Possible red card: McTominay on Caicedo
What happened: The game was goalless in the 25th minute when Scott McTominay was booked for a foul on Moises Caicedo.
VAR decision: Yellow card considered an acceptable disciplinary decision by the referee.
VAR review: We will have an incident like this almost every weekend, where a player catches an opponent on or above the ankle after playing the ball. It is absolutely key that point of contact alone does not determine what makes a card yellow or red, as strength and intensity are just as, if not more, important.
So for the VAR to step in and upgrade to a yellow, they have to be absolutely sure that the level of force and intensity is worthy of a red card. The umpire’s decision on the pitch carries more weight (which of course brings us back to the high bar discussion).
But McTominay was very lucky to escape being sent off.
Another similar challenge next week could result in a red card from a referee, and that’s because whether the referee shows a yellow or a red, neither can be subjectively wrong. It is one of the main reasons why VAR can never give you maximum consistency in decision making.
Possible handball and offside: Mac Allister own goal
What happened: Alexis Mac Allister inadvertently put the ball into his own net after goalkeeper Robert Sanchez put the ball into his boot to make it 2-1 to Brighton in the 68th minute. There was a question of handball by Diogo Dalot and offside against Harry Maguire.
VAR decision: Degrees of goal.
VAR review: There were actually three separate incidents, with a quick VAR check early on for a foul on Sanchez, which was ruled out, all leading to an extended review.
The ball accidentally hit Dalot in the arm before the goal, but due to the handball law change in 2021, he can only be penalized if he scores. So if the ball had gone straight in, or if Sanchez had failed to keep it out instead of giving it to Mac Allister, the goal would have been ruled out for a hand.
Maguire was in an offside position when the ball came off Dalot, but this was not considered to have had a material impact on the result. The goal came from Sanchez flicking the ball to his teammate, rather than any influence from the United captain.
Finally, from Old Trafford, Brighton’s first goal was in play due to the benefit of the doubt it gave the striker, which was added to the technology at the start of the 2021-22 season. Welbeck’s toe was marginally past the last defender, but within bounds to allow a goal to stand. When a decision is this tight, a single line is shown to the defensive player.
Possible penalty: Sa’s foul on Kristensen
What happened: Leeds United were trailing 1-0 in the 14th minute when they were awarded a free kick just outside the box. It was flicked on at the back post, with Rasmus Kristensen heading the ball past goalkeeper Jose Sa. However, Sa hit the Leeds player after the ball had gone, his glove making contact with Kristensen’s head.
VAR decision: No penalty, the referee’s decision is confirmed.
VAR review: Sa was lucky, because if referee Robert Jones had awarded a penalty, there is no way VAR, Jarred Gillett, would have advised overturning it. But it’s about how football judges the way goalkeepers try to win the ball. Would it be a foul against any other player? Probably. Contact when a goalkeeper challenges the ball in the air is rarely penalized, unless it is deemed to be excessive force.
These kinds of situations are difficult for VAR, in terms of judging when they should get involved with what is seen as normal unpenalized football contact in a match. A goalkeeper has no license to crash into an opponent after the ball has gone, but this incident shows just how much freedom he has, and it just falls on the side of not intervening.
It’s different from Hugo Lloris’ penalty against Portugal at Euro 2020, with the French goalkeeper grabbing Danilo Pereira’s head with his fist as he tried to clear the ball.
We won’t see many occasions where VAR gets involved when goalkeepers collide with outfield players in the act of trying to play the ball in this way. That doesn’t mean VAR gets it right all the time, though. Stuart Attwell was the VAR for Brighton against Liverpool last season when Luis Diaz was beaten by a high challenge from goalkeeper Sanchez after the striker had headed towards goal to score. A red card was not advised on that occasion, when it certainly should have been. It’s fair to say that the level of force applied in this challenge was much higher than Sa in Kristensen.
There was also a question of offside against Patrick Bamford for Leeds’ winning goal, but the technology showed the striker was just behind the last defensive player.
Possible preparation foul: Palhinha over Henderson
What happened: Fulham took the lead in the 32nd minute through Aleksandar Mitrovic, but before the play Joao Palhinha appeared to catch Jordan Henderson, with the Liverpool midfielder going to ground.
VAR decision: No subjective, bad decision that doesn’t require intervention.
VAR review: In pre-season briefings, the Premier League made it clear that VAR does not fall back too far in an attacking phase to penalize what could be a trivial incident. While time is never the deciding factor, the goal came 17 seconds into the challenge.
Palhinha certainly stepped on Henderson’s foot, and if referee Andy Madley had given the foul there probably wouldn’t have been too many complaints. But the referee had handled the game leniently throughout, allowing play to continue if a player had gone to the ground for minimal contact. It would have been off with how Madley had run the game.
Liverpool fans may also want to remember that there was a potential foul on Virgil van Dijk in the build-up to Mohamed Salah’s 80th-minute equaliser.
Penalty awarded: Mitrovic fouls Van Dijk
What happened: Mitrovic went down in the box under a challenge from Van Dijk in the 70th minute, with referee Madley pointing to the spot.
VAR decision: VAR Stuart Attwell upheld the decision as a clear and obvious error.
VAR review: Did Mitrovic make the most of Van Dijk’s touch? Definitely. But there was certainly knee-to-knee contact between the two players and therefore no case for VAR intervention.
Possible penalty: Handball by Gabriel
What happened: With 1-0 to Arsenal in the 35th minute, the ball hit Gabriel’s hand in the area.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: VAR official Darren England looked at the incident and rightly decided that no penalty should be awarded.
William Saliba had thrown the ball high into the air when he made an interception, and it fell over Gabriel’s head and hit his arm when he challenged Odsonne Edouard.
Gabriel’s arm was in a natural position, not extending unduly far from his body, nor did he make a deliberate movement towards the ball. If the VAR had given a penalty for something like that, it would have generated much more controversy.
This story used information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.
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