Video Assistant Referee causes controversy every week in the Premier League, but how are decisions made, and are they correct?
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 decisions affected every Prem club in 2022-23
– VAR in the Premier League: Ultimate guide
In the midweek VAR Review: How was John Stones onside against Arsenal? Should West Ham United have been awarded a penalty for handball by Liverpool’s Thiago? What about Manchester City defender Ruben Dias getting a red card? And why wasn’t Crystal Palace goalkeeper Sam Johnstone sent off?
Possible offside overturn: Stones on goal
What happened: Manchester City thought they had a second goal in first-half stoppage time when John Stones headed home Kevin De Bruyne’s free kick at the back post, but the assistant immediately raised his flag for offside. The VAR began a check to make sure the decision was correct (watch here.)
VAR decision: Goal awarded.
VAR review: It caused a great deal of discussion, but it all comes down to parallax: the difference in the apparent position along different lines of sight. It’s one of the main reasons the offside technology was introduced, to remove the problem we have in taking a picture and processing it as a 3D image. As different angles are checked, moving left to right across the pitch, parallax means the position of Stones relative to Ben White will appear to change; in reality they are always in the same place.
From the one television camera angle, it seemed certain that Stones was in an offside position; when the VAR switches to the goal-line camera, we can tell the decision is going to be much closer.
The VAR isn’t choosing an angle to best produce a particular outcome, he chooses the one which gives the best representation of the decision — one which all relevant body parts can be seen.
From the first camera angle, we presume Stones is offside because the position of the City’s players upper body; White’s foot cannot be seen.
Offside decisions are made using synced cameras. The kick point — this is the first frame which shows a touch of the ball by the passer, and not when the ball leaves the foot — is frozen on all cameras. Sometimes the ball may not appear in the offside image, but the kick point has already been set using all cameras stopped at exactly the same place.
Because of the possible issues about accuracy around the kick point, the offside technology has a tolerance level built in (if the two offside lines are touching.) Essentially, this creates a “benefit of the doubt” for an attacking player when the decision is very close; Stones needed this for the goal to be allowed.
When this tolerance level is used, the final VAR image only shows one green line to the defender (the method is the same in all leagues), because showing both lines on top of each other would be more confusing.
It’s not perfect, as it means supporters must trust the line has been placed on the correct place for the attacking player.
It was an exceptionally close call, but the correct one.
Possible penalty: Partey on De Bruyne
What happened: In the third minute, Jack Grealish played a low cross into the six-yard box, which goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale palmed out forwards. Both Thomas Partey and De Bruyne went for the ball at the same time, with City players and fans demanding a penalty. Referee Michael Oliver awarded a free kick to Arsenal.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: It’s a decision which could have been given either way, and neither call would have been incorrect. It’s not a situation the VAR, David Coote, will get involved in.
Does Partey shield the ball for Ramsdale to collect, or does he put himself into a position which deliberately prevents De Bruyne from being able to take a shot on goal?
Or is De Bruyne guilty of kicking an opponent when trying to win the ball?
More often than not a referee will award the decision to the defending team; it’s the less controversial option.
Possible red card: Dias on White
What happened: Moments after Stones had scored for City, Ruben Dias was pushed over in the corner flag by White. A melee followed, after which Dias was booked. But was there a case for violent conduct?
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: Manchester City were awarded a free kick by the corner flag in first-half stoppage time when White knocked Dias over. As White walked away, Dias appeared to put his foot into the Arsenal defender’s calf. This led to both sets of players confronting each other, with the Man City player booked for his actions.
The VAR looked at the incident for a possible red card, but while Dias put his foot into his opponent there was no force in the action and a yellow wouldn’t be viewed as an unacceptable disciplinary outcome.
This also took place right in front of assistant referee Ian Hussin, who had the perfect view.
Possible penalty: Handball by Haaland
What happened: In the 56th minute, after a melee in the box, Oleksandr Zinchenko had a shot on goal, which Haaland appeared to lean into. Rob Holding then had a shot which was deflected over the bar. Arsenal players appealed for a penalty but Oliver made it clear there was no offence and awarded the corner.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Haaland is lucky, because this comes down to where the ball hits him on the arm. From Zinchenko’s shot, the ball deflects up off a City teammate, but Haaland appears to move his body into the ball, which would make it a deliberate act for a handball offence
However, as we’ve seen with other such decisions, if it’s close to the point on the arm where handball starts, then it won’t be considered an error for the VAR not to intervene — either way.
The Independent Key Match Incidents Panel, which assesses all cases like this, ruled the VAR was correct not to intervene and award Kaoru Mitoma’s disallowed goal against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month as there wasn’t the definitive evidence to disprove the handball offence, though it noted the goal shouldn’t have been disallowed by the on-field officials.
The Haaland handball claim appears stronger than that of Mitoma, in terms of where the ball hits on the arm, which again shows how much weight the on-field decision carries.
Possible penalty: Handball by Thiago
What happened: West Ham were pushing for an equaliser in the 89th minute. Danny Ings tried to help the ball further into the area, and it hit the arm of Thiago, who was falling to the ground as he attempted to make a tackle. Referee Chris Kavanagh ignored claims for a spot kick.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: The annoyance of West Ham boss David Moyes was understandable, but in the Premier League you won’t get a VAR penalty for a situation like this. If the referee gives it, then it wouldn’t be overturned, but there is enough doubt — and exemption clauses in the law — for the VAR not to intervene.
Moyes claimed “if you lunge it’s your own fault for lunging and being out of control in the tackle,” but this isn’t part of the handball law. In fact, Moyes gives a reason for the penalty not to be awarded, because the expected position of the arm for a player’s movement should be taken into account when judging a possible offence. Thiago is going to ground to challenge Ings, and needs his left arm to support his body.
The case for a spot kick is the possible movement of the elbow to the ball. Only Thiago will know if it was deliberate, but Ings kicks it from close proximity and the VAR cannot be certain.
In UEFA competition, which has zero tolerance, this will likely be a spot kick. But the strict interpretation of handball by UEFA is causing increasing angst. Indeed, the newly created advisory UEFA Football Body, made up of former players and coaches, this week told European football’s governors it must rethink how it interprets handball compared to the domestic leagues.
The Thiago case is different to Chelsea’s handball claim at West Ham in February, when Tomas Soucek moved his palm as he was falling to the ground to stop Conor Gallagher’s shot. A penalty wasn’t given by the referee, but it was a very clear case of a player moving his arm into the path of the ball, rather than using it to support his body.
The VAR in both matches was Neil Swarbrick. For the Chelsea incident, the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel rightly ruled it was a missed intervention. It won’t say he got it wrong this time.
West Ham thought they had scored in the 55th minute when the score was 1-1, when Lucas Paqueta released Jarrod Bowen to score. However, a VAR Review showed Bowen was in front of the last defender when the pass was played and the goal was disallowed.
Possible red card: Johnstone challenge on Neto
What happened: In the 92nd minute, Crystal Palace goalkeeper Sam Johnstone miscontrolled a back pass, with the ball running a couple of yards in front of him. Wolverhampton Wanderers forward Pedro Neto moved in to close down Johnstone, who jumped in to make a tackle to try to rectify his mistake. Referee Robert Jones pointed to the penalty spot and booked Johnstone for the challenge, but the VAR, Tony Harrington, checked for a possible red card.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: This column often discusses how consistency with VAR is about when an intervention is made, and not on-pitch decision-making. On this, there’s definitely the case for a couple of clubs to be bemused — including Wolves themselves.
Last month, the VAR intervened to advise two red cards in similar situations, when a player’s boot came off the top of the ball and into an opponent’s leg in making a tackle. One of those was Jonny of Wolves, who saw a yellow card upgraded to red after a challenge on Leeds United’s Luke Ayling. Manchester United fans, too, will be looking at this tackle and feeling aggrieved, because there are similarities to the VAR red card shown to Casemiro for his challenge on Southampton’s Carlos Alcaraz.
There are a couple of small differences. Jonny’s challenge was with force, which bent back Ayling’s leg at the ankle. The contact from Casemiro on Alcaraz was marginally higher on the shin. However, the nature of Johnstone’s challenge in itself appears to be worse; he’s realised he’s made a mistake and makes a desperate jump into the ball in a lunging motion which could endanger the safety of an opponent.
In taking evasive action, Neto didn’t have his foot planted to the ground (as was the case with Alcaraz), which may suggest to the VAR the challenge was not as bad as that of Jonny or Casemiro; Neto, too, rolled around on the floor several times when he went to ground. Or, the VAR has simply given Johnstone the benefit of the doubt because he’s a goalkeeper and decided a yellow is the acceptable disciplinary outcome.
Referee Jones was a long way from the incident when it happened, so it’s doubtful he had a clear view of the challenge. The VAR should have been intervening with a red card.
Possible penalty: Adarabioyo on Watkins
What happened: In the 13th minute, Ollie Watkins moves into the area and tried to help the ball past Tosin Adarabioyo. The Aston Villa striker went down under the challenge of the Fulham defender, but play continued without a penalty kick.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: A brilliant spot by the referee, Thomas Bramall. Though Watkins gets to the ball initially, Adarabioyo then also gets his foot to it to send it away from goal; Watkins then goes over the leg of the defender.
Even if the penalty had been awarded, a VAR intervention would have been almost certain because one of the pillars of the protocol is a touch on the ball (unless the challenge is reckless, hence the penalty against Johnstone) means no spot kick should be awarded.
Despite the howls from the home fans, Watkins himself makes no appeal for a penalty, because he knows Adarabioyo got to the ball. The forward simply picks himself up and jogs back up the pitch.
Possible offside: Soumare on Tielemans goal
What happened: Leicester City grabbed the first goal of the game in the seventh minute when Youri Tielemans scored a brilliant long-range goal following a corner, but there was a check for an offside in the buildup against Boubakary Soumare.
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: Really unfortunate for Tielemans, as it was a fantastic strike from the Belgium international.
When the corner comes in, the ball is flicked towards goal by Harvey Barnes. At this point the offside phase is set, and Soumare is well in advance of the last Leeds United defender.
As soon as the ball touches Soumare, whether accidental or by a deliberate play of the ball, he becomes active for offside.
It was Soumare who then moved back and assisted the goal for Tielemans, though that part of the move is irrelevant — the offence was created when the ball first hits him.
The saving grace is this was a very clear offside offence; it’s much worse when an excellent goal is ruled out for a marginal VAR offside decision.
Information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL was used in this story.