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.

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In this week’s VAR Review: Penalty incidents involving Manchester United‘s Bruno Fernandes and Newcastle United‘s Fabian Schar, a spitting incident by Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Daniel Podence, offside incidents in Manchester City vs. Liverpool, plus Arsenal‘s penalty against Leeds United.

Possible penalty: Foul by Fernandes on Schar

What happened: In the 75th minute, Newcastle United defender Fabian Schar went to ground inside the six-yard box when he appeared to be caught by a high boot from Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes. Referee Stuart Attwell waved play on and Man United broke forward up the pitch.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: It’s rare that aa high-boot offence is given against the defending side inside the area, usually it must be a blatant to get penalised; likely many things, there’s a different interpretation inside the area, or for a high-boot offence by an attacker inside the area.

The VAR decided there was a clear action by Schar to stoop forwards and lower his head to play the ball, while the Newcastle player gets a clear header towards goal that strikes post and he isn’t impacted. Fernandes is deemed to have made a reasonable challenge while contact with the opponent is minimal and a consequence of the actions of both players, who are committed to playing the ball.

Teammate Scott McTominay seems to realise the possible offence, pulling out of trying to kick the ball as Schar comes into head it, but Fernandes goes through with his attempted clearance.

While Fernandes does only make a small amount of contact on Schar, a high boot with contact is a direct free kick, or a penalty is inside the area. It’s unlikely to be considered an error not to give the penalty but players trying to kick the ball in this way should be aware of the presence of others, so Fernandes was lucky he didn’t make full contact with Schar which surely would have been a certain penalty.

Possible penalty: Schar challenge on Fernandes

What happened: In the 37th minute, in a role reversal to the previous incident, Fernandes went to ground in the box when challenged by Schar. Referee Attwell gave a goal kick after a moment of deliberation, but there were claims for a penalty.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: It’s not completely clear whether it was Fernandes or Schar who got the touch on the ball, but even if it’s the Newcastle player to it second it doesn’t mean this is a penalty.

Fernandes shapes to play the ball to a teammate and makes contact with the ball. Schar is challenging Fernandes at the same moment and whilst there is some contact, no intervention is in keeping with the preference not to penalise minimal contact.

There are similarities to the situation between Arsenal‘s Takehiro Tomiyasu and AFC Bournemouth‘s Marcos Senesi a few weeks ago, when the two players got to the ball around the same time. In that case the VAR didn’t feel there was enough in it to warrant a penalty, a decision supported by the independent assessment panel; the same outcome is almost certain in this case.

Possible red card: Spitting by Podence at Johnson

What happened: There was a melee in the 89th minute after a challenge between Diego Costa and Cheikhou Kouyate. Behind the back of referee Chris Kavanagh, there was an altercation between Daniel Podence and Brennan Johnson, with the suggestion the Wolves player had spat at the Nottingham Forest player. The VAR, Neil Swarbrick, looked at the incident for a possible red card.

VAR decision: No action.

VAR review: The VAR has to find evidence that Podence did spit at Johnson, but there’s nothing in any of the replay angles that suggests any saliva was projected.

From that, what seems most likely is Podence has simulated spitting, just blowing out of his mouth. The VAR cannot go solely from the reaction of Johnson, who held his face.

All very much playground behaviour but not enough for the VAR to advise a red card has been missed.

If the spitting offence had been proven, Podence was facing a six-match suspension. There will be no retrospective action, as there is no evidence and it has already been assessed.

Possible penalty: Foul by Gomes on Johnson

What happened: Johnson broke into the area in the 40th minute and went down after going past Tote Gomes. Referee Kavanagh blew his whistle, but for simulation against Johnson who was booked.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: Depending on which angle you watch the replay from, there is a case that there was a small amount of contact on Johnson before he went to ground. But the only way the yellow card for diving can be cancelled is if the VAR advises the referee it should be a penalty.

We regularly discuss how contact must have a consequence for a penalty — but that at the same time the decision of the referee carries the weight.

It means that if there’s a small amount of contact and the referee hasn’t awarded a penalty, the VAR is unlikely to intervene.

So, Johnson was probably unlucky to get booked for diving, but the VAR will not get involved in the situation.

The referee should have awarded a free kick to Forest for a pull back on Johnson outside the area, but that isn’t within the remit of the VAR.

Possible penalty: Felipe foul on Traore.

What happened: Adama Traore broke into the box in the 52nd minute and went down under a challenge from Felipe, who was running behind the forward.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: We often see this kind of situation, where a forward goes to ground with the impression of being “bundled” by an opponent. The VAR has to ask whether there’s enough contact for it to be considered a clear and obvious error not to award the spot kick.

Felipe is lucky, because he has his hand on Traore’s shoulder and is running the risk of a penalty kick.

But if the referee has seen the level of contact between defender and attacker, and judged it not to be an offence, the VAR will leave the decision on the field, whichever way he has gone.

Possible offside: Mahrez on Alvarez goal

What happened: Manchester City equalised in the 27th minute through Julian Alvarez. However, there was a possible offside earlier in the move when Kevin De Bruyne had played the ball down the line for Riyad Mahrez to move inside (watch here.)

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: It’s a situation which raised a lot of questions from Liverpool fans, because Mahrez was out of picture on the main television camera when De Bruyne played the pass.

But this wasn’t a case of the City player being in a blind spot for the technology, as we saw with Bukayo Saka when Arsenal scored against Liverpool earlier this season.

The VAR began the process of calculating the offside, placing the line to the last Liverpool defender. Mahrez was so clearly onside, obviously behind the defensive line, that it wasn’t necessary for the VAR to complete the full calibration with the technology and the goal was quickly cleared.

Possible offside: De Bruyne when scoring

What happened: City took the lead directly after half-time when Alvarez switched the ball out onto the wing for Mahrez, who moved forward and played a square pass to De Bruyne for the Belgian to score (watch here.)

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: This is a quirk of the modern offside law, where a player doesn’t commit an offside offence purely from their position, but their actions.

De Bruyne is in an offside position when the ball is cross-field pass is made, but he isn’t active because it’s played to Mahrez.

When Mahrez then takes control of the pass a new phase is created, with De Bruyne’s position only relevant when the pass is played to him — by which time he is behind the ball and back onside.

Many would argue that De Bruyne is gaining some form of advantage from his position on the initial pass, but this isn’t factored into the offside law.

Similarly for Liverpool’s opening goal, Diogo Jota running through the centre was played onside by Manuel Akanji. The position of Mohamed Salah isn’t relevant for the decision as he’s not active at this point in the move

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Possible penalty: Ake foul on Gakpo

What happened: In the 59th minute, Cody Gakpo went to ground under a challenge from Nathan Ake. Referee Simon Hooper waved away the penalty claims (watch here.)

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: This was a classic case of an attacker trying to initiate contact to win a penalty. Gakpo places his right foot into Ake, attempted to give the referee the impression had foul had take place, and the referee made the correct decision.

Even if the referee had given the spot kick a review to cancel it was almost certain. There is a stronger case for simulation against Gakpo than there was for Forest forward Johnson.

Possible penalty: Konsa foul on Chilwell

What happened: Chelsea wanted a penalty in the 24th minute when Ben Chilwell went down on the edge of the box under a challenge from Ezri Konsa. Referee Andy Madley wasn’t interested.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: Chilwell was unlucky that he didn’t get the free kick, because it appears to be a foul, but contact took place outside the area — and therefore not within the remit of VAR.

The VAR can only get involved in missed free kicks if the foul is a red-card offence, so this decision has to stay on the field.

Disallowed goal: Chilwell for push on Young

What happened: Chelsea thought they had an equaliser in first-half stoppage time when Chilwell headed into the bottom corner, but referee Madley blew for a push on Ashley Young as soon as the ball crossed the line. The VAR, Tony Harrington, was able to check if the decision was correct and possibly advise that it should be a goal.

VAR decision: No goal.

VAR review: As Chilwell had placed both hands on the back of Young before heading the ball, the VAR isn’t going to intervene and say this was an incorrect decision. It’s a soft foul, but if the referee gives it then it will stand.

It could be argued Callum Wilson committed a similar offence on Marcus Rashford before scoring Newcastle’s second goal. Wilson certain placed both hands on his opponent before scoring — but the key difference is the referee didn’t give the foul on the field of play.

It shows a key misconception about VAR: it’s aim has never been to create overarching consistency. The consistency covers how and when a VAR intervenes. As the referee’s decision will always carry the weight and create the reference point for the VAR, it’s not possible for VAR to provide the consistency of decision making.

Both outcomes can be considered not to be clearly and obviously wrong, so the VAR won’t step in even though similar situations might have different decisions on the field.

Possible penalty: Handball by Mings

What happened: Chelsea had loud appeals for a penalty in the 61st minute, claiming handball by Tyrone Mings. Referee Madley wasn’t interested.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: This appeal was probably more out of desperation from Chelsea players than anything else.

Mings was on the ground when Emiliano Martinez made a save from Joao Felix, and the rebound hit the Aston defender on the top of his shoulder — not a handball offence.

Possible penalty overturn: Ayling foul on Jesus

What happened: Arsenal were awarded a penalty in the 35th minute when Gabriel Jesus went down under a challenge by Luke Ayling.

VAR decision: Penalty stands.

VAR review: This comes back to the Johnson penalty claim in Forest vs. Wolves.

We’ve discussion that if there’s a small amount of contact and the referee hasn’t awarded a penalty, the VAR is unlikely to intervene.

But if there’s a small amount of contact and the referee has awarded a penalty, it will not be overturned. So, in the case of Ayling on Jesus there was contact so there’s no grounds for a review.

That said, this incident is a little different, as even though the contact from Ayling wasn’t what you would call significant, it was high and connected with Jesus’ knee. Even if referee Darren England hadn’t given the spot kick, there’s a high chance the VAR would have intervened.

VAR penalty awarded / possible red card: Hickey handball

What happened: Brighton & Hove Albion pushed forward in search of an equaliser in the 86th minute, and Deniz Undav saw his shot blocked by Aaron Hickey. Referee Michael Oliver gave a corner but the VAR, Stuart Attwell, advised a review for handball.

VAR decision: Penalty awarded (scored by Alexis Mac Allister), yellow card to Hickey.

VAR review: An easy review for Attwell, as it was clear that Hickey had raised his arm and created an obvious barrier to prevent Undav’s shot making its way to goal.

Hickey was only shown a yellow card because he didn’t deny a certain goal.

If there’s a player on the line in the path of the shot, which is usually the goalkeeper, that will provide enough doubt that the handball offence has denied a goal, and the defender will only be shown a yellow card.

We saw this in the FA Cup tie between Sheffield United and Blackburn Rovers, when a penalty was awarded for handball through VAR but only a yellow card was show as the goalkeeper was behind the defender, Jack Robinson.

But in the case of Willian for Fulham at Manchester United the same day, the Brazilian had no player behind him when he handled on the goal-line, so denied a certain goal and was sent off.

Brentford defender Pontus Johnson felt he was fouled when the cross came in before the ball dropped to Undav, but there wasn’t enough in this for a VAR intervention — much like Wilson on Rashford.

Possible penalty: Handball by Hickey

What happened: Deep into stoppage time the ball hit Hickey’s arm for a second time when Solly March attempted a cross into the box. Referee Oliver waved away the penalty claims, and again there was a VAR review for a spot kick (watch here.)

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: This time Hickey escaped a VAR intervention, with the arm in a natural position and the cross hit from close proximity.

A key consideration is whether the defender’s arm has moved up as the ball is kicked, effectively creating an increased barrier to stop its path. As Hickey’s arm stays in the same position it’s not considered he has made a deliberate movement.

There’s a higher chance this would be penalised in UEFA competitions, which has a lower threshold for a handball offence, but this won’t be penalised by the VAR in the Premier League. If the referee had given it then it may well have stood, but the VAR will not intervene.

VAR overturn: Aguerd onside when scoring

What happened: Nayef Aguerd thought he had headed West Ham United into the lead in the 25th minute only for the assistant’s flag to go up for offside — the goal was automatically checked by the VAR, Peter Bankes.

VAR decision: Goal awarded.

VAR review: After the error which saw Brighton’s goal at Crystal Palace wrongly disallowed for offside in March, a VAR is unlikely to take any chances in complex offside situations where multiple players could be involved.

The defensive line at the most Thilo Kehrer played the free kick was very congested, meaning the VAR would need to check multiple angles to ensure the correct players are being mapped. There are occasions when this isn’t possible, and the VAR has to go with the on-field decision due to a lack of evidence.

In the end it took 3½ minutes, which is far too long. And when the final lines were eventually displayed, Aguerd was onside by a large margin (shown by the gap between the green attacker’s line and the blue defender’s.)

It would have been a difficult call for the assistant, with so many players moving along the defensive line, and the three West Ham players who were in an offside position did not become involved in the play or challenge an opponent so cannot be active.

This should all get much quicker if the Premier League adopts semiautomated offside from next season, which hasn’t yet been confirmed but is likely due to the limitations of the current technology. That will automatically map all 22 players using bespoke cameras within the roof of a stadium, meaning the VAR doesn’t have to reply on the five television cameras which are calibrated for the Hawk-Eye system.

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

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Bruno Fernandes penalty claims, Podence spitting