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.
In this week’s VAR Review: Should West Ham United have been given a penalty for handball against Manchester United defender Victor Lindelof? Was it correct to disallow their goal for a foul by Michail Antonio on David de Gea? Why was Newcastle United‘s penalty against Arsenal cancelled? And when is a penalty a soft penalty?
Possible penalty: Handball by Lindelof
What happened: In first-half stoppage time with West Ham already 1-0 up, Said Benrahma attempted to cross into the area and the ball hit the arm of Manchester United centre-back Victor Lindelof. Referee Peter Bankes waved away appeals for a penalty and United broke up field.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: The confusing state of the handball law, the list of mitigating factors which a VAR must take into account and the high threshold for intervention all come together in this incident, meaning West Ham were denied a penalty that should have been awarded.
Having a high threshold is intended to limit the impact upon the game, but it can also cause a VAR to sometimes overthink an incident, when an overturn is the more obvious outcome. A VAR can be looking for a reason not to change a subjective decision, rather than achieve the result which most fans and players would expect.
With the high bar also comes limited use of the pitchside monitor, which is there for a referee to change his decision and not just to take a second look. So, the VAR won’t just send the referee over if he thinks it might be wrong — he must be certain it was incorrect.
The VAR for this game, Stuart Attwell, has applied the exemption clause that the player’s arm was not away from his body, and the ball would have hit his chest if it hadn’t hit his hand. The logic is he hasn’t prevented the ball from reaching its intended destination, because it would have been stopped by his body. However, the apparent deliberate movement of the arm to the ball by Lindelof trumps this, and a penalty should have been the outcome.
On Monday, the Premier League will for the very first time release the audio of some VAR contentious decisions in a pilot show, intended to improve transparency. Being able to hear how decisions have been reached will be a huge step forward, though its unlikely to help in situations such as this when the VAR has arrived at the wrong outcome.
Howard Webb, the chief refereeing officer, intends to roll this out more regularly this season, but it can only be in days following a match as FIFA still forbids any competition from playing out the VAR discussions live.
Possible goal: Foul by Antonio on De Gea
What happened: In the 52nd minute, West Ham thought they had scored a second goal when Michail Antonio challenged David de Gea, and poked home the loose ball. However, referee Bankes disallowed the goal for a foul on the goalkeeper.
VAR decision: No goal.
VAR review: Perhaps one of the softer fouls we are likely to see, but when a striker puts himself in a position whereby the goalkeeper cannot use his arms to get to the ball, it’s always likely to be given and certainly won’t be reversed by the VAR.
That said, De Gea hasn’t always benefitted from such decisions. In December 2019 he conceded a goal against Everton in seemingly a similar scenario. On that occasion the foul wasn’t given when Dominic Calvert-Lewin had his arm across the Spain international; the VAR backed that up and didn’t intervene to disallow it.
Penalty overturn: No handball by Kiwior
What happened: Newcastle United thought they were about to have the chance to take the lead from the penalty in the seventh minute when referee Chris Kavanagh penalised Jakub Kiwior for handball after a shot by Bruno Guimaraes. The VAR had to check there was an offence.
VAR decision: Penalty cancelled.
VAR review: It took quite a while for the VAR, Michael Salisbury, to decide to send the referee to the monitor to overturn his decision in what seemed to be a fairly straight-forward review.
It soon became apparent that the ball came off Kiwior’s thigh, and even if it then did go on to touch his arm it wasn’t away from the body. Also, if a player is pulling his arm into his body that carries an exemption against handball. The only possible case for the spot kick would be if Kiwior had deliberately moved his arm to the ball, rather than just trying to tuck it into his body.
It took too long, almost three minutes from award to cancellation, but the right decision was reached in the end.
Possible penalty: Silva foul on Solanke
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: The first of a series of penalty decisions this weekend which go right to the heart of VAR protocol, and when an intervention is expected.
From Silva’s challenge the ball moved out to the right, which will have given the referee the impression that the Chelsea defender got the ball.
However, replays showed that it was in fact Solanke who got the touch, so does that make it a clear and obvious error? If the incident hasn’t played out as the referee describes to the VAR, does that automatically mean he should be sent to the monitor? That would probably be the case if there was a lower threshold for intervention, but in the Premier League the VAR, in this case Peter Bankes, will be looking for a smoking gun. Can he really be certain that there is a foul challenge, even if the defender didn’t in fact touch the ball?
Any contact from Silva on Solanke would have been very slight, so even if the referee thought the defender did get to the ball it wouldn’t be considered an error not to give the penalty kick. But as we see in the next match, evidence of contact can also mean an awarded penalty must stand, even if the award is soft.
Possible penalty overturn: Surridge foul on Lavia
What happened: Southampton were handed a penalty in the 94th minute. Referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot after he saw contact from Sam Surridge on the boot of Romeo Lavia. But was there enough in this for a penalty?
VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by James Ward-Prowse.
VAR review: A very soft penalty, but once the referee has awarded it and the VAR, Paul Tierney, has identified contact by defender on attacker, then the penalty must stand.
If Oliver hadn’t awarded the penalty then it’s very unlikely it would have been given through the VAR — just as was the case with Solanke. Because the level of contact was negligible, it wouldn’t be considered a clear and obvious error not to give the penalty. But because contact was present, it’s not a clear and obvious error to award it. You can forgive fans for being confused about this.
Protocol is the same across leagues right up to UEFA competitions.
Possible penalty overturn: Leno foul on Vardy
What happened: Leicester City were awarded a penalty in the 64th minute when Jamie Vardy got to the ball ahead of Fulham goalkeeper Bernd Leno, and was then brought down. Referee Robert Jones pointed to the penalty spot.
VAR decision: Penalty stands, missed by Vardy.
VAR review: Another review which seemed to take far longer than was necessary with the VAR, Jarred Gillett, looking at several different angles to try to detect if Leno had got a touch on the ball before he collided with Vardy.
A penalty appeared to be the correct decision from the first replay, and it’s questionable if it could have been considered a clear and obvious error to give the spot kick if the VAR was needing to look at so many different angles for proof of a touch.
Possible penalty overturn: Palhinha foul on Maddison
What happened: Leicester were awarded a second penalty in the 80th minute when James Maddison appeared to be tripped when he checked back inside to go past Joao Palhinha — but the Fulham player was adamant he hadn’t touched the midfielder.
VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Maddison.
VAR review: For all Palhinha’s protestations, there was definite contact on Maddison, with the Fulham midfielder leaving a trailing leg to stop his progress.
Like other on-field penalties awarded this weekend, there was no chance of a VAR overturn. Contact was there and the penalty had been awarded, so it won’t be overturned.
Possible penalty overturn: Struijk foul on Foden
What happened: Phil Foden won a penalty in the 83rd minute when he was brought down by Pascal Struijk and referee Andy Madley pointed to the spot. There was a quick check of the decision by the VAR, Simon Hooper.
VAR decision: Penalty stands, missed by Ilkay Gundogan.
VAR review: The reaction of the Leeds United player said everything about this, with Struijk clearly playing the man rather than the ball. Struijk places his left leg across Foden, which forces the Man City player to the ground.
It would always stand as a penalty, and no reason for the VAR to get involved.
Information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL was used in this story.
The VAR Review: Lindelof, Kiwior handball penalties