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: Manchester United‘s Harry Maguire escaped a red card against Fulham, but was it the correct decision? How does it compare to similar incidents, such as the challenge by Chelsea‘s Moisés Caicedo on Ryan Gravenberch or Billy Gilmour‘s dismissal for Brighton & Hove Albion? Plus, Burnley‘s disallowed goal at Crystal Palace.
Possible red card: Maguire challenge on Lukic
What happened: Fulham attacked on the break in the 35th minute after referee Michael Oliver had played advantage. When the move ended, Oliver went back to book Harry Maguire for a late challenge on Saka Lukic. The VAR, Rob Jones, checked for a possible red card for serious foul play.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: This weekend saw two challenges of similar nature, neither of which resulted in a VAR intervention, and both caused their own controversy. So how does a VAR assess a challenge and what’s needed for the threshold to be crossed for a red card?
– VAR Review: Why Liverpool’s goal was ruled out in Carabao Cup final
Much has been made of the VAR looking for the buckle of a player’s ankle as evidence of excessive force. This has resulted in an expectation that a buckle should automatically always result in a red card. Yet it has only ever been one of many factors a VAR will take into account when judging a challenge. The others include, but are not limited to, the speed at which a player goes into the challenge, the height of contact, if it’s made with a straight leg, and whether it leads with studs showing.
Referees get accused of inconsistency because every late tackle with contact by studs isn’t given as a red card. Yet, like every subjective decision, it’s a judgement call. Consistency can only be possible if all result in a red card, instead there’s the perceived inconsistencies produced by interpretation.
If the contact point is low and the player is stepping into the challenge, that may produce evidence of a buckle but it’s not likely to suggest excessive force; it’s only likely to result in a yellow card at most.
Maguire comes out of a challenge with Andreas Pereira and steps into Lukic after the ball has gone. He catches the Fulham player around the top of the boot and it’s a yellow card, but the Manchester United player isn’t lunging in or using force.
A challenge to compare it to was Moisés Caicedo on Ryan Gravenberch in the Carabao Cup final. That’s covered in full in Sunday’s VAR Review, yet like Maguire it should be considered that Caicedo has stepped into the Liverpool player; while the challenge caused the injury it wasn’t because of the way it was made.
There have been a number of comparable challenges this season, and none of them have led to a VAR intervention for a red card. All those decisions have been unanimously judged to be correct by the Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel.
A week later, Liverpool supporters felt that AFC Bournemouth‘s Justin Kluivert should have been sent off after he caught Luis Díaz. While this challenge was slightly higher, importantly Kluivert is stepping in.
In both cases, the panel noted that «the defender is coming out of a challenge into another. He is off balance and there is no real force or intensity.» The panel will say the same about the Maguire incident.
Low contact can still result in a red card if the challenge itself produces force, such as Rhian Brewster‘s VAR dismissal for a tackle on Emerson for Sheffield United against West Ham United. He came in fast, was off the ground and late in a way which had to endanger an opponent.
We’ve spoken previously how Liverpool fans now have a Curtis Jones-ometer for all such challenges. The angle of the challenge is important, too, so Jones’ red card for Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur provides a good comparison. While he’s unfortunate in how the contact on the opponent came about, with a touch on top of the ball first, his studs went into Yves Bissouma higher on the shin with an angled boot. The height and angle, coupled with the buckle, combines to provide sufficient evidence for a VAR review for endangering the safety of an opponent. Liverpool lost their appeal against this dismissal, and we should expect the VAR to intervene in challenges of this exact nature.
Indeed, it’s similar to the red card Brighton & Hove Albion midfielder Billy Gilmour received against Everton on Saturday, a decision given on the field by referee Tony Harrington which would never be overturned.
Even though Gilmour’s challenge didn’t have a high level of force, his contact on Amadou Onana was high above the ankle. When contact moves above the ankle and onto the leg then, as with Jones, it becomes as increasingly important as point of contact.
Liverpool fans would argue Kluivert’s challenge on Díaz was also above the boot, yet the angle makes all the difference.
Possible red card overturn: Brownhill DOGSO on Lerma
What happened: Burnley‘s Josh Brownhill was sent off by referee Lewis Smith in the 35th minute. Goalkeeper James Trafford played a short pass to Brownhill just outside the D, but he was robbed by Jefferson Lerma. The Crystal Palace player was brought down before he could move forward on goal.
VAR decision: Red card stands.
VAR review: It’s a textbook example of a red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO.) Lerma had taken the ball off Brownhill and he’s dragged down when he would have had the chance to shoot.
The player is running towards goal, there’s no covering defender able to make a challenge, and the ball is within his control. It’s similar to the dismissal of Liverpool‘s Virgil van Dijk against Newcastle United earlier this season.
Possible penalty overturn: Vitinho challenge on França
What happened: Crystal Palace were awarded a penalty in the 76th minute when Matheus França was brought down inside the area by Vitinho. The VAR carried out a lengthy check to see if the spot kick should stand (watch here.)
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Jean-Philippe Mateta.
VAR review: This took a bit too long, but the check wasn’t about the foul by Vitinho, which the VAR, Michael Salisbury, determined fairly quickly was a correct decision.
The question was over the position and whether the foul contact had taken inside the area. With holding, a penalty is given if it continues into the area; with a foul it’s the precise point at which a player is fouled.
Possible offside: Assignon on Fofana goal
What happened: Burnley scored a consolation goal in the 87th minute when David Datro Fofana headed home from just inside the six-yard box, but the VAR began a check for a possible offside.
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: We can discuss this one alongside the Wataru Endo offside for Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final, which led to Virgil van Dijk‘s goal being disallowed. Is it the VAR getting involved in a decision which can be supported in law, but feels like an unnecessary intervention?
The officials don’t have to consider that Johnstone will definitely make a save. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely he’d keep out the header from Fofana. The consideration is about impact upon the ability to challenge for the ball.
It’s the same area of the offside law as Endo, where Assignon is «a player moving from, or standing in, an offside position is in the way of an opponent and interferes with the movement of the opponent towards the ball, this is an offside offence if it impacts on the ability of the opponent to play or challenge for the ball.»
The VAR will take into account a few factors: that the shot comes from a short distance which means the goalkeeper has less time to react, that Assignon is stood directly in front of Johnstone inside the six-yard box, and that the ball passes an area that the Burnley player has blocked off.
If Assignon had been a couple of yards further forward the goal would likely have counted, but his proximity to Johnstone means the VAR is always likely to get involved.
Jakub Kiwior‘s goal for Arsenal against Newcastle United on Saturday is a good comparison. At the point Kiwior heads the ball, William Saliba is in an offside position inside the six-yard area. Yet he isn’t in front of goalkeeper Loris Karius, and the ball passes the area between the players — so Saliba wouldn’t be considered to be stopping the goalkeeper getting to the ball.
The only question is whether Saliba was «clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent,» but the ball appeared to be on Karius before the Arsenal player raised his right leg.
Possible penalty: Handball by Dawson
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: A quick check by the VAR, Jarred Gillett, with Dawson having his arm close to his body.
The case for a spot kick would be whether Dawson leant into the shot to stop it with his arm, though there would also be a question of whether the ball hit low enough on the arm for it to be handball.
Possible red card: Robinson and Souza
What happened: In the 37th minute there was an off-the-ball altercation between two Sheffield United players, Jack Robinson and Vinicius Souza. The VAR checked for a possible red card for violent conduct by both players.
VAR decision: No red cards.
The VAR looked for evidence of violent conduct, and while Robinson and Souza went head to head there was no movement by either player, and the pushing that followed was to the upper body.
Possible penalty: Handball by Souza
What happened: In the 56th minute, João Gomes tried to flick the ball on inside the area and it hit the arm of Souza. Referee Darren Bond wasn’t interested in a penalty, and it was checked by the VAR.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Souza had his arm outstretched away from his body, so why wasn’t this a penalty kick even with a brush off the chest? The VAR determined that the ball was played against the Sheffield United player from close range and he had no time to react.
Yet we have seen similar arm positions lead to a spot kick through a VAR intervention, most notably against Arsenal’s William Saliba vs. Chelsea.
The VAR will take into account that the ball is travelling towards goal, especially if it’s a shot, and also if the defending player would expect the ball to come towards them from the direction of play.
These subjective considerations for handball can only lead to confusion and perceived inconsistencies.
Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.