Video Assistant Referee (VAR) causes controversy every week in the Premier League and FA Cup, 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.
– How VAR decisions affected every Prem club in 2022-23
– VAR in the Premier League: Ultimate guide
In this week’s VAR Review: Unpacking Fulham’s meltdown at Manchester United, Newcastle’s goal disallowed for offside at Nottingham Forest, all the drama as Wolves rage about decisions that went against them vs. Leeds, and penalty calls involving Tottenham and Aston Villa.
Possible red card and penalty: Handball by Willian
What happened: Manchester United launched a fast break from a Fulham corner in the 70th minute. The ball was worked to Jadon Sancho, whose shot was blocked on the line by Willian. Referee Chris Kavanagh awarded a corner but United’s players demanded a penalty for handball, with the VAR carrying out a review — and the game descended into chaos as Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and manager Marco Silva were sent off for protesting.
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Bruno Fernandes; red card to Willian.
Manchester United draw level after two Fulham players are sent off
Bruno Fernandes scores from the spot after Willian is shown red for handling the ball in the area and Aleksandar Mitrovic is sent off for bumping the referee.
VAR review: The initial VAR review tells only a fraction of this story, as Fulham imploded from 1-0 up to effectively throw away their FA Cup quarterfinal in a few crazy minutes as Man United scored twice after they had been reduced to nine men.
When Kavanagh went over to the pitchside monitor to review the penalty incident, Fulham boss Silva left his technical area and walked towards the referee. Entering this area is only punishable by a yellow card, and Silva admitted after the game he had shouted something, which earned him a red.
Only last month Silva became the first Premier League manager this season to serve a one-match touchline ban for cumulative yellow cards for poor behaviour, and insisted at the time “I have to improve myself.” Clearly not heeding his own words, he can expect a longer ban.
The VAR decision itself was one of the clearest interventions we’ll see. The referee thought Willian had stopped the ball with his knee or body, but the Fulham player had used his hand. That his arm was close to his chest isn’t relevant as there’s a deliberate movement towards the ball.
Once the handball is established, it’s an automatic red card because Willian has denied the opposition a goal. He will serve a one-match ban.
Enter Mitrovic, who squared up to Kavanagh after he had shown the red card to Willian. After shouting and pointing in the referee’s face, Mitrovic then pushed at him in an aggressive manner; Kavanagh immediately produced a third red card in the space of a few minutes. The Serbia international is facing a suspension of at least four games, which may be extended further as he manhandled the referee again and continued to shout at him.
There are differences with Bruno Fernandes putting his hand on the back of an assistant in Manchester United’s 7-0 defeat to Liverpool earlier this month. While the United midfielder shouldn’t have touched the official, there was no obvious aggression. Mitrovic, meanwhile, pushed out at the referee while launching a torrent of abuse.
Even if you think Fernandes should have been sent off, that doesn’t mean Mitrovic should escape after his unacceptable behaviour.
Despite not being on the pitch, Matheus Nunes was sent off (though Wolves plan to appeal) for his reaction to a VAR decision in the defeat to Leeds on Saturday, and with concerns over player behaviour growing the Football Association is likely to come down hard on Fulham.
Possible offside: Longstaff on Anderson goal
What happened: Newcastle United thought they had taken the lead in the 64th minute. Alexander Isak played a cross into the area which was cut out by Nottingham Forest defender Felipe. The ball ran to Forest’s Moussa Niakhate, who hit it against Sean Longstaff, his first involvement in the move. The ball was then back with Isak, who crossed for Elliot Anderson to head into the goal at the back post. Unbeknownst to all the fans in the stadium, the players and everyone watching on TV, an offside check had begun.
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: If Willian’s handball is exactly what VAR is for — to fix the real howlers — this is at the opposite end of the scale.
We’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again. It’s the “deliberate play” part of the offside law which is not only confusing for people who watch and play the game, but also for those who officiate it. How can Longstaff be offside when he wasn’t initially involved and the ball has been kicked by two Forest players before it then hits him?
It’s a decision which is correct and explainable in law, but is inexplicable in football logic. Was Felipe deliberately trying to play the ball? Yes. Was it a “deliberate play” of the ball by Felipe? No.
This law has become overcomplicated and isn’t helped by the use of the word “deliberate,” because this is about a player being in control of their actions and has no direct correlation to it being deliberate or not. Every attempted kick, block or head is by its very nature deliberate — but this isn’t how it is defined in the laws.
That doesn’t mean it’s right for the VAR, Peter Bankes, to intervene and disallow this goal; once referee Paul Tierney is sent to the monitor, the die is cast. This is a subjective decision, but is it really a clear and obvious error? This is a VAR searching for an infringement, applying the law to the letter when it’s unnecessary to get involved.
In previous seasons, this wouldn’t have been considered offside. But with the IFAB, football’s lawmakers, clarifying all aspects of what should constitute a “deliberate play” at the start of the season, many more situations are being caught in its web. The more such incidents we get, the more you wonder if the IFAB will have to issue yet another clarification.
The IFAB made the change in response to goals such as Kylian Mbappe‘s for France against Spain in the UEFA Nations League final, as the striker benefitted from being in an offside position when Eric Garcia made a failed interception. Mbappe was directly behind Garcia, and it allowed the Frenchman to run through and score. It was a clear, immediate scoring advantage for an attacker in an offside position.
Longstaff, who was stood away from the ball when it was first played by Isak, had no direct role in the immediate move against Forest.
In defining a “deliberate play” in such detail, a change that was supposed to prevent offside players gaining that unfair advantage has pushed the law the other way. It’s now more in favour of a defender making an error. The unintended consequence has been a stricter overall application, ruling out “fair” goals (of course, this is really only the case in competitions with VAR.)
When Isak crosses the ball, Felipe sticks out a leg to intercept it. In law, this is deemed instinctive stretching for a ball moving quickly. Felipe isn’t passing or playing it in a controlled way, and has limited time to coordinate his body movement. Thus, it’s not a “deliberate play.” But it’s still subjective and a situation a VAR could easily decide doesn’t meet the threshold for an intervention.
The ball then runs to Niakhate, who hits it against Longstaff. This doesn’t affect the outcome (with offside still active) as with Longstaff being so close to Niakhate, he is challenging an opponent from an offside position before the ball even touches him.
There are similarities to Manchester United’s disallowed goal against Reading in the FA Cup in January, when defender Thomas Holmes tried to stop Casemiro‘s pass and the ball fell to Wout Weghorst, who headed across the face of goal for Marcus Rashford to score from close range. Holmes was deemed to have made a reflex action in blocking a shot or cross, but this was acceptable as a VAR intervention.
There should always be an on-field review for a subjective offside decision, which is why Tierney had to go over to the monitor at Forest. In Man United vs. Reading, and against protocol, the VAR Lee Mason made the decision himself without sending referee Darren England to watch it himself.
A better example of what the IFAB intended was Mohamed Salah‘s goal for Liverpool against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup. Salah was in an offside position and directly benefitted when Toti made a failed attempt to clear with a header, with the Egyptian running through to score. Toti appeared to be stretching for the ball and not in control, but the VAR, Mike Dean, decided not to disallow the goal for offside. If you look at Salah and Longstaff, and what the IFAB was trying to achieve, the final outcomes feel the wrong way around.
This is a problem everywhere. In general, all leagues tend to treat “deliberate play” more strictly than other subjective areas of the offside law (see Rashford being judged onside in the Manchester derby for a more lenient application.)
Controversially at the World Cup in Tunisia vs. France, Aurelien Tchouameni played the ball into the area and Antoine Griezmann was stood yards offside. Defender Montassar Talbi tried to head the ball, but he didn’t get much on the clearance and it dropped to Griezmann, who scored an injury-time equaliser. The VAR told the referee Talbi hadn’t made a “deliberate play,” and the goal was disallowed upon review.
We also saw an example in the Bundesliga last month. RB Leipzig‘s Yussuf Poulsen had an equaliser disallowed in a 2-1 defeat at Union Berlin, with a defender inadvertently flicking a ball to an offside Timo Werner in the buildup to the goal. Werner came back to receive the ball, but it didn’t lead immediately to a goal.
Possible penalty: Firpo foul on Semedo
What happened: Wolves wanted a penalty in the eighth minute when Nelson Semedo went to ground under a challenge from Junior Firpo. Referee Michael Salisbury waved away the appeals but it was checked by the VAR, David Coote.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Wolves boss Julen Lopetegui was furious, questioning a series of decisions including this possible penalty for a foul on Semedo.
It comes down to the consideration that not all contact is a foul, and therefore not all contact is a penalty. It must have a true consequence in making a player go to ground, who has not embellished.
Firpo catches Semedo on the foot after the Wolves player had touched the ball first, but such situations haven’t led to VAR reviews for a penalty in the Premier League. It definitely doesn’t meet the threshold.
Indeed, there was a comparable situation two weeks ago between Arsenal and AFC Bournemouth when Marcos Senesi appeared to kick Takehiro Tomiyasu when both players went for the ball at the same time. The referee said no penalty, and the independent assessment panel — set up to look at all key match incidents in the Premier League at the end of each week — agreed that no VAR review was the correct outcome.
The panel is very unlikely to say this Wolves incident was a mistake. These kinds of decision have to be given by the referee, as we’ll see in the Southampton vs. Tottenham section.
Possible red card: Dawson challenge on Harrison
What happened: Craig Dawson was shown a yellow card in the 37th minute when he caught Jack Harrison above the ankle when both went for a loose ball. The VAR looked at the incident for a possible red card.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: While it’s not a great challenge by Dawson, and he does catch his opponent around the lower part of his leg, it isn’t an incorrect decision to show a yellow card.
The VAR won’t intervene on something like this, and next we have the perfect situation to compare it to.
VAR red card: Jonny challenge on Ayling
What happened: Jonny was booked in the 82nd minute for a late tackle on Luke Ayling, but the VAR immediately initiated a review for a possible red card.
VAR decision: Yellow card upgraded to red.
VAR review: It’s definite red card and it’s amazing that Lopetegui says he is considering an appeal. It has no chance of success.
We see lots of situations where a foul tackle is above the ankle, but this different; it’s the perfect example of excessive force, which could also endanger the safety of an opponent
In the Dawson situation, he did catch Harrison above the ankle, but it wouldn’t be considered “high” in nature with the opponent on the ground, nor was there any force in the way he went to try to win the ball.
Jonny might have have made contact with Ayling in a similar position, but his challenge had studs leading off the ground and with such force that the Leeds player’s ankle was bent backwards: a key indicator of excessive force, as seen with the VAR red card shown to Newcastle’s Bruno Guimaraes against Southampton in the second leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal in January.
We can also compare it to Manchester United midfielder Casemiro, sent off against Southampton in the Premier League last weekend. Both Jonny and Casemiro got a touch on the ball before making contact with their opponent, but that’s irrelevant when it comes to judging serious foul play.
Possible disallowed goal: Roca foul on Toure in buildup
What happened: Leeds United scored their fourth goal in the 97th minute through Rodrigo. Adama Traore had the ball close to the halfway line and checked inside. Marc Roca held on to his shirt for a moment, and Traore then lost out on possession to Crysencio Summerville. Traore stopped at this point and didn’t attempt to win the ball back from the Leeds player, who had also paused momentarily. Once Summerville realised the referee wasn’t going to award the free kick, he moved forward and played in Rodrigo to score. The VAR reviewed the holding of the shirt for a foul in the buildup and sent the referee to the monitor advising that the goal should be disallowed.
VAR decision: Goal stands; review rejected at the monitor.
VAR review: Would much have been made of this had the VAR not sent the referee to the monitor?
The law states that “a holding offence occurs only when a player’s contact with an opponent’s body or equipment impedes the opponent’s movement.”
So, not all holding of a player’s shirt is a foul, though when it is obviously pulled away from the skin there’s a greater chance of it being penalised. But was there a prolonged amount of holding that affected Traore and impeded his movement?
There are grounds for a foul but, watching it at full speed, the impact appears negligible and a VAR intervention over-fussy and against other similar situations we have seen this season.
This season, Salisbury is the fourth referee this season to stand by his original decision, after it didn’t happen once in the last campaign.
Other rejected reviews this season:
Michael Oliver: Rejected overturning a penalty awarded to Nottingham Forest for handball by Bournemouth.
Thomas Bramall: Rejected awarded a penalty to Brentford at Bournemouth.
Andy Madley: Rejected disallowing a Fulham goal for handball against West Ham.
Possible penalty overturn: Foul by Sarr on Maitland-Niles
What happened: Southampton were awarded a penalty deep into stoppage time when Pape Matar Sarr challenged Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Referee Simon Hooper had a good view of the incident and immediately pointed to the spot (watch here.)
VAR decision: Penalty stands; scored by James Ward-Prowse.
VAR review: Remember the possible penalty for Wolves for the challenge on Semedo? Well the discussion is pretty much the same here …. except the referee has given the penalty.
Sarr makes some contact with Maitland-Niles, but Southampton are fortunate to get the spot kick. Would the VAR, Tony Harrington, have stepped in to award the penalty had the referee played on? Probably not. The decision on the field of play carries the weight. VAR guidelines say that when a penalty has been awarded and there is contact between defender and attacker, the decision shouldn’t be overturned.
This might seem in contradiction to the “not all contact is a foul” mantra, and it’s understandable if fans are confused: a small amount of contact can’t be a penalty through VAR, but the VAR can’t intervene if there’s a only small amount of contact.
Possible penalty: Handball by Stephens
What happened: Aston Villa won a corner in the 38th minute, it was worked to Jacob Ramsey for a shot on goal. The ball deflected off the hand of Jack Stephens before flying over the bar for another corner. There was a check for a penalty.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: In UEFA competition, with a much stricter application of the handball law, this would probably be a penalty. It’s a close decision, and if the referee had given the spot kick it wouldn’t have been overturned.
Stephens is saved by the ball hitting his right hand, with the arm deemed to be in a natural position, low and close to the body. If it had hit his right hand, which is raised with the full palm showing, the VAR would certainly have intervened.
Handball will always be a judgement call over arm position, proximity and how a player has approached the ball. Two situations are never really the same.
Villa fans may argue there isn’t a huge difference to the VAR handball penalty awarded to Blackburn Rovers against Sheffield United in the FA Cup, when Jack Robinson was penalised for blocking a shot by Sam Gallagher. The VAR, Paul Tierney, rightly decided that Robinson had made his body bigger and leant into the ball — it’s more of a direct save. There’s no doubt this was the correct decision. As the goalkeeper was in place to make a save behind Robinson, it’s a yellow card, rather than a red for denying a goal as was the case with Willian.
The independent panel has only reported one missed VAR intervention in the last month, which came last weekend when Leicester City were denied a 43rd-minute penalty against Chelsea. Wesley Fofana had stuck his elbow towards the ball when jumping in the wall. The VAR just so happened to be Chris Kavanagh, who decided the defender’s arm was close to his body so he didn’t intervene for handball. But, again with reference to Willian, there was a deliberate movement towards the path of the ball. The game was 1-1 at the time and Leicester went on to lose 3-1.
Goal disallowed: Ball out of play
What happened: Villa thought they had scored a third goal in the 83rd minute when Ezri Konsa scored from close range, but did the ball go out of play beforehand?
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: A simple VAR intervention for Tierney. The goal was initially awarded by the on-field officials, but it had clearly run out of play behind the goal.
Information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL was used in this story.