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: Why was Eddie Nketiah ruled to be offside when Gabriel Martinelli scored for Arsenal at Everton? Why wasn’t Anthony Gordon‘s penalty overturned for Newcastle United against Brentford? And was the referee right to stick by his penalty decision at Aston Villa?
Possible offside: Nketiah before Martinelli goal
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: The ball came to Nketiah from Everton striker Beto, so how could the Arsenal player possibly be offside? It’s the return of the “deliberate play” aspect of the rule which created a unique offside situation, the likes of which we may not see again.
The word “deliberate” causes great confusion when “controlled” would be easier to understand and more logical — not just for supporters but players, managers and pundits too.
A player can only be judged to have made a “deliberate play” if they have control of the outcome of their action. So, if a player is making an attempted block or interception, this cannot lead to a controlled outcome. Thus, this can’t be a “deliberate play.” And if it cannot be a “deliberate play,” the offside phase cannot be reset.
Gabriel received the ball in the centre-circle and tried to play a square pass. Beto had closed down the Arsenal defender and stuck out a leg to cut off that pass. The ball came off Beto’s shin and deflected up the pitch to Nketiah, who was coming back from an offside position.
It’s a remarkable set of events because at no point was Gabriel attempting to play the ball to Nketiah, but the intended recipient of a pass is irrelevant, as is the direction it has been played. A player can still be offside if the ball is passed backwards or sideways.
Once it’s established there is no “deliberate play” by Beto, the offside phase is set at the point Gabriel touches the ball — and Nketiah was clearly ahead of the last defender, Vitalii Mykolenko.
We’ve seen a few other examples of the offside phase not being reset by the touch of a defensive player, though not as remarkable as this.
Even though “deliberate play” is subjective, this was a textbook example of an action which shouldn’t reset the offside phase. It didn’t require referee Simon Hooper to be sent to the monitor to confirm it, as the overturn was factual on the position of Nketiah.
As set out in the review of the last gameweek, when Alejandro Garnacho had a goal disallowed against Arsenal, the camera angle used is irrelevant as the technology exists to correct it. So while it might look odd from the angle used, the lines are mapped to each pitch.
It may even have been that Martinelli was offside from the pass by Vieira, but there was no need to check this after the offside position of Nketiah was confirmed.
Possible penalty: Saliba on Doucoure
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Doucoure was clearly looking for a penalty in this situation. He moved the ball to the right, but continued his run in a straight line to ensure he collided with Saliba.
The France international had withdrawn his leg and Doucoure had attempted to use that to win a penalty, but there was no momentum from Saliba — and we’ll see a similar kind of situation in the Newcastle vs. Brentford match.
Possible penalty overturn: Flekken challenge on Gordon
What happened: Newcastle were awarded a penalty in the 61st minute when Anthony Gordon went to ground after Brentford goalkeeper Mark Flekken came out towards the ball. But was it a foul or did the Newcastle United player initiate the contact? The VAR, John Brooks, began a check of the decision.
VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Callum Wilson.
VAR review: This penalty was only awarded after a period of deliberation between referee Craig Pawson and his assistant. Aaron Hickey plays a back-pass to Flekken, with Gordon closing down the ball. The Brentford goalkeeper knows he cannot handle it, which creates indecision. He has only two options: attempt to kick the ball clear or guard it out of play and allow Newcastle to have a corner kick.
Flekken goes for the second option, effectively opting not to make a challenge, but Gordon has closed down the space and goes to ground.
There’s no question that Gordon has played for the penalty, and the VAR must judge whether the striker has initiated the contact or simply used the momentum of the goalkeeper and has his right to that space on the pitch.
This will split opinion. Gordon positions himself in front of Flekken and moves his right foot into the thigh of the goalkeeper. This could be seen as initiating contact, but Flekken also makes contact with Gordon’s left leg with his own left leg as he slides forward.
Brentford manager Thomas Frank was critical after the game, claiming that PGMOL chief Howard Webb would apologise for the decision. There’s no chance of that happening, and it’s very unlikely to be judged as a VAR error by the independent assessment panel.
“We just got told four weeks ago when Kevin Schade went through against Tottenham, where the keeper took him out, that no, he pulled out before, so it can’t be a penalty,” Frank added. “Mark pulled out before, now a penalty.”
You can see his point, yet these are different situations.
In the Schade case, Spurs goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario connected with Schade after the Brentford player had released a shot and no penalty was awarded; the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel agreed this was normal football contact. Challenges after a shot has been released are always judged differently, as though the play has been completed and it’s a natural collision — unless the goalkeeper or defender is reckless.
In the Gordon case, Flekken may have withdrawn his hands but there’s a question over his momentum leading to a foul on a player who had yet to play the ball and, far more crucially for the VAR, the decision on the field was a penalty kick.
We often see players using the movement of an opponent to win a penalty, be that a goalkeeper or a defender making a sliding challenge. An attacker will wait for the contact with no intention of playing the ball himself. It’s the same situation here, yet very much an extreme example due to the way Gordon invites, if not initiates, the contact.
Possible goal: Wilson penalised for foul on Flekken
What happened: Newcastle thought they had taken the lead in the 57th minute when Callum Wilson scored following a cross into the box, but referee Pawson blew his whistle for a foul on the goalkeeper by the striker.
VAR decision: No goal.
VAR review: It looks a soft decision on first view, but replays showed that Wilson was holding on to Flekken’s left arm, preventing him from being able to punch or catch the ball.
Once this is identified by the VAR, it’s clear the referee has made the correct call.
Possible penalty overturn: Handball by Mbeumo
What happened: Newcastle were awarded a second spot kick in the 81st minute when referee Pawson judged there was a handball by Bryan Mbeumo. The VAR began a check of the penalty decision.
VAR decision: Penalty cancelled.
VAR review: A strange one on first view, because it appears a strong penalty claim as Mbeumo has his hand above shoulder height. But there are four exceptions the VAR can take into account.
Most importantly, Kieran Trippier actually nods the ball onto the head of Mbeumo, and it then deflects onto the arm of the Brentford player — it wasn’t a direct handball.
Secondly, the proximity of Mbeumo to the play off the ball, plus that he had his back to it. And finally, the expected position for the body in jumping for the ball.
It was a good review from the VAR to intervene and advise the referee he should cancel the spot kick.
Possible penalty overturn: Foul by Richards on Watkins
What happened: The game was into the third minute of stoppage time when Ollie Watkins moved through the centre into the area and closed down on goal. Defender Chris Richards attempted to win the ball with a slide tackle, and when Watkins went to ground, referee Darren England pointed to the spot. The VAR, Robert Jones, sent the referee to the monitor to overturn his decision (watch here.)
VAR decision: Overturn rejected at the monitor. Penalty stands, scored by Douglas Luiz.
VAR review: England became the 10th referee to reject an overturn at the monitor in the Premier League, which was the first time it’s happened this season.
The VAR has decided that Richards has won the ball first, but the referee disagreed and stuck to his own call.
While the monitor primarily exists for the referee to approve the changing of a decision, he remains in control of the final outcome; it’s why rejected overturns are few and far between, though they do happen, as the referee goes to the monitor with the expectation he has made a mistake.
Richards did eventually get to the ball, but England clearly felt he hadn’t made a clear and obvious error, and there was doubt that Richards had got any meaningful touch, fouling the attacker in order to play it.
Palace will feel aggrieved that the first rejected overturn of 2023-24 goes against them in injury time when they were drawing 1-1, not to mention they were actually leading until five minutes beforehand.
Possible penalty: Basham on Maddison
What happened: In the 33rd minute, James Maddison went down in the penalty area after appearing to be kicked by Sheffield United defender Chris Basham. Referee Peter Bankes wasn’t interested in a spot kick, but it was checked by the VAR, Graham Scott.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Maddison threw himself to the ground under minimal contact from Basham, and the VAR won’t get involved in situations like this.
That doesn’t mean we can’t find comparisons where a penalty has been given, but not overturned.
Last month, Liverpool were awarded a spot kick against AFC Bournemouth when Dominik Szoboszlai went to ground under a challenge from Joe Rothwell. It was a near carbon copy, even in the same corner of the penalty area.
In both situations there was contact on attacker by defender, and attacker went down in a theatrical manner. The difference? The referee awarded the spot kick at Anfield — a further example of how VAR will never exist to provide consistency of decision-making when the on-pitch decision carries the weight.
The independent panel ruled that the Szoboszlai spot kick shouldn’t have been awarded by the referee as the contact did not meet the threshold for a foul — yet it wasn’t a clear and obvious error for the VAR to intervene. The logic therefore suggests that Bankes and Scott have got the Maddison decision correct.
Spurs fans will argue that it’s no different to the VAR penalty given against them at Brentford on the opening weekend, when Son Heung-Min was adjudged to have fouled Mathias Jensen. That call was without doubt a borderline VAR intervention, but ruled as correct by the independent panel. The Szoboszlai incident is much closer to Maddison.
Possible red card: Handball by Foderingham
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: There’s a common misconception that if a goalkeeper handles the ball outside the area it has to be a red card, when in fact the referee can choose to offer no sanction at all depending on the circumstances. For instance, a goalkeeper who simply loses his bearings and catches the ball outside the area with no prospect of an attacker playing the ball is unlikely to be booked.
For a red card to be shown, the goalkeeper is most likely stopping an obvious goal-scoring opportunity — so there must be a striker in close proximity to the incident with a clear chance, not heading away from goal or at an angle.
Foderingham handled the ball close to the corner of the penalty area, and while Dejan Kulusevski could have taken control of the ball, he would not have had an immediate goal-scoring opportunity in the definition in law.
Possible goal disallowed: Ball out of play on Højlund goal
What happened: Rasmus Højlund thought he had equalised for Manchester United in the 40th minute, but there was a check for the ball being out of play before it was cut back by Marcus Rashford (watch here.)
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: An easy call for the VAR, Chris Kavanagh. The goal-line camera gives him the perfect view down the line, and as grass can be seen between the ball and the line, the whole of the ball has to be over it.
With this camera there’s no need to have a top-down view onto the ball; it clearly shows a gap, and the goal had to be disallowed.
Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.