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: Looking at handball decisions involving Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United, plus a possible red card for Eddie Nketiah and all the rest of the big decisions.
Possible penalty: Handball by Romero
What happened: Arsenal won a corner in the 50th minute. The ball was swung over from the right and dropped to Ben White. The Arsenal player attempted to get a shot on goal, but his effort was blocked by Cristian Romero. Arsenal appealed in unison for a penalty for handball, but referee Rob Jones waved it away. The VAR, Paul Tierney, began a check for a possible penalty (watch here.)
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Bukayo Saka.
VAR review: A month ago, Romero escaped giving away a penalty against Manchester United when the VAR opted against intervening, based upon proximity. The VAR Review from after that match stated, "we will likely see similar situations that result in a penalty." On Sunday, the ball hit Romero from close range and the VAR advised the referee a penalty should be awarded.
Fans want consistency, but each situation is going to be judged on its own merits, and when the subjectivity of different referees is adding into it -- especially when handball is far from cut and dried -- there will always be perceived inconsistencies.
The incident against Arsenal was a clearer offence, as it blocked a shot close to goal, yet you cannot blame supporters for thinking there was little difference in arm position or proximity in the two situations.
It seemed a lengthy check for a simple handball decision, but there were three aspects to take into account -- a reason why putting a time limit on a review would never really work. After the handball was identified, the VAR checked for a possible push on James Maddison in the buildup, which was cleared, followed by a possible red card.
As Romero was close to the goal-line, and goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario out of the picture on the floor by the post, there was a case that Romero had stopped a goal -- and if so, he had to be sent off. That meant the VAR needed to check different angles to assess the position of Yves Bissouma on the goal line, and it was determined that there was a probability that the midfielder would have stopped the ball going into the net. That means there's no red card for denying a goal.
Romero wasn't actually booked for the handball, with referees in the Premier League rarely showing a yellow card for a handball which results in a penalty. This is different in Europe, and UEFA's Football Board actually urged European football's governing body that "not every handball should automatically lead to a caution after every shot at goal."
Possible red card: Nketiah challenge on Vicario
What happened: Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah attempted to close down as goalkeeper Vicario made a clearance in the 67th minute. Nketiah was late and caught Vicario, with the referee producing the yellow card. The VAR checked for a possible red card.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: Nketiah can count himself fortunate in this situation as the challenge is late and leading with a high foot.
What saves him from a red card is he challenges the space in front of Vicario, with the intention of blocking the goalkeeper's clearance. He mistimes it, and catches Vicario through his momentum. If Nketiah had gone directly toward Vicario with his leading foot, there would have been a clear case for a red card, even if he hadn't made contact with that leg. Intention isn't relevant for a red card decision, but where the player makes the challenge is.
The foul actually comes from his other leg, which is tucked into the ground. That just about makes a yellow card an acceptable disciplinary outcome.
Possible penalty overturn: Handball by Gomes
What happened: Luton Town were on the attack in the 63rd minute when Issa Kaboré attempted to play the ball across the area. João Gomes closed down and blocked the ball, which deflected up onto the Wolves player's raised arm. Referee Josh Smith pointed to the penalty spot, and the VAR checked for a possible overturn.
VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Carlton Morris.
VAR review: It's a decision that has been criticised as one of the worst of the season, but that doesn't mean it was wrong in law. It will be universally hated, unless you are a Luton fan, but remains supportable. Just like the Bruno Fernandes goal in the Manchester derby last season, when Marcus Rashford wasn't given offside, in law the referee had not made a clear error to allow the goal -- no matter what we may think about that outcome in the spirit of the game.
Once given on the field, this penalty was never likely to be overturned.
No one wants to see penalties awarded for handballs like this, with the ball deflecting off a player's body onto their arm. But the IFAB has turned handball into a technical assessment, with a menu of considerations and exemptions, creating a subjective minefield for officials.
For several years there has been the incorrect belief that a deflection automatically cancels a possible handball offence. This was never the intention of a poorly reworded handball law. Indeed, in August 2020, Leeds United conceded a penalty at Liverpool when Robin Koch blocked a shot but the ball deflected onto his outstretched arm -- it was the position of the arm well away from the body that was the determining factor, not any rebound.
Wolves boss Gary O'Neil himself incorrectly interpreted the definition of the law when he said: "I've got the rules that were sent to us on my phone and mitigating circumstances for handball are if it hits the same player on a different body part and has a significant change of trajectory, then it's not handball."
The wording was simplified in 2021, but there remained the assumption across the game that a deflection was key. Yet this was only ever the case when a player was making a "deliberate play," which as we know from offside discussions means a player has control over the action and the outcome. In effect, they need to be kicking or heading the ball and not just blocking.
The IFAB guidance on exemptions states: "Contact [with the arm] is a consequence of the player deliberately playing the ball with another part of the body (against himself/herself.)"
The logic is that if a player is clearing the ball, either with their foot or head, and they play it onto their own arm they can't be gaining an advantage as they are stopping their own play of the ball.
A block is viewed differently, as it's considered that a player can be making their body unnaturally bigger to stop the ball -- even if the handball comes from a deflection off the body.
Indeed, UEFA's Football Board earlier this year asked that "UEFA should clarify that no handball offence should be called on a player if the ball is previously deflected from his own body" -- yet this goes against the intention of the law as it's written today.
The referee may take a deflection into account, but the position of the arm itself remains the determining factor for the offence. Indeed, last weekend Newcastle United had a penalty cancelled when it was judged the ball had deflected off Bryan Mbeumo's head and onto his arm -- but his arm was not in an unexpected position for his action in jumping. Yet more confusion for supporters.
Which leaves proximity and expected position of the arm for Gomes' movement as the possible exemptions which the VAR can act upon.
Just where else can Gomes put his arm when stretching to make a block? Surely this has to be the expected position for his movement? Yet the arm so high above the head, effectively in the 12 o'clock position, the law feels should not be justifiable. In effect, it's no different to John Egan's handball against Manchester City, despite the deflection off Gomes' own body. The further the arm goes up, especially if you are not jumping, the more the risk increases.
Possible red card: Bellegarde challenge on Lockyer
What happened: Wolves midfielder Jean-Ricner Bellegarde was battling with Luton's Tom Lockyer in the 38th minute. Bellegarde appeared to kick out at his opponent, and the referee produced the red card.
VAR decision: Red card stands.
VAR review: Once the VAR has identified that Bellegarde has kicked out at Lockyer, there's nowhere for the VAR to go, even if you think there wasn't much force in the way the Wolves player pushed his leg out. A red card for violent conduct isn't going to be overturned.
Possible handball: Gordon in lead-up to Longstaff goal
What happened: Newcastle United took the lead in the 21st minute. Anthony Gordon played a pass back from the goal-line, and Sean Longstaff scored with a first-time finish. Sheffield United players appealed for the ball going out of play and handball by Gordon.
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: Yet another different area of the handball law, which has also changed three times in recent seasons. It's no wonder supporters cannot keep up.
Attacking handball is only an automatic offence if it is done by the goal scorer, which means Gordon (who only assisted) would have to deliberately handle for it to be an offence. The ball bounces and simply hits the Newcastle player's hand. There is no movement of the arm, or an attempt to use it as control. That the accidental handball gives Gordon possession of the ball is irrelevant to the outcome.
This goal seemed to cause a lot of controversy, yet the law was changed to the current interpretation because many goals were disallowed for the ball simply hitting the arm of a teammate before a goal is scored.
The VAR on the game was Darren England, who was also at Stockley Park on Sept. 18 and disallowed a potential winner for Burnley at Nottingham Forest for deliberate handball in the buildup by Sander Berge. England ruled that Berge had moved his arm to the ball and sent the referee to the monitor to rule out the goal. It was a difficult call, though a very different situation to Gordon, and questionable whether it subjectively crossed the threshold as a clear and obvious error.
It's claimed this means the decisions are consistent, but the incidents are not the same. If we want consistency, we'd have to go back to every touch of the arm by the player who creates a goal being an offence.
Possible penalty: Bogle on Gordon
What happened: Gordon moved into the penalty area and took the ball past Jayden Bogle. The Sheffield United player stuck out a leg and appeared to catch Gordon, who went to ground. Referee Stuart Attwell waved away the England under-21 international's appeals for a spot kick.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Bogle is fortunate that referee Stuart Attwell didn't award the penalty on the field, because it wouldn't have been overturned if awarded. It's one of the penalty decisions in which the VAR has to decide if the level of contact in the challenge matches the way the attacker goes to ground.
Last week we saw Tottenham appeal for a penalty when James Maddison went down after contact from a defender. The VAR opted not to intervene, a decision that the Independent Key Incidents Panel agreed with. There's only a small amount of contact on Gordon's ankle, and not quite enough for a VAR intervention based upon other similar examples this season.
Possible red card: Gusto challenge on Digne
VAR decision: Red card.
VAR review: Many times we see challenges where contact is above the ankle and yet there is no VAR intervention for a red card, so what makes this decision different?
When a player goes into a tackle stretching and/or sliding, they are usually judged to have less control and a greater degree of force. These decisions always seem more questionable when a player touches the ball before the opponent, but Gusto does that, so it doesn't change the interpretation for serious foul play -- the VAR will be asking if it endangers the safety of an opponent.
If the ankle is bent, the VAR will often see that as evidence of excessive force being used. The same was true of the VAR red card shown to Newcastle's Bruno Guimarães against Southampton in the Carabao Cup semifinals last season.
Possible red card: Aguerd challenge on Salah
What happened: Liverpool were awarded a penalty in the 15th minute when Nayef Aguerd tripped Mohamed Salah, who stepped up to score from the spot. The West Ham United defender stayed on the pitch, but was there a case for a red card? (watch here)
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: Referee Chris Kavanagh chose not to show the yellow card to Aguerd, and the VAR can only intervene to advise a red card has been missed.
Modern protocol is that a player shouldn't be shown a red card inside the area when tackling with the feet, unless that challenge is excessive.
Possible penalty: Mac Allister challenge on Bowen
What happened: Jarrod Bowen ran into the area in the 37th minute and was challenged by Alexis Mac Allister. The England international went to ground but play continued as Tomás Soucek fired wide of the post. But was there a case for a penalty?
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Mac Allister won the ball when making the challenge and didn't go through his opponent to do so, so no spot kick was the correct outcome. Indeed, there weren't any appeals from the West Ham players.
Possible offside error on Brentford goal
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: Scott almost made an error in this offside check, checking the offside position of Yoane Wissa after the ball was flicked on by Jensen. The VAR applied the offside lines to Wissa and was ready to disallow the goal.
However, protocol then determines that the rest of the attacking phase is played through, and that's when Scott identified that the wrong play of the ball had been checked.
Bryan Mbeumo touches the ball after Jensen, so it's at this point the offside line should be drawn -- and at that stage Wissa was onside.
A similar situation happened in the game between Liverpool and Leicester City last season, when the incorrect offside decision was almost made against Salah.
Possible red card overturn: Rodri on Gibbs-White
VAR decision: Red card stands.
VAR review: Rodri put both hands around the neck of Gibbs-White and, as we saw with the red card shown to Manchester United's Casemiro last season, if that's picked up by the officials, it's not going to be overturned.
Possible offside: Højlund on Evans goal
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: Højlund was directly in front of Burnley goalkeeper James Trafford when Evans headed the ball towards goal, and the striker has to have an impact on the goalkeeper's ability to save the ball.
The closer an attacking player is to the goalkeeper, the greater the likelihood they will be penalised for offside.
Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.