The VAR Review: Why West Ham’s goal stood, Liverpool offside, Odegaard handball

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 in terms of VAR protocol and the Laws of the Game.

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In this Christmas edition of the VAR Review: Why West Ham United‘s first goal was allowed to stand against Arsenal, Martin Ødegaard‘s handball against Liverpool, and Harvey Elliott‘s disallowed goal at Burnley.

Possible ball out of play: Soucek goal

What happened: West Ham took the lead in the 13th minute when Jarrod Bowen cut the ball back from the goal line for Tomás Soucek to score, but did the ball go out of play?

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: Yet again Arsenal suffered from the view of the ball being obscured by a player, meaning that VAR Craig Pawson could not be sure the whole of the ball was over the goal line.

For Newcastle United‘s winner against Arsenal earlier this season, the ball wasn’t in view on the goal-line camera and was then hidden on a possible offside against goal scorer Anthony Gordon.

This time, it was Bowen’s leg that was covering the line and blocking the view of the ball. Although the probability is that the whole of the ball had crossed the line, the VAR had no proof of this.

There’s no easy solution, and it’s not something that could be fixed simply by adding more cameras as there’s always the chance the ball could be occluded by multiple players. Indeed, in the Bowen situation, Oleksandr Zinchenko is on the line inside the goal, so even having a camera on both sides of the pitch wouldn’t guarantee a decision was possible.

Hawk-Eye in tennis judges only on predictive elements of where the ball will bounce, as it cannot be out of play when in the air. Similarly, in cricket there is a small, defined area the ball can pass through to hit the stumps. In both sports, the ball cannot be obscured.

With football, the area where the ball could go out of play is much greater, and it’s likely further developments in ball tracking, which will come with semi-automated offside, are the long-term solution. But, for now, and as at the World Cup last year for Japan‘s goal against Spain, we have to rely on the goal-line cameras.

With Manchester United‘s disallowed goal against Brighton & Hove Albion, there was nothing that blocked the view down the goal line to prove the whole of the ball was out.

Possible penalty: Handball by Ødegaard

What happened: Mohamed Salah looked to turn past Martin Ødegaard on the edge of the area. Referee Chris Kavanagh wasn’t interested in a penalty, but the VAR, David Coote, checked it.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: This seems to be the VAR trying to find justification not to give a penalty, rather than acting on what’s clear from the replays.

Ødegaard wasn’t falling to the ground, so the exemption that a supporting arm touched the ball isn’t applicable.

There’s another clause that says there should no offence if the arm is being brought back into the body to avoid the ball — the reason Coote gave for not awarding a penalty.

Yet Ødegaard appears to scoop at the ball. This should have been a penalty, and the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel will surely log it as a VAR error.

Possible penalty: Alexander-Arnold challenge on Havertz

What happened: Kai Havertz moved into the penalty area in the 82nd minute and went down after being challenged by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Again the referee ignored appeals for a spot kick.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: Although Alexander-Arnold leans into Havertz, it’s the kind of challenge that would have to be given by the referee rather than from a VAR review. It wouldn’t be seen as a clear and obvious error.

It’s been compared to AFC Bournemouth‘s penalty against Fulham, when João Palhinha brought down Antoine Semenyo in the 61st minute. Havertz places his left foot across Alexander-Arnold to bring the contact, whereas Palhinha went into the back of his opponent. And, of course, the Bournemouth penalty was given on the field, not by the VAR.

Possible goal: No foul by Núñez on Taylor

What happened: Liverpool thought they had doubled their lead in the 28th minute through Cody Gakpo, but referee Paul Tierney blew for a foul by Darwin Núñez on Charlie Taylor (watch here.)

VAR decision: No goal.

VAR review: The probability is there was no foul by Nunez, yet it’s difficult to say from the replays there definitively was no contact by the Liverpool player. It’s the possible contact into the back, rather than from Nunez’s leg, that the VAR will have looked at.

It was difficult for the VAR, Simon Hooper, to be sure enough to say there’s been a clear and obvious error.

It’s highly unlikely the goal would have been ruled out had it been given on the field, so Liverpool can count themselves unfortunate.

The independent panel might say this was a refereeing error, but not clear and obvious for the VAR to get involved in.

Possible offside: Salah on Elliott goal

What happened: Liverpool again thought they had a second goal in the 55th minute when Harvey Elliott drilled home from inside the area. However, the VAR checked for a possible offside against Salah.

VAR decision: Goal disallowed.

VAR review: Salah was in goalkeeper James Trafford‘s line of vision, so there’s a strong case for offside. The VAR then has to make a judgement on impact.

The closer an attacker is to the goalkeeper, the greater the impact and the chance the goal will be disallowed.

Trafford moves to his right, away from the path of the ball, and the VAR has to consider whether the keeper would have done the same without Salah there. Whether Trafford will definitely save the ball isn’t a consideration, only that his ability to do so has been impeded. It’s hard to argue against that in law.

However, Salah had been pushed forward moments earlier, which led to him being offside, so shouldn’t that be taken into account? The push wasn’t careless, reckless or using excessive force, which is needed for there to be foul (and thus given as a penalty as Salah was inside the area.)

Once the offside has been determined, the officials can only disallow the goal or award a spot kick. And there’s no likelihood that a penalty is ever going to be awarded when the ball isn’t within playing distance.

There’s no consideration for a push that isn’t a foul that gives a team an advantage in an offside situation.

This happens regularly on set pieces — from attackers too as they try to beat the defensive offside line. It’s just rare for it to have such a direct impact upon a goal.

Possible penalty overturn: Handball by Onana

What happened: Manchester City pushed forward in the 62nd minute, and Nathan Aké attempted a shot on goal, which was blocked by the raised arm of Amadou Onana. Referee John Brooks was uncertain of the spot kick as City’s players appealed furiously, before it was awarded on the advice of the assistant.

VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Julián Álvarez.

VAR review: Everton boss Sean Dyche complained that it wasn’t deliberate, yet the law is much more about making the body unnaturally bigger than it being a deliberate act. And even if there can still be an argument that an arm position is a consequence of natural movement, the higher it is raised, the more likely it will be penalised.

Onana’s arm is up and it blocks a shot, which means there’s always a strong chance a penalty will be awarded — however harsh it might seem.

The handball law as it is today can only bring inconsistencies in decision-making, because there are just so many clauses and exemptions for referees to take into account. Gone are the days when “common sense” decisions could be made. Onana’s handball is definitely what we can term a “modern penalty.”

So should Manchester United have been awarded a penalty for a raised arm by Tottenham Hotspur‘s Cristian Romero at the start of the season then? Romero’s was out, but not at head level like it was with Onana. But you can’t blame supporters for being confused at how one is a spot kick and the other isn’t, with there being similarities over arm position and proximity.

Possible foul: Ramsey on Foderingham

What happened: Aston Villa thought they had taken the lead in the 59th minute when Leon Bailey fired home from Ollie Watkins‘ square pass, but there was a VAR check for a foul in the buildup on goalkeeper Wes Foderingham.

VAR decision: Goal disallowed.

VAR review: Morally, it feels right that this goal was ruled out because there was a clear foul on Foderingham, with Jacob Ramsey holding onto the goalkeeper’s arm as he jumped to punch away the ball.

But in protocol, it’s a different matter and perhaps the goal should have counted.

Five Sheffield United players touched the ball before Watkins regained possession and eventually created the goal. So, how can the attacking phase remain the same?

The first four touches would be irrelevant, as the phase can only be reset by controlled possession and not involuntary deflections or stretched plays.

Yet when George Baldock took the ball, he was able to move forward with it at his feet, taking three touches. Surely that has to be controlled possession to reset the phase, meaning the VAR cannot go back and disallow the goal for the foul on Foderingham?

But there are other clauses in the protocol: the ball still being in and around the penalty area should be considered, while the referee and VAR must take into account “what football expects.”

Opinion will be split, as it was such an obvious foul on Foderingham that meant he couldn’t clear the ball and that, directly or indirectly, led to the goal. But with Baldock having had control of the ball, both sides have valid arguments.

Although Ramsey was also having his shirt held by a defender, there wasn’t enough in this for it to be considered a penalty.

Possible penalty: Foul on Nkunku by Richards

What happened: Christopher Nkunku broke into the area in the first half and went to ground, appearing to take a fresh air shot. Referee Michael Salisbury waved away the penalty appeals, and it was checked by the VAR, Chris Kavanagh (watch here.)

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: Arsenal fans will no doubt point to the red card David Luiz received against Wolves in February 2021 in similar circumstances. Willian José was through on goal and his studs clipped the knee of Luiz, who hadn’t made a challenge. A penalty was awarded on the field, with the Arsenal player sent off for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.

The Gunners lost an appeal against the dismissal because in law a penalty and red card isn’t an incorrect decision — yet it remains subjective.

This incident was very similar in nature, with Nkunku catching the leg of Chris Richards as he drew his foot back to shoot.

It’s a penalty that would have to be given by the referee. Likewise, if Luiz hadn’t been penalised, then the VAR would have got involved.

Possible offside: Jackson when scoring

What happened: Nicolas Jackson had the ball in the back of the net in the 76th minute, but had he strayed offside? (watch here)

VAR decision: Goal disallowed.

VAR review: There’s a clear gap in the offside lines from when Thiago Silva played the ball forward, but the ball came off Eberechi Eze before it fell to Jackson, so how could it be offside?

The law demands that Eze’s actions are a controlled, deliberate play of the ball for the phase to be reset; a block doesn’t count. It’s a deflection, so the phase remains active from when Silva got involved.

Possible penalty: Eze foul on Madueke

What happened: Chelsea were on the attack in the 85th minute when the ball dropped to the edge of the area. Eze challenged Noni Madueke, with the Chelsea player going to ground. Crystal Palace looked to break but could make nothing of it. When play stopped, the VAR advised a review (watch here.)

VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Madueke.

VAR review: There’s a clear bend of Madueke’s knee as Eze makes contact, so an easy penalty for the VAR to send to the pitchside monitor.

Referee Salisbury was probably uncertain as the two players moved their legs in a similar fashion, across each other. Eze’s reaction at the point of contact made it clear he was concerned he had committed a foul, and the spot kick was the correct decision.

Possible penalty: Kulusevski foul on Welbeck

What happened: The ball bounced across the penalty area in the 20th minute, and just as Danny Welbeck looked to get on the end of it, he went to ground claiming a penalty. Referee Jarred Gillett played on, but a few moments later the VAR advised that play should be stopped for a review (watch here.)

VAR decision: Penalty, scored by João Pedro.

VAR review: Pushing and pulling happens inside the area all the time; for a penalty it’s about judging when that crosses from normal football contact into something that impedes an opponent.

This was an obvious spot kick, with Dejan Kulusevski creating the “coat-hanger effect” by pulling the shirt out from the body. That’s not the only determining factor, as whether that pulling is prolonged and whether it has a clear impact on being able to play the ball is also taken into account.

Kulusevski was booked for the foul, and Gillett would have talked through a possible red card at the monitor for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. There was just enough doubt to prevent the red card, with a possible challenge by a defender.

It’s been compared to Aston Villa striker Watkins’ penalty appeal against Sheffield United just before Christmas, but the two freeze frames alone don’t tell the full story.

There’s a case for a foul Vinicius Souza, who has a hand on Watkins, although probably not enough for the VAR spot kick. And while Souza does then have hold of the striker’s shirt as he goes to ground, this isn’t in the act of pulling him back from playing the ball, as happened to Welbeck.

Possible foul: Gomes on Emerson

What happened: Everton thought they had pulled a goal back in the 50th minute when André Gomes won the ball off Emerson Royal, then played in Dominic Calvert-Lewin to score. However the VAR, Michael Oliver, began a check for a foul in the buildup.

VAR decision: Goal disallowed.

VAR review: It’s a foul, but is there enough in it to be classed a clear and obvious error? It’s on the borderline. The camera angle from behind the goal seems definitive, and it appears to show Gomes going into the back of Emerson with his knee and causing the Spurs player to lose the ball.

Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.

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