VAR Review: Controversy as Chelsea, Newcastle get penalties

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.

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In this week’s VAR Review: Chelsea and Newcastle United were both handed controversial penalties, while Everton were denied a spot kick against AFC Bournemouth.


Possible penalty overturn: Assignon challenge on Mudryk

What happened: Chelsea were awarded a penalty in the 40th minute when Mykhailo Mudryk went down in the area under a challenge from Lorenz Assignon. Referee Darren England pointed to the penalty spot and showed a second yellow card to Assignon, who had already been booked for an earlier foul on Mudryk. The VAR checked the penalty decision.

VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Cole Palmer.

VAR review: Earlier in the season, the Premier League had a bit of a problem with penalties that should have been overturned by the VAR. We seemed to get over this, yet at Stamford Bridge we were given the impression that old habits die hard.

We can cast our minds back to October, when Newcastle United were given a penalty against Wolverhampton Wanderers for Hwang Hee-Chan‘s challenge on Fabian Schär, and the spot kick given to Sheffield United against Wolves for Fábio Silva‘s tackle on George Baldock. In both cases there was a way for the VAR to support the referee, but the evidence provided by the replays should have been enough for a VAR review.

There are similarities from Saturday’s match. There was an arm on the shoulder of Mudryk, but certainly not enough to make the Chelsea player go down.

It’s likely the referee described the hand on the shoulder from Assignon, which gave the VAR what he felt was grounds to back up the on-field call — but it should have been overturned. If it does go down as an error, it would be the first mistake by John Brooks in the VAR hub all season.

There has been a reluctance to get involved once a spot kick has been awarded. All season, only one penalty given for a foul (Aaron Wan-Bissaka on Kai Havertz in September) has been overturned on review, and that was logged as an error by the Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel.

It’s the Premier League clubs themselves who want this high bar on interventions to make sure the flow and physicality of the game isn’t impacted. But that does appear to lead to a higher number of missed VAR interventions.

It falls into the same category as the Wolves incidents, but it also resulted in a triple punishment for Burnley with both Assignon and coach Vincent Kompany sent off. Players already on a booking tend to escape a second yellow card more often than not when they’ve conceded a penalty in the Premier League, which makes this decision exceptionally harsh even if it had been a valid penalty.

Assignon could only have stayed on the pitch if England had been sent to the monitor, at which point all options are open to the referee — including sticking with the penalty but rescinding the booking.

Kompany has been incensed by many refereeing decisions this season, yet to this point the Independent Panel has logged only two errors in their fixtures, one in their favour and the other against. It ruled that Liverpool shouldn’t have had a goal ruled out for a foul at Turf Moor in December, while Sander Berge‘s late winner against Nottingham Forest in September should have stood.

Assignon may be recorded as the second player to be wrongly sent off for a second booking on a penalty situation this season, the first being Fulham‘s Tim Ream against Brentford at the start of the campaign.

Possible handball: Disasi when scoring

What happened: Axel Disasi gave Chelsea the lead in the 20th minute. However, there was a suspicion that the ball went in off his arm, and the goal was checked by the VAR.

VAR decision: Goal disallowed.

VAR review: It’s another of those situations where the judgement on a handball relies on the available angles, and the opinion of the VAR.

There does appear to be evidence that the ball went in off the arm of Disasi, rather than his head, as he stooped in from close range.


Possible offside: Gordon before penalty award

What happened: Newcastle United were given a penalty in the third minute when Vladimír Coufal brought down Anthony Gordon inside the area. Referee Rob Jones immediately pointed to the spot, but was the Newcastle midfielder offside before he was fouled?

VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Alexander Isak.

VAR review: The VAR, David Coote, didn’t need long to confirm that Gordon, who was caught after he had moved in front of Coufal to collect a loose ball, had been fouled. There was a greater question over the offside phase, requiring a delay of two minutes 42 seconds from the award to the VAR check being completed.

When the ball was touched by Fabian Schär, Gordon was in an offside position — but just being stood there isn’t an offence. After Schar’s touch, the ball was helped on by West Ham defender Konstantinos Mavropanos before Gordon moved for it and was brought down.

For Coote and the VAR team it’s about whether Mavropanos’ touch should be deemed a “deliberate play.” If so, that resets the phase, Gordon cannot be offside and the penalty must stand. However, if the VAR decides that Mavropanos has no control, or has just made a block, then the original offside phase is active and Gordon cannot become involved in the move.

In this context the phrase “deliberate play” often causes confusion. It’s really about a defender being able to make a controlled pass or clearance, and doesn’t simply excuse a poor play of the ball.

There are many different aspects that a referee can take into account to determine a “deliberate play,” including how long a defender has to react, and whether they are stretching or off balance.

This is an edge case, it can be argued that Mavropanos instinctively just tries to get something on the ball. Yet at the same time he’s not fully under pressure, is facing the ball and could have cleared better. Jones told the VAR he felt it was a “deliberate play” by Mavropanos, and there’s not enough to say that was clear and obvious error.

There were a couple of similar examples last season, most notably the decision to disallow Elliot Anderson‘s goal for Newcastle at Nottingham Forest. Sean Longstaff was in an offside position when the ball was played by a teammate, and the VAR determined that an attempted interception from Felipe wasn’t a “deliberate play” — and the goal was controversially ruled out on review. The Independent Panel ruled that was an error, with Premier League refs’ chief Howard Webb saying that had been taken into account for the future.

So, if Felipe, who was stretching, should be considered a “deliberate play” then so should Mavropanos.

Liverpool‘s VAR disallowed goal against Aston Villa towards the end of last season has some similarities, too. Trent Alexander-Arnold swung a ball in which Luis Díaz attempted to head back across the box. It came off Aston Villa defender Ezri Konsa, fell to Virgil van Dijk, and after a short melee Cody Gakpo fired into the net.

The ball came at Konsa from a short distance and was dropping behind him until he attempted to get his foot on the ball; it came off his leg, just below his knee, to run to Van Dijk. That Konsa wasn’t able to play the ball with his foot, and that it was more of a deflection off his leg, would indicate there could be no real control and it’s not a “deliberate play.”

Possible penalty: Phillips challenge on Gordon

What happened: Newcastle were on the attack in the 74th minute. The ball fell to West Ham midfielder Kalvin Phillips inside the area, who made contact with Gordon as he attempted to clear. Referee Jones ignored claims for a penalty, with the situation being checked by the VAR when the ball went out of play.

VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Isak.

VAR review: This caused a huge amount of controversy, yet it’s not quite as straightforward as it may seem. I don’t believe this should be a penalty, but that doesn’t mean it’s an error for the VAR to get involved.

It not actually that different from the Coufal incident, in that Gordon gets in front of an opponent and receives a tackle from behind. Yet Gordon seems to at least have some intention of playing the ball in the first case.

There’s two sides to this argument. Phillips is making a clearance and that he isn’t aware of Gordon isn’t in itself any kind of watertight defence, in fact we often see penalties given in similar circumstance when an attacker comes from behind a defender and is then kicked.

However, in those circumstance the attacker has usually touched or taken possession of the ball. Gordon seems to have only one intention with his actions: to place his foot in front of Phillips before he has the chance to kick the ball. Isn’t this a clear case of initiating contact? Phillips is trying to play the ball, and Gordon’s actions prevent him from doing so. Why should the VAR be rewarding Gordon for that? It feels like it would be much better if the game just continued.

That said, whatever we may feel about this individually, the general opinion from within the game and refereeing circles has been that this was a penalty due to the level of force in Phillips’ kick. It would therefore be a surprise if the Independent Panel ruled this to be an error.

It does feel that if the VAR hadn’t got involved it wouldn’t have caused much controversy.


Possible penalty: Adams challenge on Calvert-Lewin

What happened: Everton were on the attack when the game was goalless in the 55th minute. Dominic Calvert-Lewin attempted to control a pass played into the area, with the England international going to ground from a challenge by Tyler Adams. Everton wanted a penalty, but referee Sam Barrott allowed played to continue, and it was then checked by the VAR, Michael Oliver.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: Like Burnley, Everton have had many complaints over refereeing decisions this season. Yet not one VAR-related error has been logged in their matches, for or against, and that’s unlikely to change from this incident.

For most fans, this is a much stronger penalty claim than Gordon’s for the challenge by Phillips. Adams tries to make a tackle, doesn’t touch the ball and makes contact with Calvert-Lewin’s shin; whereas Phillips was making a clearance and Gordon initiated contact.

But was the amount of contact on Calvert-Lewin enough to make him go to ground? That’s the key question Oliver must ask himself, and we’ve not seen a VAR penalty awarded for something like this all season. The closest would be the spot kick handed to Brentford against Tottenham Hotspur at the start of the season. Son Heung-Min made some contact on the boot of Mathias Jensen as the Brentford player looked to check inside, a decision which was said to be right on the borderline of an acceptable intervention. But that is very much an outlier in the Premier League, and no review would be more in keeping with the way VAR works in England.

It all comes down to the power of the referee’s decision, which means similar incidents might see the referee give a penalty, yet the VAR wouldn’t intervene if a spot kick hadn’t been given. For instance, Everton conceded a penalty at Manchester United last month when Alejandro Garnacho had his ankle tapped by James Tarkowski. The referee gave that penalty, when the VAR might not have.

If you get a penalty like this it won’t get overturned. But don’t expect the VAR to get involved if the referee plays on.


Possible onside: Diaz when scoring

What happened: Luis Díaz thought he had scored a second goal when breaking through to fire past Bart Verbruggen. However, the assistant raised his flag as soon as the ball went into the goal (watch here.)

VAR decision: No goal.

VAR review: This was an exceptionally tight decision, one of the closest we’re likely to see without the tolerance level kicking in, which gives the benefit of the doubt to the striker.

If the blue and red defensive and attacking lines are touching, a single green line is displayed and the forward is deemed onside. However, while it’s not clear because of the pixelated quality of the graphic, the lines didn’t quite touch meaning the offside decision stood; Diaz’s right boot was marginally in advance of this tolerance level.

Whichever system of offside technology you use there will always be the marginal point when onside becomes offside.


Possible ball over the line: Johnson shot

What happened: Tottenham Hotspur thought they had taken the lead in the 77th minute when Brennan Johnson tried to force the ball in from close range, but referee Jarred Gillett got no indication to his Goal Decision System (GDS) watch that the whole of the ball was over the whole of the line.

VAR decision: No goal.

VAR review: From the main match camera angle it seemed certain that Luton Town wing-back Alfie Doughty had failed to keep the ball out of the goal, yet the technology said that a small sliver of the ball stayed on the line.

Ever since the GDS failed in Aston Villa‘s game against Sheffield United four years ago, the VAR has doubled-checked situations like this.

The goal-line camera angle for the GDS includes a black frame around the goal, which is effectively the “window” for the technology. You could see that the edge of the ball was just in contact with the black line, which would mean there’s no evidence of a malfunction and the ball didn’t cross the line.

The visualisation of the ball touching the line matched up with this.


Possible offside: Souza on McBurnie goal

What happened: Sheffield United went 4-1 into the lead at home to Fulham in the 82nd minute when Oliver McBurnie scored following a free-kick routine. However, would their joy be shortlived due to a VAR review for offside against Vinicius Souza?

VAR decision: Goal disallowed.

VAR review: Sheffield United’s players appeared to be confused when the VAR got involved to rule out this goal, yet it was a very simple decision.

Souza was in front of the Fulham defence when the ball first played McBurnie. Souza then touched the ball, making it an automatic offside offence, before McBurnie scored.

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