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.
- How VAR decisions affected every Prem club in 2022-23
- VAR in the Premier League: Ultimate guide
In this week's VAR Review: Unpacking all the drama as Brighton & Hove Albion lost 2-1 at Tottenham Hotspur, plus a soft penalty for Brentford against Newcastle United and a possible handball in the buildup to West Ham United's winning goal at Fulham.
Possible penalty: Hojbjerg foul on Mitoma
What happened: In the 70th minute with the score 1-1, Brighton & Hove Albion's Kaoru Mitoma attempted to control a dropping ball inside the area following a corner routine. He appeared to be caught by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and went to ground, but referee Stuart Attwell ignored the penalty appeals (watch here.)
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: It's an exceptionally poor decision first by the referee and then the VAR, Michael Salisbury, and one which led chief refereeing officer Howard Webb to contact Brighton to admit there had been a mistake. While other incidents in this game are open to debate, this is the one which Webb felt was so egregious.
The referee and the VAR will consider if the contact has a consequence; does it cause the attacker to go to ground in the way he has? But there is no embellishment from Mitoma, it's clear and obvious that he has been tripped by the Tottenham midfielder and a spot kick should have been awarded.
The Premier League has a high bar for intervention -- something we'll come back to in the Brentford vs. Newcastle United game -- and getting that judgement right isn't easy.
If Attwell, who had the perfect view, tells the VAR that he has seen the contact but he didn't feel there was enough for a penalty, that creates a problem. With the high bar, the VAR's own subjectivity is reduced; if the referee gives a good outline description of what happened, the VAR can get caught up in the protocol and miss an intervention. For the system to be effective, the VAR must have more conviction; sometimes if the referee's description fits it should still be obvious a mistake has been made.
Webb has been in his role for little more than four months and it's impossible to implement a widespread overhaul in this timeframe, especially mid-season when his first month was effectively lost to the World Cup. The major change so far has been accountability, with PGMOL now open to admitting to errors. With this comes additional scrutiny and where errors may have been forgotten about within 24 hours in the past, there's now a narrative to go with them. Added to that, everyone now wants an apology for the decisions they don't get, which simply isn't realistic in a game full of subjective laws and partisan bias.
Accountability has brought action, too. Lee Mason left his role in mid-February after a series of errors, while other officials have been stood down from duty after making mistakes. ESPN sources have said that Mike Dean, who along with Mason was one of the two full-time VARs, hasn't been selected for two months over his performance levels and he faces an uncertain future.
Webb wants his officials to have more conviction in all spheres: on-field decision-making, VAR judgements and when at the monitor. It's going to take time to get tangible results and Webb, along with all the other support staff hired in the last 12 months, will have to change the institutional mentality which has developed for over a decade. You cannot keep replacing officials en masse as though there's a high-quality supply line yet to be discovered, it's going to take training and mentorship.
This will be of little comfort to Brighton, as this is the third time this year that Webb has had to apologise. Brighton have been the worst-affected club in the Premier League, with only two VAR overturns in their favour and eight against. And those numbers don't include most of the errors.
In January, Liverpool midfielder Fabinho should have been sent off for his challenge on Evan Ferguson in Brighton's FA Cup win at the Amex but the VAR, Neil Swarbrick, took no action. And in February, Pervis Estupinan had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside in their 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace with the offside line placed on the wrong player.
The woes don't stop there, as the VAR has failed to intervene and award Brighton a clear penalty in two other games they have failed to win.
Danny Welbeck was denied a penalty in the 2-2 draw at Leicester City in January when he was clipped by Luke Thomas. There are clear similarities with the Mitoma situation, with the VAR believing there wasn't enough contact to warrant a penalty. There wasn't an apology for this as there was more subjectivity to it, but it was judged as an error by the independent panel set up to assess all key match incidents in the week following matches.
In November, the panel said Solly March should have been awarded a penalty for a foul by Aston Villa defender Lucas Digne in a match Brighton lost 2-1.
For a team in with a chance of Champions League football, the decisions could be damaging come the end of the season.
Possible goal: Handball by Mitoma when scoring
What happened: Brighton thought they had equalised in the 17th minute when Mitoma controlled the ball and finished past Hugo Lloris, but the assistant immediately raised his flag to disallow the goal for handball. The VAR checked to make sure the decision was right (watch here.)
VAR decision: No goal.
VAR review: Contrary to how this has been reported, the VAR didn't disallow this -- a goal never existed because the assistant ruled it out. That said, whether the final outcome was correct will split opinion.
The VAR spent two minutes looking at a variety of angles trying to identify which part of the body Mitoma had used to control the ball. Salisbury decided that he didn't have conclusive evidence that the on-field decision of no goal was incorrect.
The International football Association Board (IFAB)'s diagram of where the handball offence starts remains hugely subjective. It's not the bottom of the sleeve, as often referenced; it's effectively the point level with the bottom of the armpit, going around the whole arm to create the line of reference.
As a general rule, and to try to get some kind of consistency, the VAR tends to use the badge area as the reference point and if the ball hits here it won't be handball. It's a tight one, and on balance there appears to be more evidence in favour of it being a goal.
It touches Mitoma high on the arm and it's highly unlikely the VAR would have disallowed the goal if the on-field decision was to allow it. Brighton can consider themselves very unlucky the assistant flagged.
We can compare it to the handball decision against AFC Bournemouth's Chris Mepham against Arsenal, when he jumped to win a looping ball. It appeared to hit Mepham lower on the arm, the on-field decision was no handball, but the VAR didn't intervene in this either.
There's a misconception that VAR was brought into the game to make decisions consistent, but this isn't possible with a system that places the greatest importance in the on-field call. Similar situations can have opposite outcomes and the VAR won't intervene. The consistency should lie in when the VAR gets involved.
Disallowed goal: Handball by Mac Allister
What happened: Welbeck thought he had put Brighton in front in the 55th minute with a shot from just inside the area, but there was a VAR check for handball against Alexis Mac Allister (watch here.)
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: Welbeck's shot hit Mac Allister before it went into the goal. Therefore, the goal belonged to the Argentina international; if the ball hit his arm, it will be an automatic offence of handball before a goal, even though it was an involuntary action and his arm was tucked into his body. It shows the contradictory application of the handball law on attackers and defenders.
Like with Mitoma, this comes down to the VAR making a judgement on the burden of proof to overturn the decision on the field. In this case, he was confident that the ball had touched the arm of Mac Allister.
When you look at the two incidents, it's difficult to see a huge difference in that level of proof -- yet on this decision the VAR chose to intervene. Another VAR on another day may well have decided not to disallow this goal and judge the ball came off Mac Allister's hip without touching his arm. Yet again, Brighton can count themselves very unlucky.
Possible penalty: Lenglet shirt pull on Dunk
What happened: Brighton won a free kick in the 86h minute. The ball was played into the box in search of an equaliser and Harry Kane headed clear -- but Lewis Dunk wanted a penalty for a shirt pull by Clement Lenglet (watch here.)
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Lenglet is exceptionally fortunate, because if the referee gives a penalty there's no chance it gets overturned.
Holding a player's shirt alone isn't a foul, it "occurs only when a player's contact with an opponent's body or equipment impedes the opponent's movement." You could argue that any holding of an opponent's shirt does this, but it's not quite that simple.
Considerations for the VAR are whether the holding was prolonged and if Dunk was prevented from challenging for the ball; it's probably just about correct to stick with the on-field decision but many will feel it should be a spot kick.
There are lots of holding offences that fans and pundits believe are clear penalties, but only a small fraction are judged as errors by the independent panel. For instance, there was widespread belief that Arsenal should have been awarded a penalty in their 0-0 draw at home to Newcastle in January when Dan Burn was pulling the shirt of Gabriel, but the panel backed the VAR's decision not to intervene. The VAR in that game just happened to be Attwell.
Possible penalty: Handball by Lenglet
What happened: Brighton wanted a penalty in the sixth minute when Lenglet appeared to touch the ball with his hand when battling for the ball with Joel Veltman. Referee Attwell wasn't interested in the appeals (watch here.)
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: Lenglet puts his arm out to Veltman in trying to hold him off, and in doing so his fingers touched the ball. However, the ball barely changes trajectory and it has no impact on Veltman being able to control and lay it off.
Unlike other situations in the game, this would have been an incredibly harsh VAR intervention.
Possible penalty: Isak foul on Henry
What happened: Rico Henry went to ground under a challenge from Alexander Isak in the 41st minute. Referee Chris Kavanagh wasn't interested in a penalty kick, but there was a lengthy VAR review by Darren England.
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Ivan Toney.
VAR review: One of Webb's key beliefs is that if the VAR looks at an incident too many times, then the chances of it being a clear and obvious error are small. And with the high bar for intervention, a blatant penalty offence shouldn't need micro-analysing -- yet that's exactly what happened.
England watched the incident 23 times from various angles, and in total the review took three minutes from the challenge to Kavanagh signalling the penalty kick. Almost five minutes had elapsed by the time Toney's spot kick hit the back of the net. It's difficult to see what level of contact there was, but it certainly wasn't significant.
The decision goes against the high-bar ethos and the independent panel is highly likely to rule this was an incorrect VAR intervention.
The Premier League has improved with the use of the monitor this season. The nature of the system -- the VAR identifying a clear error, rather than telling the referee to have another look -- means rejections should be rare. But, just like referees, the VAR will make mistakes and the monitor should be a fail-safe against it.
Psychologically, it's difficult. When a referee goes over to the monitor, they will already have it in their mind that they have made an error while the VAR is only going to show evidence to support the overturn, though the referee can request additional replays.
While a referee has stuck by their decision four times this season, compared to zero in the last campaign, there have been several incorrect interventions when the official could have rejected the VAR's advice.
Newcastle have every right to feel aggrieved when you compare it to a VAR decision in their victory against Man United last weekend. Bruno Fernandes' high boot on Fabian Schar inside the area was deemed to have had minimal contact on a player who had already completed his header. In simple terms, there is no real difference between the two; either they are both VAR penalties, or neither is. Again, VAR should be about consistency in intervention.
Possible handball: Wilson when scoring
What happened: Callum Wilson thought he had scored a third goal for Newcastle in the 65th minute, but there was a VAR check for handball.
VAR decision: Goal disallowed.
VAR review: It was unlucky for Wilson, but an automatic decision to rule out the goal as soon as the touch on the arm has been identified. This provides a good comparison with the Mitoma situation in that the ball hit Wilson's arm lower down and was a more obvious handball offence.
Though the ball comes off Toney after touching Wilson's arm, before the striker puts it in the net, this is still classed as immediately scoring a goal after the ball has touched an attacker's arm.
Possible handball: Coufal in buildup to Reed own goal
What happened: West Ham claimed the only goal of the game in the 23rd minute when Harrison Reed put the ball into his own net. However, in the buildup the ball hit the arm of West Ham's Vladimir Coufal and there was a VAR check to decide if the goal should be disallowed.
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: It was groundhog day for Fulham. When the two sides met at the London Stadium in October, both Gianluca Scamacca and Michail Antonio scored goals after the ball had touched their arms in a game the Hammers won 3-1. The independent panel ruled both goals should have been disallowed by the VAR in that game, Michael Salisbury.
Coufal tries to play the ball inside, it rebounds off the thigh of defender Antonee Robinson and back onto the hand of the West Ham player. Coufal then crosses the ball into the area and eventually Reed puts past his own keeper. There were no appeals for handball from any Fulham player and the assistant has the ideal view.
As Coufal wasn't the goal scorer, the handball has to be a deliberate act, or his arm must be in a position which isn't expected for his movement. He doesn't move his arm towards the ball, and while many will feel he has benefitted from the handball to help create the goal that isn't a consideration in law.
Possible penalty overturn: Holding foul on Jota
What happened: Liverpool were awarded a penalty in the 52nd minute when Rob Holding bundled into the back of Diogo Jota, and referee Paul Tierney pointed to the penalty spot.
VAR decision: Penalty stands, missed by Mohamed Salah.
VAR review: A certain penalty, even if the challenge from Holding was more clumsy than anything else. He caught Jota on the back of the leg, causing the Liverpool forward to go to ground.
With this contact, there is no prospect of a VAR intervention.
Possible penalty: Tierney pull on Salah
What happened: Salah tried to lose his Kieran Tierney inside the area in added time. The Arsenal defender grabbed hold of Salah for a short time before the striker broke free but could only shoot over the bar.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: While there was holding of Salah, not awarding a penalty in this situation is consistent with other VAR decisions across the season.
Again, this comes down to a holding offence impeding an opponent's movement and Tierney released Salah quickly enough for this not to be considered a penalty.
Possible offside: Rashford when scoring
What happened: Anthony Martial doubled Manchester United's lead in the 71st minute when he fired home from Marcus Rashford's pass. There was a question of offside, but the VAR didn't need to apply the offside lines.
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: The "deliberate play" law makes an appearance again in the VAR Review, but this time in a more logical way.
Seamus Coleman had the chance to control and clear the long ball which was played forward to Rashford; the Everton player made a mess of it, the ball slipped through his feet and it ran through to Rashford, who created the goal.
Coleman had plenty of time to watch the ball as it came from distance, his view was unobscured and he didn't have to stretch to control it. Therefore, it was a "deliberate play" and the offside phase is reset, so there was no need to check Rashford's position.
Possible penalty: Handball by Gomes
What happened: In the 56th minute, Joao Felix attempted a shot from the edge of the area and the ball appeared to hit the arm of Wolverhampton Wanderers' Joao Gomes. Referee Peter Bankes said no to the penalty claims.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: It would have been a harsh penalty, with the ball blasted at Gomes by the Chelsea attacker. There's also a consideration in law that if a player is taking action to protect themselves from a shot which is hit at them from close range, then it may not be considered a handball offence.
Unless Gomes has his arms fully away from his body, or above shoulder height, we're unlikely to see a penalty in this kind of situation.
Possible penalty overturn: Walker-Peters foul on De Bruyne
What happened: In the 74th minute, Manchester City were awarded a penalty when Kevin De Bruyne went to ground under a tackle from Kyle Walker-Peters.
VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Julian Alvarez.
VAR review: This shows the difference between an attacker initiating contact to win a penalty, or using contact to do so. With the first, a player places their leg out of their natural stride to give the impression of foul contact from an opposing player.
The De Bruyne penalty falls into the second category. Walker-Peters slides in with a rash challenge after De Bruyne gets his toe to the ball, and while you can argue the Belgium international could have avoided the contact, he didn't need to and essentially used the tackle to earn the penalty. As there was clear contact from Walker-Peters, and he didn't get a touch on the ball, there will be no VAR intervention.
Possible penalty: Handball by Mitchell
What happened: In the 69th minute, Rodrigo played a ball into the area and Tyrick Mitchell lost his balance in a battle for the ball with Patrick Bamford. Leeds United appealed for a penalty for handball against Mitchell, but referee Simon Hooper waved play on.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: A simple decision for the VAR, Jarred Gillett, as this situation is covered by an exemption in the handball law.
Mitchell's arm had gone to the ground to support his body and if the ball hits it then a penalty shouldn't be awarded. It would only be reviewable if the defender had made a deliberate movement to the ball with his arm.
Information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL was used in this story.