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: Kai Havertz's disallowed goal for Arsenal at Aston Villa, and why Gabriel Jesus' penalty claim was so different to the VAR spot kick given to Crystal Palace against Liverpool. Plus, the rest of the big talking points.
Possible goal: Havertz handball
What happened: Kai Havertz thought he had equalised in the 90th minute, firing home from close range after a battle with Matty Cash. As soon as the ball crossed the line, referee Jarred Gillett blew his whistle for handball against the Arsenal forward. The VAR, Michael Salisbury, checked to see if it was the correct decision (watch here.)
VAR decision: No goal.
VAR review: Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta simply repeated "clear and obvious" in his postmatch news conference, yet for this decision that doesn't come into it. Accidental attacking handball is an automatic offence if by the goal scorer; there's no subjective consideration for the referee or the VAR to take into account.
It was a superb spot by Gillett. Yet at a time when officials get criticised for relying too much on the video official, Gillett was accused of "guessing" rather than getting the praise for an excellent on-field decision. Recent controversies have eroded trust, but there's plenty of other reasons to legitimately bash VAR and refereeing rather than on a correct call.
After the ball was first played by Havertz, it hit Cash on the upper part of his arm. This was too high for any handball offence.
The ball then appears to touch the arm of Havertz, though there's no conclusive video evidence of this.
The ball might then have brushed the hand of Cash. A penalty isn't going to be awarded for the ball rebounding onto a defender from close range when their arm position is expected and not outstretched away from the body. It isn't the same as the penalty William Saliba conceded against Chelsea: The ball hit the France international from close range, but he was blocking a header with his left arm fully extended away from his body.
The only way Cash would be penalised is for a deliberate handball; it was an inadvertent touch as two players contested in close proximity.
The ball then drops onto the hand of Havertz, before he kicks it into the net. The ball changes direction after it touches the German's hand; perhaps the VAR took too long trying to make absolutely sure, but it was conclusive on one camera angle. If Gillett hadn't disallowed it, the VAR should have -- although last season Salisbury failed to identify a handball offence as the VAR on two goals for West Ham United in their home win over Fulham.
If Eddie Nketiah had been the scorer, the goal would count, as Havertz's accidental handball would be irrelevant -- but it was clearly scored by the latter.
It highlights the bizarre nature of the two-tier handball law. The ball accidentally touches a defender's arm, but there's no offence and he can play on. A second later the ball accidentally touches an attacker's arm, and he's now effectively locked out of being able to score a goal.
The IFAB started working on the rewording of the handball law in 2014, before the introduction of VAR. Rather than the law being changed for VAR, it proved to be incompatible with VAR. The wording has had to be modified on several occasions since it was first officially added to the Laws in 2019 due to its harsh implementation in VAR competitions.
At first, accidental handball by any player in the attacking phase was penalised, which was watered down to apply just to the scorer or the player who created the goal. And in 2021-22 it became what we have today, to only apply to the goal scorer.
That doesn't make the law as it stands any more palatable when a touch seems of little relevance to the goal, but the referee and the VAR have no choice but to disallow it.
AFC Bournemouth experienced it too in their 3-0 win at Manchester United, as Dango Ouattara had a late fourth chalked off through VAR (watch here.) Because of the status of the game at the time, that play received nowhere near as much attention as Havertz.
Possible penalty: Luiz on Jesus
What happened: Arsenal were on the attack straight after the half-time break as Gabriel Jesus received a pass inside the area and turned. Douglas Luiz made a challenge and the ball bounced up, with both players attempting to kick it. Jesus got a foot to it first, with Luiz then catching the striker. The Arsenal striker went to ground looking for a penalty, but referee Gillett wasn't interested. The situation was checked by the VAR.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: There was much discussion comparing this incident to the VAR penalty awarded to Crystal Palace against Liverpool earlier on Saturday, but the challenges are very different -- the incident at Selhurst Park is discussed in detail further down.
Luiz and Jesus go to win the ball at the same time, and while the Arsenal player gets to it first, he goes to ground very easily, not commensurate to the way the Aston Villa player made minimal contact.
This was a 50-50 situation, with one player getting to the ball slightly later. It would have been a huge surprise to have a VAR intervention.
Possible red card: Carlos challenge on Nketiah
What happened: In the 87th minute, Diego Carlos tried to hold off Nketiah in the middle of the field. Play continued but when it came to a stop, the Aston Villa player was booked. Was there a case for a red card for violent conduct?
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: Gillett wasn't looking at the incident at the time it happened, with the yellow card being advised by his assistant, Darren Cann, and not through the VAR.
Carlos tried to put his arm across Nketiah, but caught him in the head as he blocked him off. There was no elbow involved and the Villa player didn't throw his arm.
There were only a couple of camera angles available, neither of which showed the incident with the clarity needed for the VAR to be absolutely certain this was an act of violent conduct and not accidental.
There's a clear example of an off-the-ball elbow in the Women's Super League at the weekend, not spotted by the officials in a competition without VAR. Arsenal's Katie McCabe put an elbow on Chelsea's Fran Kirby, and that's the kind of incident you would expect a VAR to pick up.
Possible penalty overturn: Hughes foul on Endo
What happened: Will Hughes challenged Wataru Endo in the 29th minute. Andy Madley didn't give a foul, and held his whistle for an advantage after Endo handled the ball as he went to ground. Odsonne Édouard ran through and was brought down by Virgil van Dijk, with the referee pointing to the penalty spot. The VAR, John Brooks, began a check.
VAR decision: Penalty canceled.
VAR review: The award of the penalty itself was quickly cleared by the VAR; this was about a possible foul in the buildup.
It seemed to be a fairly straight-forward overturn, but it took an age, both at Stockley Park during the initial check process and when Madley was at the monitor for the review.
The VAR chose a poor angle to first present the evidence to the referee, and it appeared to put some doubt in Madley's mind.
Subsequent angles were far clearer about the contact into the back of Endo by Hughes, with the Crystal Palace midfielder also putting his arm around his waist and trying to reach around with his right leg.
If the VAR had presented a more conclusive angle first up, perhaps it might not have taken the referee so long to reach the correct decision to give the foul. Madley requested different angles, and for the challenge to be played at full speed before he accepted the overturn.
Last season, the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel ruled that the VAR was wrong to intervene to disallow a goal for Arsenal at Manchester United when Martin Ødegaard challenged into the back of Christian Eriksen. There are comparisons to be made, but the contact on Endo had a much greater impact, while Hughes was also holding to further restrict his movement. Unlike Ødegaard, this will be judged as a correct intervention by the VAR.
Possible penalty: Foul by Quansah on Mateta
What happened: The game was in the 53rd minute when Jean-Philippe Mateta moved to meet the ball inside the area. He got there first, but was caught by Jarell Quansah. Referee Madley waved away the appeals for a spot kick, and the game continued as the VAR check began.
VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Mateta.
VAR review: If Luiz on Jesus wasn't a VAR intervention, what makes this so different? It's all about the way Quansah makes the challenge and how that brings Mateta down. Every challenge has to be considered on its merits; if X is a spot kick, it doesn't meant Y should be too.
The referee had seen the two players coming together, but not the nature of the contact as it was on the blindside of both himself and the assistant. Quansah makes contact across Mateta -- with his right knee into the left thigh before then also kicking his right calf. Mateta has no chance of remaining on his feet from the tackle, so a penalty was the correct outcome of the review. The Jesus incident did not have the same level of impact from defender upon attacker.
While the first review took Madley some time at the monitor, he quickly accepted this as a penalty.
The situation itself presented a rare passage of play, as the ball remained in for the full 1 minute and 45 seconds that the VAR required to check the incident and the attacking phase. Usually, it would go out during this time and the referee would tell the players to wait.
The game restarts at the time of the foul, so the 1:45 is added on to the half ... in theory at least. It's as though that period of play didn't happen.
If Palace had scored during that time, their goal would have counted and the VAR review canceled. But if Liverpool had scored, their goal would have been disallowed, with the spot kick awarded. This has happened once before in the Premier League in the 2020-21 season, when Bournemouth scored at Burnley but play was pulled back for a penalty to the home team.
Possible penalty: Ward on Jones
VAR review: The VAR wouldn't get involved to cancel a goal for a possible penalty, but it came about because of a great piece of refereeing from Madley. He identifies that Jones has been fouled by Joel Ward after making the pass to Salah, and puts his whistle to his lips for the spot kick. Madley sees Salah has a great chance to score and holds his whistle, with the Egypt international finding the back of the net.
If Salah had missed and the penalty awarded, it's likely Ward, who was already on a yellow, would have been booked -- which would have put Palace down to nine men after the earlier red card for Jordan Ayew. Madley could still have shown the second yellow for a reckless challenge without giving the penalty, of course, but chose not to. The second yellow card for Ayew was for stopping a promising attack with Liverpool on the break, and not just for the tackle itself.
After last week's criticism directed at Simon Hooper after he wrongly canceled the advantage for Manchester City against Tottenham Hotspur, there has been a series of positive advantages played by officials this week which won't get the same attention. Michael Salisbury didn't blow after Guglielmo Vicario handled a backpass against West Ham United, allowing James Ward-Prowse to score at the second attempt. And there was a foul on Kyle Walker in the buildup to Man City's equaliser at Luton Town that referee Tim Robinson played advantage on.
Possible red card: Romero challenge on Wilson
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: One of three possible red cards for serious foul play over the weekend -- yet not one of them resulted in a VAR intervention.
There's an understandable perception that the Premier League allows far too many of these challenges to go unpunished, but there's been only one missed VAR intervention logged for the offence this season. That was Havertz against Newcastle, and it was a different kind of challenge with the player off the floor and diving in.
There have been two red cards missed by the referee that the panel felt weren't clear and obvious errors for VAR -- Mateo Kovacic vs. Arsenal and Destiny Udogie vs. Chelsea. Such is the leniency in English football -- few are seen as errors.
The Premier League and the Bundesliga historically have far fewer direct red cards than the other top European leagues. Indeed, last season there were only 17 in the English top flight compared to 89 in Spain, though that number was double LaLiga's recent average. The Premier League has almost matched last season's tally already, with 14 in 2023-24.
Romero would have seen red for this tackle in the Champions League and in LaLiga. There's a valid argument that challenges like Romero's, which have little regard for an opponent and make heavy contact above the boot, should always be subject to a VAR review. He was booked for this, which the independent panel will likely support, but he was fortunate. The VAR, Peter Bankes, decided the yellow card wasn't an incorrect disciplinary outcome.
Possible red card: Brown on Foden
What happened: Jacob Brown challenged Phil Foden in the 69th minute, with the Manchester City midfielder going down in pain. Referee Tim Robinson played on while the VAR, Jarred Gillett, checked for a possible red card.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: As the referee didn't give a foul, the VAR is assessing whether the decision not to show Brown a red card for the challenge was an error rather than taking into account the referee's opinion.
Brown jumps in and can't have control over the way he connects with Foden. He's only saved due to the small amount of contact he made, as well as it not being a lunge and that he didn't lead in with his studs. That said, the nature of his tackle, effectively jumping in, wasn't clever at all and, like Romero, would be penalised in other leagues. It probably should be in England, too.
Possible red card: Onyeka challenge on Souza
What happened: Frank Onyeka challenged Vinicius Souza in the 29th minute. Referee Stuart Attwell booked the Brentford player for the foul, and the VAR, Rob Jones, began a check for a possible red card.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: Due to the level of force from Onyeka on Souza, this is arguably the worst of the three possible red cards over the weekend.
The VAR likely felt as Onyeka stepped into the tackle rather than diving into it (see Malo Gusto's red card for Chelsea against Aston Villa), it didn't cross the threshold to say the yellow card shown by Attwell was incorrect.
But there's the buckle of Souza's ankle, one of the factors a VAR takes into account on a review for serious foul play. On another day with another VAR, Onyeka sees red, and he should have on Saturday.
Possible penalty: Handball by Slimane
What happened: The game was into the fourth minute of added time when Brentford played a free kick into the penalty area. It was cleared and headed back into the box, with the ball dropping onto a cluster of Sheffield United players. Brentford appealed for a penalty for handball against Anis Ben Slimane.
VAR decision: No penalty.
VAR review: As we saw with the Cash incident in the Arsenal game, a player's expected body position and what they are doing are crucial.
While the ball came some distance, Slimane was jumping with two teammates and all had their arms in a justifiable position for that action.
The VAR won't get involved in this kind of situation in the Premier League.
Some parts of this article include information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL.