The VAR Review: Toney goal, Kluivert red card, West Ham drama

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 have affected every Prem club in 2023-24
– VAR in the Premier League: Ultimate guide

In this week’s VAR Review: Should Ivan Toney’s goal for Brentford have been disallowed against Nottingham Forest? How did Bournemouth’s Justin Kluivert escape a red card? Plus all the injury-time drama from Sheffield United vs. West Ham United.

Possible disallowed goal: Toney for moving ball

What happened: Brentford equalised in the 19th minute when Ivan Toney scored direct from a free kick. But the goal wasn’t as straightforward as it first seemed.

VAR decision: No intervention possible.

VAR review: Call it cheating, call it gamesmanship, call it being cute: there’s no doubt that Toney gained an advantage by moving the placement of the ball to the right before taking the free kick.

What has irked so many is that Toney then picked up some of the referee’s vanishing spray and placed it in front of the ball so his actions weren’t noticed. Moving the spray is a cautionable offence, though something that’s rarely seen or punished. Yet Toney did this when the referee had his back turned and was lining up Nottingham Forest’s wall, so it was down to the assistant or the fourth official — and one of them should have spotted it. As the VAR cannot advise on yellow-card offences, there could be no intervention on this aspect.

VAR also can’t get involved with an offence related to the restart of play. Players will pick up the ball and rotate it, or slightly move it, on almost every set piece; a kick is rarely taken from the exact position of a foul. If the VAR was to get involved this way every time a goal was scored from a corner or set piece, games would take even longer than they do now. This includes situations like a moving ball, an attacking player being too close to the defensive wall, a foul throw, or a wrongly awarded free kick leading to a goal.

Forest took the strange step of briefing the media that the club had written to PGMOL and the Premier League demanding answers as to why Toney’s action wasn’t classed as a “serious missed incident,” while also admitting they had been told the VAR can’t get involved in restarts. Perhaps it was a deflection tactic after a defeat, or to try to take the heat off their own players after they failed to line up the wall or defend the set piece properly.

But Forest have previous on this. Last season the club briefed that they had put together a dossier of poor decisions that had gone against them, yet when this was requested by PGMOL it contained clips of only two incidents, both from the same game a few days before.

Even if we consider that Forest are trying to effect change, PGMOL and the Premier League have no power to alter the remit of VAR, which has been under the control of FIFA since 2020. If Forest want to complain about the free kick not being reviewable, they’re sending the letter to the wrong place. FIFA has conducted a full review of VAR protocol over the last year, though it has been underlined that any changes won’t increase stoppages in games.

The annoyance for supporters is that the VAR can get involved to micro-analyse an offside, or a seemingly innocuous handball. Yet when a player clearly commits an offence to gain an advantage to score it can’t be disallowed because it’s against protocol. To add to the inconsistency, a penalty is a restart yet has its own special conditions and the VAR can get involved in offences such as encroachment.

Possible handball: Maupay when scoring

What happened: Neal Maupay put Brentford into the lead in the 68th minute when he took control of a pass from Mads Roerslev, turned and fired into the bottom corner. The VAR, Michael Salisbury, checked for a possible handball by the striker.

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: When Maupay received the ball on the edge of the area, his first touch led to the ball bouncing off his chest before he hit the shot.

There were some appeals for handball from Forest’s players, but there was no evidence in the replays that it had touched the arm of Maupay. If it had, the goal would automatically have been ruled out for accidental attacking handball immediately before it was awarded.

Possible red card: Kluivert challenge on Diaz

What happened: Justin Kluivert had the ball in the centre of the park in the 35th minute. It ran away from him slightly and there was a clash with Luis Díaz. Referee Andy Madley saw nothing wrong with the incident as Diaz went down injured; play continued on for a short time before a Liverpool player put the ball out so he could get treatment.

VAR decision: No red card.

VAR review: A philosophical assessment of English football’s attitude to serious foul play, or challenges when the safety of an opponent is put in danger, is a regular occurrence in this article. There’s no doubt that challenges above the ankle are viewed far more leniently in this league than they are in Europe, with officials putting a lot more stock on force and intensity rather than contact point.

For Liverpool fans, however, there’s more to it. Every challenge comes with a ‘Curtis Jones-ometer,’ after the midfielder received a VAR red card for a challenge on Tottenham Hotspur’s Yves Bissouma in September. Liverpool failed in an appeal against that dismissal; now, any tackle which has similarities brings cries of inconsistency. Add in that Paul Tierney, the nemesis of Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool fans, was in the VAR hub and it’s the perfect storm.

There have been seven VAR red cards for serious foul play this season, and not one has been for a flat-footed forward stepping motion in the act of a challenge.

Few would claim Jones wasn’t unfortunate as his boot came off the top of the ball, yet the contact point on Bissouma was higher on the shin with an angled foot that caused the opponent’s ankle to very clearly buckle. This was also the case with the missed VAR red card (confirmed as an error by the Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel) for the tackle by Brentford’s Frank Onyeka on Sheffield United’s Vinicius Souza. If there’s a question of failed consistency, it’s with this latter challenge rather than Kluivert on Diaz.

Kluivert’s tackle wasn’t with a straight leg (this indicates more force) and is comparable to that of Chelsea’s Malo Gusto last weekend, who made very similar contact on Fulham midfielder Willian. Gusto was booked but there was no VAR upgrade to red.

That the referee didn’t award a foul against Kluivert, or give him at least the yellow card the tackle warranted, always raises the profile of such an incident. Surely if the referee didn’t even give a foul he can’t have seen the incident, and as such is grounds for him to “take another look?” Yet it doesn’t work on that premise, and the VAR must believe it’s a certain red card to send the referee to the monitor. Perhaps in cases like this it’s better to get a referee to review a possible red card, as they retain the right at the monitor to just show a yellow card. It means that the offending player at least gets the minimum disciplinary action they deserve.

Possible penalty: Zabarnyi challenge on Jota

What happened: Diogo Jota went down on the edge of the area in the 51st minute after a challenge by Illia Zabarnyi. Referee Madley allowed play to continue and there was little in the way of penalty appeals from the Liverpool players.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: A referee gives a foul almost every time when this sort of incident happens outside the area, yet the higher punishment threshold of a penalty makes officials think twice inside the area.

Zabarnyi makes a move to close down Jota and doesn’t really make any kind of challenge for the ball, though there’s a case that he used his body to impede the forward with contact. There’s probably not enough evidence of a foul for it to be considered a “clear and obvious” error.

If the VAR had felt it was a foul there would then have been a further question about where it took place, but the foul contact appeared to be on the line of the penalty area — and the line belongs to the box.

Possible red card: Brewster challenge on Emerson

What happened: Emerson had the ball near the touchline when Rhian Brewster challenged. Referee Michael Salisbury produced the yellow card but the VAR, Robert Jones, quickly began a check for a possible red card.

VAR decision: Red card.

VAR review: A very easy VAR decision and one which should have been spotted on the field by either the referee or his assistant.

We talk about many serious foul play situations where the contact point on the opponent is higher, for instance in the case of Kluivert, yet this red card is about both force and a player endangering the safety of another player by the way the challenge is made.

While Brewster’s challenge may have been low, he ran in from distance and jumped in with both feet off the floor. Even though the tackle itself was only made with one foot, it was impossible for him to have any control over the way he connected with Emerson.

Possible penalty overturn: Areola foul on McBurnie

What happened: Sheffield United were awarded a penalty in the eighth minute of added time when the referee ruled that goalkeeper Alphonse Areola had fouled Oliver McBurnie when challenging for a high ball. There was plenty of time for the VAR check as Areola received treatment for a blow to the head.

VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by McBurnie.

VAR review: Referee Salisbury was in the VAR chair at the start of the season when Wolverhampton Wanderers didn’t get an injury-time penalty at Manchester United when trailing 1-0. Goalkeeper André Onana had clattered into Sasa Kalajdzic but both referee Simon Hooper and Salisbury saw it as a coming together. PGMOL quickly moved to say this had been a mistake and a spot kick should have been awarded, with the officials left off the next set of appointments.

Was this on Salisbury’s mind as Areola came out to challenge McBurnie?

It appeared from the initial replays that there was very little in the challenge; it wasn’t as though the goalkeeper had punched into the striker or dragged him to the ground. Indeed if anything it appears to be a foul by McBurnie, who challenged with his arm across the goalkeeper.

The only argument against no VAR intervention is that Areola was getting nowhere near the ball, yet that’s weak and the VAR should have intervened to overturn this spot kick and given a free kick to Areola. That the goalkeeper was forced off with a head injury wouldn’t in itself be a consideration, because a player can get injured in the act of committing a foul.

If ruled to be an error, it would be the second time this season that Sheffield United have earned points through a wrongly awarded stoppage-time penalty at Bramall Lane, the first having produced a winning goal against Wolves — which the Independent Panel said should have been cancelled.

Possible penalty: Ahmedhodzic challenge on Bowen

What happened: West Ham went on the attack looking for a winner in the minutes that still remained. A cross was played in from the right and Jarrod Bowen went to ground under pressure from Anel Ahmedhodzic. West Ham’s players appealed for a spot kick, but referee Salisbury gave a free kick to Sheffield United for handball by Bowen (the ball hit his raised arm.)

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: The initial evidence seemed damning for Ahmedhodzic, as he appeared to have his arms fully around Bowen to push him to the ground and prevent him from playing the ball. However, a closer look shows not everything may be as it seems.

As the ball comes over, Bowen has both arms round the Sheffield United captain. PGMOL guidance on holding offences says: “Where both players are involved in simultaneous and similar actions, play should be allowed to continue.”

For this reason it won’t be seen as a clear and obvious error not to give a penalty, likewise if the referee had awarded the spot kick it wouldn’t have been overturned. Manchester City were awarded a penalty against Chelsea earlier in the season when Erling Haaland and Marc Cucurella were initially engaged in simultaneous holding — yet that was given on the field and not through a VAR intervention, and supported by the Independent Panel.

Possible foul: Gabriel on Richards

What happened: Arsenal took the lead in the 11th minute when Gabriel headed home a corner from Declan Rice, but did the goal scorer foul his marker before scoring? (watch here)

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: Gabriel is first to jump and gets the run on Chris Richards, meaning he is up for the header before the defender gets chance to make his move. There’s no prospect that the VAR would intervene in a situation like this.

There was also a blocking action an Arsenal player on a defender to create the space, yet it’s the kind of move that takes place on most set pieces.

Possible foul: White on Henderson

What happened: Arsenal doubled their lead in the 37th minute when Gabriel again got free to head in the direction of goal. The ball was going wide but went in off Dean Henderson; was the goalkeeper fouled as the ball came over? (watch here)

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: Arsenal’s players didn’t really celebrate when the goal was scored, yet at the same time nothing immediately looked to be wrong with the goal.

Closer inspection showed that Ben White was in front of Henderson as Bukayo Saka’s corner went over the six-yard area. White made no attempt to prevent the goalkeeper from playing the ball and held his position, and was in fact being held in position by Tyrick Mitchell.

As White made no obvious attempt to stop Henderson’s movement, it’s not the kind of incident that leads to a VAR getting involved in this league. That said, this kind of play by an attacking player is often judged much more harshly in other European leagues; in fact any contact with a goalkeeper in the six-yard box is often judged a foul and a VAR intervention.

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

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