The VAR Review: Should Kovacic and Gross have seen red? Another big blunder is avoided

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: Should Manchester City midfielder Mateo Kovacic have been sent off at Arsenal? Was Brighton & Hove Albion‘s Pascal Groß lucky to stay on the field against Liverpool? Should Virgil van Dijk have conceded a penalty? And how there was almost a disastrous error in Burnley vs. Chelsea.

Possible red card: Kovacic challenge on Ødegaard

What happened: Mateo Kovacic slid in to tackle Martin Ødegaard in the 29th minute and caught the Arsenal midfielder with his studs just above the ankle. Referee Michael Oliver immediately produced a yellow card, and the VAR, John Brooks, began a check for a red.

VAR decision: No red card.

VAR review: Kovacic is fortunate to only get a yellow card, and it’s a decision which is borderline for a VAR overturn. The Manchester City midfielder is late and catches Ødegaard, and there appears to be enough impact to make the leg bend — usually something a VAR would look for to determine excessive force for serious foul play — see Malo Gusto‘s red card for Chelsea vs. Aston Villa and Curtis Jones‘ dismissal for Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur.

Brooks spent quite some time reviewing the incident and decided a yellow card wasn’t an unacceptable disciplinary outcome, essentially how these situations are judged. As the contact from Kovacic is just above the ankle, this is likely what has saved him from a red card. With Jones the contact was on the shin, and Gusto came with more force; a booking for Kovacic is probably just about right but such is the subjective nature around individual VAR decisions, on another day it might have been upgraded to a red.

Judging the force and intensity of different challenges isn’t easy, which means unless you give a red card for every tackle with contact above the boot there will be perceived inconsistencies. The Independent Key Match Incidents Panel will likely say this wasn’t a clear and obvious error for the VAR to get involved.

Oliver has been involved in one other missed intervention this season, when the VAR Tony Harrington failed to tell him that Nathan Aké‘s goal for Manchester City against Fulham should have been ruled out for offside. But for all the claims that less experienced referees do not want to intervene on Oliver’s decisions, he wasn’t involved in one missed overturn last season. And the last VAR to advise Oliver he should overturn a subjective decision was Brooks, to disallow a Man City goal against Chelsea at the end of last season.

Kovacic should have been shown a second yellow card for his challenge on Declan Rice just six minutes later, though the VAR cannot get involved in missed bookings. Oliver has become a referee who tries to keep 22 players on the pitch and only showed one red card when officiating in English football last season — the VAR red card for Aston Villa‘s Douglas Luiz for violent conduct against Aleksandar Mitrovic, which was actually overturned on appeal. In 2021-22 he sent off eight players, and hasn’t dismissed a player for two yellow cards since Michael Keane for Everton at West Ham in April 2022.

Perhaps Oliver didn’t want to produce two yellow cards in quick succession in the first half, and we saw similar game management by referee Peter Bankes in the West Ham United vs. Newcastle United game. Bruno Guimarães was booked in the 16th minute, and almost straight away committed another possible yellow-card challenge on James Ward-Prowse. Like Oliver, Bankes opted to keep his cards in his pocket rather than produce the red.

Last week, Diogo Jota was sent off in the game at Tottenham for two yellow cards in quick succession, with the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel ruling that the second challenge hadn’t reached the threshold for a caution. There were some comparisons with the Kovacic challenge, and perhaps after the comments of the panel referees this weekend were a little more lenient.

The error-strewn previous weekend aside, very few incidents that make the headlines are seen as missed VAR interventions. For instance, Eddie Nketiah‘s challenge on Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario or Cristian Romero‘s handball against Manchester United to name just two from this season.

Possible red card: Groß challenge on Szoboszlai

What happened: Brighton gave the ball away inside the area, and Groß appeared to pull back Dominik Szoboszlai. Referee Anthony Taylor allowed the ball to run, effectively playing an advantage in case Luis Díaz scored, but he too was brought down by Carlos Baleba. Taylor indicated he considered both incidents to be fouls, but opted against showing any card to Groß. The VAR, Craig Pawson, checked that the penalty was correct, and also a possible red card for Groß.

VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Mohamed Salah. No red card.

VAR review: For Groß to avoid a red card on double jeopardy he would need to be making a genuine challenge, but the shirt pull rules that out. So that brings a red card for denying an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO) into play.

Szoboszlai looks to latch onto the layoff from Darwin Núñez and must surely have a chance to score? There’s clearly a case for it, but as with Kovacic it’s a case of ticking the necessary boxes for a clear and obvious error by the referee, which cannot include a missed yellow card.

There are four tests for denying an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity:
– distance between the offence and the goal
– general direction of the play
– likelihood of keeping or gaining control of the ball
– location and number of defenders

While Szoboszlai may have had a shot with his next touch, Pawson has decided that the general direction of play and that Szoboszlai doesn’t have control of the ball create enough doubt that the Hungary international would have a genuine chance of scoring. It will split opinion but, as with Kovacic, it may be judged that the VAR was correct not to get involved even if a red card would have been the better on-field decision.

Virgil van Dijk‘s red card for his challenge on Alexander Isak, a decision given by the referee and not through VAR, was a much clearer case of DOGSO with the striker turning into space with the ball moving directly towards goal.

The VAR rarely gets involved in DOGSO situations unless it’s very clear there’s been a subjective error.

Last season, there wasn’t a VAR overturn for a DOGSO red card, and the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel said only one was missed. That came when Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha turned Nottingham Forest‘s Joe Worrall and was pulled down. Zaha already had control the ball when he took it past his opponent and had space to run into for the shot before Forest goalkeeper Dean Henderson would have been able to make an interception.

It’s surprising that Groß wasn’t even booked, but we do see consistency on this. Take last week, when West Ham United‘s Nayef Aguerd gave away a penalty for a trip on Salah. That was another situation which many would have considered DOGSO situation. As it was a challenge for the ball it couldn’t be a red card, but Aguerd wasn’t even booked either.

Possible penalty: Handball by Van Dijk

What happened: Kaoru Mitoma tried to put a ball into the centre of the area in the 69th minute, but it deflected off the thigh of Virgil van Dijk and onto his arm. Brighton’s players, fans and manager Roberto De Zerbi were furious a penalty wasn’t awarded.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: This is the correct decision, and provides us with a comparison to the penalty Wolverhampton Wanderers conceded against Luton Town two weeks ago. As explained after João Gomes was penalised for handball in that game, a deflection of the ball off the body onto the arm does not automatically rule out a penalty — the position of the arm is the determining factor.

Gomes had his arm directly above his head which, despite the fact he was stretching to make the tackle, is judged to be taking an undue risk to block the ball. The independent panel agreed the referee had made the correct decision to award that penalty.

Van Dijk’s arm position is very different. While his right arm is a little away from his body it’s not in a position that would be considered unexpected for his body movement, or in such a place to be extended so far to create risk of it being hit by the ball. There’s no chance it will be considered an error not to award a penalty.

Possible offside: Sterling when scoring

What happened: Raheem Sterling put Chelsea 3-1 in front in the 65th minute when latching onto a through ball from Conor Gallagher. The VAR, Darren Bond, began a check for offside — and another disaster was narrowly averted.

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: For the second weekend in a row the VAR team came close to a monumental error — and were only truly saved by Sterling being onside.

After Sterling put the ball into the back of the net there was a check for offside, and whether it was poor communication or a simple misunderstanding referee Stuart Attwell signalled for Burnley to kick off and restart the game.

Once the restart has happened a decision cannot be changed.

Bond immediately realised the game had kicked off and told the referee to stop play as the review was still ongoing. As the goal was good the decision didn’t need to be changed, so no harm was done.

However, what if Sterling had been offside? We would have faced another serious breakdown in Stockley Park just seven days after Luis Díaz’s goal was wrongly ruled out for offside. Then, the VAR team opted not to go against protocol. In this instance the VAR team did stop the match to correctly complete the review, but would they have actually disallowed a goal? This is exactly what happened in the France vs. Tunisia game at the World Cup and the whole refereeing team was sent home from the tournament.

A difficult problem which was prevented more by luck than judgement and has to lead to further questions about communication.

Possible penalty: Doherty foul on Watkins

What happened: Ollie Watkins had the chance to win the game for Aston Villa in the 91st minute, but stumbled just as he was about to shoot. He appeared to get a hand in the back from Matt Doherty, but was there enough for a penalty?

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: When does a push go from normal football contact and become a foul? That always a tough assessment for the VAR, but in this situation a penalty has to be the correct outcome.

Watkins is about to shoot when Doherty gives him a nudge in the back, which has to affect his ability to shoot effectively. This isn’t two players close together jostling for the ball, Doherty reaches out to put the Aston Villa striker off his stride. Not only could it be a penalty but a red card too, as Doherty is making no challenge for the ball.

The VAR will often look for two extended hands to be placed upon on opponent for there to be enough for an overturn, but clearly it shouldn’t be the only determining factor. It was decided there wasn’t enough in Doherty’s actions to warrant a VAR intervention, but if the VAR had intervened on this Doherty couldn’t have had any complaints.

We saw a similar incident in Newcastle’s draw at West Ham, when Isak placed two hands on Aguerd before he scored his second goal. Again it was decided that Isak’s actions were not a clear foul — though if the referee had seen it himself he would surely have disallowed the goal.

Possible offside: Isak when scoring

What happened: Isak equalised for Newcastle United in the 57th minute. A free kick was taken by Trippier, which Edson Álvarez attempted to head away, but only succeeded it giving it to Isak. The Newcastle striker appeared to be in an offside position when the free kick was taken, so should the goal have been disallowed?

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: The “deliberate play” law on offside comes into consideration once again. We’ve seen goals disallowed when it’s been deemed an opposition player hasn’t made a “deliberate play,” such as for Arsenal’s goal at Everton last month. This time it’s the attacking team which have benefitted.

The VAR, Andy Madley, has ruled that Álvarez has control of his actions when he attempts to head clear Trippier’s free kick. The ball comes a long way and Álvarez has a full view of its flight, and simply misplaces his header straight to Isak. Even though Isak was offside when the set piece was taken, the phase is reset by the “deliberate play” from Alvarez and the goal is legal.

Possible penalty: Shirt pull on Richarlison

What happened: Richarlison had the chance to put Tottenham Hotspur in front from James Maddison‘s cross in the fourth minute put fired over the bar. But was there a case for a penalty for the striker’s shirt being pulled?

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: There’s no doubt that Reece Burke grabs hold of Richarlison’s shirt, but this comes just after he has missed the chance. There’s no likelihood of a VAR intervention.

Possible disallowed goal: Ball rolling on corner kick

What happened: Spurs scored what proved to be the winning goal in the 52nd minute when Micky van de Ven netted following a corner routine, but was the ball not stationary when the set piece was taken?

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: The VAR is unable to rule on any regular restarts, including if the ball is moving when a corner or free kick is taken. These decisions must be made by the on-field officials, so no intervention would be possible.

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


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