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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 Nottingham Forest have been given a penalty for a handball by Manchester United defender Harry Maguire? Plus, West Ham United‘s penalty against Arsenal, Wolverhampton Wanderers‘ claims for a spot kick against Brentford and more drama at Tottenham Hotspur.

Possible penalty: Handball by Maguire

What happened: Nottingham Forest were awarded a corner in the 19th minute when the game was goalless. The delivery from Renan Lodi dropped into the 6-yard box on to a cluster of players, and after it fell to the ground, Maguire cleared his lines for a throw-in. Forest players appealed for a penalty, and referee Simon Hooper signalled there was a VAR check underway from Andy Madley.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: It’s easy to see why so many people, including Forest boss Steve Cooper, would think this is a certain penalty, but the VAR has a few things to take into account to determine whether the on-field decision of no penalty was incorrect.

It could be that Hooper didn’t see the possible handball offence. Even so, the VAR must judge that the merits of the case reach the threshold for a VAR intervention.

The law states there’s only an offence if “the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation.” When jumping or trying to head the ball there’s an increased likelihood of the arm being high. That doesn’t always excuse a player’s arm position, but the context is important.

Maguire is battling for the ball with three other players, two of which happen to be his teammates. Watching as the ball drops, Maguire’s left arm is always in the same position, and the ball strikes it when he misses the header.

If the ball had hit Maguire’s right arm, which he brought up and across into the path of the ball, that would be a certain VAR intervention. There would be no valid explanation for the position of his right arm as a barrier away from his body.

If the referee had given the penalty, the decision wouldn’t have been overturned, but there is enough doubt within the clauses of the handball law for the VAR to stay out of it.

Compare it to the penalty conceded by AFC Bournemouth‘s Adam Smith against Liverpool last month. Smith is jumping uncontested and his arm is in a position to block the header from Diogo Jota. This was an obvious VAR intervention, in contrast to the Maguire situation; Smith was unchallenged, while Maguire is trying to find a position to head the ball in a congested area.

West Ham United‘s Michail Antonio conceded a penalty against Arsenal, but that is in no way similar to Maguire. Antonio had his arm extended from his body and blocked a shot on goal from Gabriel Martinelli. Antonio was perhaps a little unlucky on proximity, but his arm had created a clear barrier, and there was no chance the VAR would say it was a wrong decision.

After the game, Cooper also said it should have been a second yellow card for Maguire, but this isn’t the case. The handball offence didn’t prevent a possible scoring chance, or stop a shot on goal, so there would have been no caution. Antonio wasn’t booked for his offence, either, though in a different European league he would have been. The Premier League has a far more relaxed policy on yellow cards for handball from a shot, whereas in most other leagues it’s an automatic yellow card.

There was also a handball claim against Diogo Dalot just after half-time and, while the ball hit his arm, it had deflected up on to his body when he blocked the cross, so there’s no penalty for this.

Possible penalty overturn: Handball by Rice; Gabriel foul on Paqueta

What happened: In the 31st minute with Arsenal 2-0 up, Thomas Partey lost the ball in midfield to Declan Rice. The England midfielder stepped forward and played a pass to Lucas Paqueta, and the Brazilian went to ground under a sliding challenge from Gabriel. Referee David Coote pointed to the penalty spot.

VAR decision: Penalty stands, scored by Said Benrahma.

VAR review: Partey fails to control the ball and it pops up onto Rice’s chest, which enables him to move forward and create the opportunity for the penalty. But did Rice handle the ball before passing it to Paqueta?

One angle suggests the ball may have touched Rice’s arm, but that wouldn’t be an automatic reason to cancel the penalty and award a free kick to Arsenal. Rice would be considered to have his arm in a natural position for his movement, so the handball would have to be a deliberate act to be an offence. West Ham scored a goal against Fulham in the first half of the season when the ball hit the arm of Antonio in the buildup to a goal. On that occasion, the VAR wrongly chose not to intervene, but there was a clear movement of the arm by Antonio to control the ball.

It’s the second consecutive week that West Ham have benefitted from an accidental handball in the buildup to a goal situation, after the ball touched Vladimir Coufal‘s hand before Harrison Reed scored an own goal in the Hammers’ 1-0 win at Fulham. The independent panel judged it was correct for the officials to allow that goal, and it had been a far clearer touch of Coufal’s arm than the Rice incident, so that won’t be judged as an error.

For the penalty itself, the decision by the referee is crucial. VAR protocol states that if a spot kick has been awarded and there is evidence of contact, then the VAR shouldn’t intervene. The only exception is if the attacker has initiated the contact — which is what the VAR, John Brooks, had to consider.

Gabriel’s slide is rash and there is definitely some contact, though Paqueta did seem to place his right foot across into the path of the challenge. If Gabriel had been making no challenge and Paqueta had placed his foot into his opponent, the VAR would have been likely to intervene. But as there is a tackle made by the Arsenal defender, in this instance the decision stood. It’s like the penalty Manchester City‘s Kevin De Bruyne won at Southampton last week, when he used the sliding tackle from Kyle Walker-Peters to win a penalty.

The contact is slight, and the reaction from Paqueta is theatrical, so if the referee doesn’t give the penalty, the VAR isn’t going to get involved; but at the same time it won’t be considered a clear and obvious error.

Possible penalty: Raya on Toti

What happened: In the 52nd minute with the score at 1-0, Josh Dasilva played a pass back to goalkeeper David Raya, who was being closed down by Toti. The Wolverhampton Wanderers player got to the ball first, with Raya then colliding with him. The ball went out of play and referee Paul Tierney pointed for a goal kick despite the protests.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: Wolves have been unhappy with decisions throughout the season and can again consider themselves unfortunate. Tierney had a decent view and showed he knew Toti got to the ball by awarding a goal kick rather than a corner; the VAR, Stuart Attwell, backed the referee’s judgement that it was a coming together rather than a foul.

Wolves will disagree and point to the decision which went against them in their 2-1 defeat at Newcastle United last month. Magpies goalkeeper Nick Pope appeared to impede Raul Jimenez, but no penalty was awarded, which infuriated Wolves and their boss, Julen Lopetegui. The independent assessment panel ruled that the referee, Andy Madley, should have awarded the penalty at St James’ Park, but at the same time it wasn’t a clear and obvious error and the VAR, Tony Harrington, was right not to get involved.

The Pope-Jimenez incident is perhaps more controversial, because the Wolves player had the chance to take possession of the ball and there was the possibility of a red card for the goalkeeper. However, Jimenez seemed to put his body into Pope — whereas on Saturday there was a much stronger case that Raya was late into the challenge after Toti had played the ball. Perhaps the fact that Toti had knocked it out of play came into the VAR’s thinking, but there’s a far stronger argument to award a spot kick.

Wolves should have been given a penalty against Arsenal earlier this season when the VAR failed to intervene following William Saliba‘s tackle on Goncalo Guedes. But not everything has gone against them, as they avoided a penalty when the VAR should have penalised Matheus Nunes‘ shirt pull on Newcastle’s Sean Longstaff.

Possible penalty: Stephens on Kane

What happened: In the 65th minute with Tottenham Hotspur trailing 2-1, Ivan Perisic ran to the byline and cut a ball back towards Harry Kane. The England captain went to ground in a tussle with Jack Stephens, but referee Andy Madley ignored the claims for a penalty.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review:

The questions for the VAR, Tony Harrington, are whether the holding by Stephens impedes Kane, if it was coming from both players, and if Kane went to ground in a manner that didn’t match the level of contact.

Kane definitely has claims for a spot kick, and if Madley had awarded it, it wouldn’t have been overturned. But Kane appears to throw himself forward, which didn’t appear to be natural for the type of contact. Kane may also have held onto Stephens’ arm to create the impression of prolonged holding.

It’s not the kind of situation the independent assessment panel will judge as an incorrect decision by the VAR.

Possible offside: Kane on Danjuma goal

What happened: Spurs equalised in the 88th minute when Arnaut Danjuma curled home a low shot from just inside the area. But Kane was in an offside position as the shot was hit, and the VAR has to consider whether he was interfering with the line of vision of goalkeeper Neto.

VAR decision: Goal stands.

VAR review: Kane made no obvious action to play or move out of the way of the ball, so the only possible offence is “preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision.”

A goalkeeper’s ability to successfully save a shot isn’t a consideration, only whether they have been impacted from being able to play the ball. Did Kane’s presence have an effect on Neto’s decision-making?

Very rarely will the VAR intervene in a subjective offside decision, unless the offence is a player blocking or directly interfering with another player as part of an attacking move. When it comes to a passive offside such as line of vision, it will more often be left to the on-field decision.

This was a close call for the VAR, however, as Danjuma’s shot came from inside the area and the ball deflected and passed outside Kane before nestling in the corner. Without the deflection off Stephens, the ball probably hits Kane, which would be an automatic offside offence.

Neto himself made no complaint about Kane’s position after the goal was scored. Would the VAR have come to a different decision if he had? Perhaps Harrington would have felt the impact was higher and disallowed the goal. Former Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was an expert at highlighting possible offences to officials and perhaps earned his team a couple of decisions.

There have been other such situations this season that also haven’t led to a VAR intervention, so this is consistent with other calls. Perhaps the most controversial was Arsenal‘s late winner against Aston Villa, when two players were in front of Emiliano Martinez, who also didn’t complain about the goal.

VAR penalty: Handball by Ndidi

What happened: In the 10th minute, with Manchester City already 1-0 up, Jack Grealish got to the byline and attempted to cross into the area, but the ball was blocked by Wilfred Ndidi. Referee Darren England gave the corner but Man City players demanded a penalty for handball (watch here.)

VAR decision: Penalty awarded, scored by Erling Haaland.

VAR review: England thought the ball had come off Ndidi’s body, but it was clear from the first replay it had hit the Leicester City player’s raised arm.

When the arm is high above the shoulder and blocks a cross into the area, it’s always going to be a penalty, and this was a very simple decision for the VAR, Jarred Gillett. Again, this is different than the Maguire decision as Ndidi isn’t challenging for a high ball, but attempted to prevent a cross.

It’s only the second VAR decision City have had in their favour this season, the other being a penalty awarded for a foul by Brighton & Hove Albion defender Lewis Dunk on Bernardo Silva.

Possible penalty: Handball by Trippier

What happened: In the 43rd minute, with Aston Villa 1-0 up, John McGinn crossed the ball into the area and it hit Kieran Trippier. McGinn appealed for a penalty, but referee John Brooks pointed for a corner.

VAR decision: No penalty.

VAR review: If the Ndidi handball provided the perfect example of what should be penalised as handball, this shows a textbook case of the arm being tucked into the body.

Trippier had withdrawn both arms, and while he turned into the ball, in doing so he wasn’t making his body bigger — if he hadn’t moved, the ball would have hit his chest. The difference comes if Trippier had leaned into the ball, therefore creating a bigger space to stop the cross, which could be judged as a deliberate act and a penalty.

There was no chance of a VAR intervention on this from Simon Hooper.

We saw a similar claim for Leicester in the 86th minute, when Sergio Gomez blocked a header from Caglar Soyuncu. The ball may have actually only hit Gomez’s hip, but even if it came off his arm, it was down by his side and wouldn’t be considered a handball offence.

Information provided by the Premier League and PGMOL was used in this story.

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