The VAR Review: Jesus penalty; handballs by Saliba, McTominay

Reimagining VAR: Analyzing Premier League Decision-Making

Dale Johnson

General Editor, ESPN FC

Oct 23, 2023, 07:39 AM ET

10 Minute Read

Onuoha, Laurens share their thoughts on Saliba’s penalty against Chelsea

Nedum Onuoha and Julien Laurens provide their reactions to William Saliba’s penalty incident during the Chelsea match.

Video Assistant Referee (VAR) creates controversy week after week in the Premier League, but how are decisions actually made, and are they accurate?

After each weekend, we thoroughly examine the major incidents to shed light on the VAR protocol and the Rules of the Game.

– How VAR has impacted every Premier League club in the 2023-24 season
– Ultimate guide to VAR in the Premier League

In this week’s VAR Review, we explore the following:

1. Should Robert Sánchez have conceded a penalty for his challenge on Gabriel Jesus?
2. Handball decisions involving William Saliba, Michael Keane, and Scott McTominay.

Possible Penalty: Sanchez’s challenge on Jesus

What happened: In the 60th minute, Arsenal won a free kick on the right. Martin Ødegaard delivered the ball into the area, but Takehiro Tomiyasu’s header went over the bar. However, goalkeeper Robert Sánchez rushed out and collided with Gabriel Jesus while attempting to punch the ball. Referee Chris Kavanagh restarted play with a goal kick to Chelsea.

VAR decision: No penalty. Gabriel Jesus was knocked to the ground by Robert Sánchez.

VAR review: Arsenal fans argue that this challenge is similar to the one Manchester United goalkeeper André Onana made on Wolverhampton Wanderers attacker Sasa Kalajdzic. The incident occurred in the opening game of the season, with VAR failing to intervene and award a penalty. The Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) admitted the error and recognized that a penalty should have been given on that occasion. However, there are some differences between the two incidents that prevent the PGMOL from taking the same action against Sanchez and the referee.

The VAR must determine whether the goalkeeper is genuinely trying to play the ball. While Sanchez may have appeared reckless, the decision is more of a borderline case in terms of how VAR applies to clear and obvious errors. Sanchez collides with a group of players, including Jesus and his own teammates, while attempting to punch clear. Additionally, there was some shirt holding on Tomiyasu by Thiago Silva, but it did not warrant a penalty.

On the other hand, Onana initially tried to play the ball but realized he had no chance of winning it, so he intentionally brought Kalajdzic down. It was an additional action to foul an opponent after failing to win the aerial ball.

Each week, the VAR Review sparks a significant reaction on social media and among pundits. However, when the incidents are assessed by the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel within the framework of the rules, very few are considered errors. In fact, during the last week before the international break, there were several controversial situations, including red cards and penalties, but no VAR errors were recorded.

Possible Red Card: Palmer’s challenge on Jesus

What happened: Cole Palmer received a yellow card in the eighth minute for a late challenge on Gabriel Jesus. But should the referee have given a red card? The VAR initiated a check.

VAR decision: No red card. Cole Palmer accidentally stepped on Gabriel Jesus after the ball had gone.

VAR review: While Palmer’s tackle was not favorable, it did not reach the threshold for a red card worthy of VAR intervention. The contact was low, not above the ankle, and without excessive force. A yellow card was an acceptable disciplinary outcome, and the Independent Key Match Incidents Panel would support it. The panel also concluded that Kovacic’s tackle on Ødegaard did not warrant VAR intervention for a red card, although the referee should have made the decision on-field for both the initial red and a possible second yellow card.

Possible Penalty: Saliba’s handball

What happened: In the 11th minute, Raheem Sterling crossed the ball, and Mykhailo Mudryk attempted a headed goal under pressure from William Saliba. Chelsea players demanded a penalty claiming the ball hit Saliba’s arm, but the referee played on.

VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Cole Palmer.

VAR review: This particular incident highlights the clash between the intended application of the rules and what fans perceive as fair. Several examples illustrate how such decisions are evaluated.

As a general rule, if a player’s arm is fully extended from the body, there is a high probability of a penalty being awarded. While the expected arm position and proximity to the player’s action are important, they are secondary factors. The decisive factor is whether the arm is well away from the body, creating an obvious barrier.

It can be anticipated that Saliba’s arm would be in that position when jumping, but he is considered to be taking a risk by fully extending his arm. A similar penalty appeal was not given against James Ward-Prowse of West Ham United against Luton Town. Ward-Prowse’s arm was raised, but not fully extended above his head, resulting in the penalty appeal being dismissed.

Another instance where a penalty was not awarded involved Nicolas Jackson on the opening weekend of the season against Liverpool. Jackson’s arm was close to his body, rather than fully extended. Proximity does play a part, but Jackson’s arm position saved him from a VAR review.

In contrast, João Gomes conceded a penalty after blocking a shot with his arm raised above his head. Despite the ball deflecting off Gomes’ own body, the raised arm nullified the mitigating factor.

As explained in one of our VAR Reviews in August, there will always be borderline decisions, such as Cristian Romero’s possible handball for Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester United. While Romero’s arm was away from his body, it was not fully extended like Saliba’s and Gomes’.

So far this season, the panel has not deemed any defensive handball VAR decisions to be incorrect.

Possible Penalty: Patterson’s foul on Diaz

What happened: In the 70th minute, Luis Díaz felt he was fouled by Nathan Patterson and called for a penalty. Referee Craig Pawson did not award it.

VAR decision: No penalty. Nathan Patterson made minimal contact with Luis Diaz’s boot.

VAR review: This decision aligns with this season’s VAR reviews for penalties. While Patterson made slight contact while sliding in to block a potential cross from Diaz, it wasn’t sufficient to propel Diaz into the air. Although some penalties have been awarded by referees for minimal contact, it is not usually the case when reviewed by VAR.

Possible Penalty: Keane’s handball

What happened: In an attempt to cross into the box, Diaz’s ball struck Michael Keane’s outstretched arm. Referee Pawson did not award a penalty, but VAR David Coote intervened.

VAR decision: Penalty, scored by Mohamed Salah.

VAR review: This was an easy decision for VAR and ideally should have been made on-field without the video assistant’s intervention. While the ball may have hit Keane from close proximity, his arm was fully extended, creating a barrier.

By reevaluating these incidents, we can gain a deeper understanding of VAR decision-making in the Premier League. Although controversies arise week after week, it is essential to respect the process and the laws that govern the game.


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