The Video Assistant Referee causes controversy every week, and we’re taking a look at all the big incidents. On Sunday, there were three high-profile possible VAR interventions as Brighton & Hove Albion beat Liverpool 2-1 in the FA Cup (stream a replay on ESPN+, U.S. only.) The decisions stayed on-field, but was that the correct call by the VAR?
Possible red card: Fabinho foul on Ferguson
What happened: In the 86th minute, Evan Ferguson had turned Fabinho and was looking for a pass. The Liverpool midfielder tried to tackle the Brighton striker but caught him on the Achilles with his studs. Referee David Coote showed Fabinho a yellow card.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: The VAR, Neil Swarbrick, looked at this challenge for some time and ultimately decided a yellow card was an acceptable disciplinary outcome, but all the evidence would suggest he’s got the decision wrong.
Even if the referee told the VAR he saw that the contact was above the boot but the challenge didn’t have the necessary force for a red card, the nature of the challenge itself has to be endangering the safety of an opponent.
Fabinho has no prospect of winning the ball, and he goes above the boot, with a lunging motion and with studs leading into Ferguson, who was forced off injured.
Swarbrick, the Premier League’s head of VAR, should have told Coote he had made an error and sent him to the monitor for a red-card review. It’s quite simply a really poor VAR decision.
We often see challenges with contact above the boot lead only to a booking, and that can be a fair decision if it doesn’t quite cross the subjective threshold from yellow to red. And in the 91st-minute, we saw exactly this when Andy Robertson was booked for a challenge on Alexis Mac Allister. The images may look very similar, but the nature of the challenges are very different.
Robertson stepped into the challenge and mistimed it, catching the Brighton player just above the boot line. However, this tackle didn’t come with to level of excessive force which would be needed for the VAR to decide a yellow card wasn’t justifiable. On this one, there was no need for the VAR to get involved.
Possible red card: Konate challenge on
What happened: In the 82nd minute, Mac Allister raced onto a long ball over the top but went to ground under a challenge from Ibrahima Konate. The ball ran through to goalkeeper Alisson, and the referee waved play on.
VAR decision: No red card.
VAR review: Konate was already on a yellow at the time, but the VAR cannot tell the referee he has missed a foul and it should be a booking. However, although the possible foul was outside the area, there can be a VAR review for a straight red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.
As Mac Allister runs through on goal, he is first to the ball and will clearly be able to get it under control. In addition, the ball wouldn’t have run through to the goalkeeper before the Brighton player took possession for a shot on goal.
That means if it’s a foul, it has to be a red card. So the VAR can only have decided it wasn’t a foul. And the evidence doesn’t really support that.
Konate has no interest in playing the ball, which on its own doesn’t have to be an offence if the player is using his strength in a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge. But the Liverpool defender appears to barge Mac Allister over, and he makes a connection with his arm on the opponent’s head.
This isn’t quite as certain as the missed Fabhino red card, but again a Liverpool player can consider himself very fortunate to escape VAR red.
Possible foul: Handball by Keita in the buildup to Elliott goal
What happened: Liverpool took the lead in the 30th minute when Mohamed Salah set up Harvey Elliott to score, but there was a VAR check at the start of the move, involving Naby Keita before he passed to Salah. Brighton players were appealing for handball.
VAR decision: Goal stands.
VAR review: As the possible handball offence was not by the goal scorer, either it has to be a deliberate act or the player must have his arms in an unexpected position for his body movement.
Crucially, the ball comes off Keita’s leg before probably touching his arm. The deflection off the body is also a qualifying exemption against a handball offence — but a deliberate act would still supersede this.
Some angles suggest the ball might not have actually touched Keita’s arm, but even if it did, there is no suggestion of a deliberate act. On this one, the VAR made the correct call.