Match Officials Mic'd Up: Webb analyses key incidents in MW26-29

19 Mar 2024

PGMOL's Howard Webb explains decision-making process for Liverpool's penalty appeal against Man City and more

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PGMOL and the Premier League are opening up discussions between the referee and the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) for key incidents this season. In the fifth instalment of "Match Officials: Mic'd Up", Howard Webb, chief operating officer at PGMOL, the organisation that oversees the League’s match officials, discusses five incidents from the last four weeks.

Webb and Michael Owen go through the conversation between the match officials to give fans greater knowledge of how decisions are made. The officials on the pitch do not hear all the conversations from the VAR hub in Stockley Park. 

The incidents covered are:
- Liverpool's penalty appeal v Man City
- West Ham's overturned goal v Aston Villa
- Villa's penalty appeal v West Ham
- McGinn's
red card v Spurs
- West Ham's penalty appeal v Burnley
- Brownhill's red card v Palace

Liverpool's penalty appeal against Man City

Incident: Liverpool midfielder Alexis Mac Allister and Manchester City's Jeremy Doku challenge for the ball late in the match at Anfield. Doku challenges with a raised boot that seems to catch Mac Allister in the chest as well as possibly clearing the ball.

What the match officials did: Referee Michael Oliver does not award a penalty. VAR officials Stuart Attwell and Nick Hopton do not overrule Oliver's decision nor call on him to review it.

Owen: "Did you think that was a penalty or not? I thought it sort of wasn't at the start. I see it again and I'm thinking it is and I'm really 50-50 on it.”

Webb: "Yeah. You're not alone. It’s split a lot of opinion, hasn't it? And I think it's one of those for sure if the referee gives it on the field, it would have been a 'Check complete' by the VAR. 

“And equally, having not given it, it's also 'Check complete'. You hear Michael Oliver say the ball's in between two players going together. The ball is too low to head. Doku lifts his foot to play the ball, and he does make contact on the ball.  

“And yes, we know there's some contact on Mac Allister as well. Mac Allister comes into him. Mac Allister is not really playing the ball either. So, I understand why it's split opinion.

“I think it would have been 'check complete' either way. Not wanting to to re-referee the game in situations that are not really clear, which is what we think the VAR is for in this situation. The VAR stays out of it. I think that is what we would we would expect.”

Owen: “You've been in this situation many times before: 98th minute, big game. What's going through your mind at that point?”

Webb: “It's a 1-1 all game. You just want certainty really. You want to to know with clarity, with certainty, that you're making the right decision. You don't always have sufficient information in the moment to make that decision. 

“And you know you need that on these big, big moments in and around the penalty area. Of course, you want to make the right decision and you do everything you can on the field to get into the best position, to stay focused right through to the end.  

“But sometimes you just don't quite have all the information and you want that certainty in these big moments.  

"Clearly, Michael [Oliver] didn't have it in this situation. And then the VAR looks at it and doesn't see a clear-and-obvious situation. You see something that's pretty subjective and therefore stays out of it, and the feedback we've had from people within the game is that this is a pretty subjective situation. It's split opinion.  

“So on that basis, the VAR, working to that high threshold kind of followed the kind of the right course in not getting involved.” 

Owen: “I think that's fair to say that it is subjective. But a lot of people will say, because it's the 98th minute, would that make any difference whether that happened in the eighth minute or the 98th? Is that when a referee's got to be even more certain and do things like, it's the big game, the score of the game, etc. Does that come into play or is it just you've just got to make the decision as it comes?”

Webb: “Yeah, I think penalty situations at any moment in a game of this magnitude are obviously always important, so you've gotta stay focused first minute right through to the end. 

“Towards the end of the game, maybe players in some situations will look to use contact to go down. Sometimes that's not what happens in this case, but you need to be aware of of the way that players might behave in the later stages of the game, hence the reason that you need that level of of certainty.  

“But yeah, you're just aware of the consequence of those big decisions around the penalty area and the need for for certainty.”

West Ham's disallowed goal v Aston Villa

Incident: West Ham United's James Ward-Prowse delivers a cross which is met by Konstantinos Mavropanos, Tomas Soucek makes initial contact before the ball hits Jarrod Bowen and goes over the goalline.

What the match officials did: Referee Jarred Gillett awards the goal on-field. The VAR reviews the incident and says Soucek strikes the ball with his arm. They then send Gillett to review the incident in the Referee Review Area (RRA). After review Gillett changes the on-field decision to a free-kick for Aston Villa for handball.

Soucek handball v Villa #1
Soucek handball v Villa #2
Soucek handball v Villa #3

Owen: “OK, I want to talk about the time it took to get to that decision just in a moment. But first of all, the process of the decision and how they got to that decision, were you happy with that?”

Webb: “Yeah, it was quite a complicated sequence, wasn't it, with quite a lot going off? We see the free-kick come in. We know there's a possible offside in there. There's also potentially a couple of handball offences, one by Tomas Soucek.

“We know the ball definitely comes off Soucek’s hand, but he's not the goalscorer because then the ball hits Jarrod Bowen, who's on the ground. And we see and hear the VAR and the AVAR going through that sequence and they're trying to find the most definitive aspect of it.  

“So they look at, 'Does it hit Jarrod Bowen's arm on the floor?' If it does, then we know the goal can't stand because if the ball hits a scorer’s arm, even if it's accidental, then the goal has to be disallowed. So they look at the video from different angles to see if it does hit Bowen’s arm.  

“I suspect it does hit his left arm, but they can't quite get the definitive angle, so then they go back to Tomas Soucek and they see that it does come off the arm, but for Soucek, it has to be a handball offence, either because he's deliberately handled the ball or because he's made himself bigger in some way, not just has the ball hit the arm because he's not the scorer. So they start to look at that as well.  

“Then they also look at a possible offside as well, to see if that's definitive. They don't get an offside situation, so they go through this sequence and it does take a bit of time.” 

Owen: “And was that sequence the right way? Then it has to go: goalscorer first, then offside and then Soucek.”

Webb: “Actually, there is no real set sequence that they have to follow. We advise the VAR to try to look for the thing that's the clearest because we want them to be as quick as they can.

“So if they look at one angle and see that it's hit Bowen's arm, then they can very quickly just recommend that the goal gets disallowed, just like they have to worry about an offside.

"You don't have to worry about Soucek’s involvement because the goal can never stand, but they don't find that angle that shows it's hit Jarrod Bowen’s arm so they then go back to Soucek, check and when they look at Soucek they see that it's the arm. And then there's a question about: is it deliberate or not? And that's when they have to send the referee to the screen to have a look at it. So that again takes a bit more time.” 

Owen:  “I thought Soucek has fouled his man actually before he made the handball. Anyway, I'm sure they would have got to that eventually. But this is a tell-tale one isn't it? When he actually dips his shoulder into it and pushes his arm. I think it’s a certain handball.” 

Webb: “It is. He turns his body, his arm into it, to knock it forward. Just it's an example of how complicated these sequences can be. You've got to look at all different aspects. Again, we ask the VARs to look for the thing that's the clearest in their opinion. 

“They're obviously watching the live play. They're following what's happening. They're verbalising what they're seeing in the moment. So then if it does lead to a goal or a penalty-kick, for example, they remember what they've been verbalising through the sequence. 

“They go back to what they consider to be the clearest thing, because we do want to be as efficient as we can be. But sometimes trying to find the right angle, trying to get that definitive aspect of it, is not always easy.

"In this one, they end up reverting back to Soucek and because he's not the scorer, because it has to be a handball offence by a deliberate action, or he's made himself bigger, then they have to send the referee to the screen to make the final decision.  

“And of course, the referee can keep their decision so they have to have looked to all other aspects as well.” 

Owen: “Five-and-a-half minutes it took. Was there anywhere we could pinch it a little bit to make it quicker. And why did the referee have to go to the screen?”

Webb: “I think you know when the guys look back on this one, they'll see some areas where they could be a bit quicker and speed this process up a bit. In terms of the referee having to go to the screen again because this is not considered a factual matter, it's not just a case of the ball hitting the arm and and going into the goal from the scorer.  

"This is a situation of the the player that's assisting deliberately bringing their arm forward in the opinion of the VAR, but that's a subjective matter and that's why the referee goes to the screen and makes the final decision.  

“In this case he agreed with the VAR. He saw this deliberate action to push the ball forward on to Jarrod Bowen, and therefore disallowed the goal. So, a correct outcome, it just took a bit of time to get there.” 

Aston Villa's penalty appeal v West Ham

Incident: Villa's Leon Bailey attempts to deliver a cross but the ball strikes the arm of West Ham defender Emerson.

What the match officials did: Jarred Gillett does not award a penalty for Villa. After review the VAR confirms the on-field decision.

Emerson handball v Villa #1
Emerson handball v Villa #2
Emerson handball v Villa #3

Owen:  “Howard, I'm happy that didn't go to VAR because I don't think it's conclusive either way, but interesting to get your thoughts on that one. I thought there was a deliberate point to say, 'Go and go and pick up the runner', so that makes his arm in an unnatural position.  I was sort of thinking 60-40 that that's a penalty.”

Webb: “Yeah, we're still in this subjective part of the game of handball. The area that's always thrown up the most opinion, I guess. Yes, we see Emerson pointing to a team-mate, a pretty normal kind of natural thing to do, I think at that point. He's not positioning himself to block a shot or a cross or a pass.  

“His arm is already there and the ball actually finds his arm. It's a bit away from the body, hence the reason why some people think they should be penalised. I think it would have been really harsh. He has no time to retract the arm. He tries his best but can't do it. But it's the ball that finds the arm. He doesn't move the arm towards the ball and I think in my opinion that's a pretty normal sequence. And I don't think it's one that we would expect to be penalised.” 

McGinn's red card against Spurs

Incident: Villa midfelder John McGinn is shown a straight red card for a reckless challenge on Tottenham Hotspur's Destiny Udogie.

What the match officials did: Referee Chris Kavanagh sends McGinn off and, after review, the VAR confirms the on-field decision.

McGinn red card v Spurs #1
McGinn red card v Spurs #2

Owen: “OK, playing devil's advocate, it's not a straight-legged challenge. It's not studs-up. He's not out of control. Why does that meet the threshold for a red card? 

Webb: “Yeah, the things you've mentioned there, Michael, are often the characteristics that we're looking for in trying to identify a red-card offence.  

"Does the player leave the ground lunging two-footed or with a straight leg? Go over the foot with the studs? It doesn't happen in this situation, but what we do see is McGinn take a really strong sort of kicking action into the opponent and the law only asks us to identify whether the action has excessive force or brutality.  

“And this one I think clearly does. The officials did as well. It's interesting to see the Tottenham players. They don't react to the referee when this happens. They run straight to McGinn. They know what's happened in this situation.  

“They're trying to influence the referee into showing a red card. They identified that this is a pretty brutal action by McGinn as he kicks through Udogie and and it's a red card, clear red card, and quite rightly 'check complete' by the VAR." 

West Ham's penalty appeal v Burnley

Incident: West Ham's Michail Antonio produces a long throw which is headed by Burnley's Sander Berge on to his own arm in the penalty area.

What the match officials did: Referee Darren England does not award a penalty for West Ham. After review the VAR confirms the on-field decision.

Berge handball v Berge

Owen: “Why is that not a handball?"

Webb: “Well, I know there was some reaction to this one suggesting that it should have been. To be clear, this cannot be handball. 

“Sander Berge heads the ball on to his own arm. The Laws of the Game are quite explicit in that if a player plays the ball on to his own arm, it can't be a handball offence.  

“Unless of course, there's a secondary action that moves the arm into the ball after the player has played it. In this one, Sander Berge heads the ball, his arms are already there as part of the jumping motion, and you've got to ask yourself, 'Why would he use his arm to block his own clearance?' 

“I mean, it makes no sense, so it's not a handball. It's correctly recognised, really quickly by the VAR as well. 'Check complete.' Nice and quickly. It's definitely not a handball.” 

Owen: “OK, earlier we saw an VAR decision take about five-and-a-half minutes to complete, this one took 10 seconds. Are you happy with the way we're going in terms of how long it's taken to to get these decisions?”

Webb: “To be clear, we're always working to be as efficient as we can be. We get our VARs together on a regular basis. We go through training sessions where we're working on accuracy first and foremost, but also speed, embedding some good processes.  

“Of course, we understand that people want us to be efficient in this process and we track performance on that.  

“The one that we saw earlier with Soucek did take some time, but our average length of a check only takes 38 seconds. So that's normally completed before the game even restarts after a goal is scored or penalties awarded.  

“If you look at delays due to the VAR, it only comes out just over a minute on average per game. So we're not having that huge negative impact across many games. Sometimes it takes a bit of time to go through the process, but usually it's pretty efficient and done in the background, which is exactly where I'd like it to be.” 

Owen: “I guess some of those decisions are not even coming to the fore. People are doing it all behind the scenes.”

Webb: “Yeah, they are. They're talking, they’re checking. We have the comfort of knowing that all big decisions have been checked and therefore it's good safety net for those clear errors when we can pick them up.” 

Brownhill's red card against Palace

Incident: Burnley midfielder Josh Brownhill is dispossessed by Crystal Palace's Jefferson Lerma, who goes to the ground after having his shirt pulled by Brownhill outside the area when through on goal.

What the match officials did: Referee Lewis Smith awards a free-kick to Palace and issues a red card to Brownhill for Denial Of A Goalscoring Opportunity (DOGSO) and after a review, the VAR confirms the on-field decision.

Brownhill red card v Palace
Brownhill red card v Palace #2

Owen: “No real complaints there. I think it's important, maybe just to explain DOGSO, why that had to be a red card.”

Webb: “Yeah, a pretty clear situation. When we're looking at a DOGSO, we look at four elements.  

“Was the play moving towards goal? What was the distance from goal? Did the attacking player have possession and control or likely to have possession of control of the ball? And  what's the location of the other defenders? Could they interject to prevent that attack?

"In this situation we see all four elements are present and therefore when the foul happens it's denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity and therefore a red card comes in this situation. There's a clear shirt pulled by Brownhill, but it doesn't matter whether it's a clear shirt pull like this one, or an attempt to play the ball that he gets wrong.  

“It's outside the area, so it always has to be a red card.  

"If you move this into the penalty area, then it wouldn't be a red card if Brownhill was making a genuine attempt to play or challenge for the ball, however, it would be a yellow card. The advantage goes back to the attacking team from the penalty spot.  

“However, if it's a cynical shirt-pulling offence like this one in the penalty area, it still has to be red.  

“So this situation pretty clear, good decision by the officials.”

Glossary of terms

VAR: Video Assistant Referee; AVAR: Assistant Video Assistant Referee; RO: replay operator; APP: attacking phase of play.

UK users can watch the whole "Match Officials Mic-ed Up" video on Sky Sports and TNT Sports. International users can access the full video with their local rights-holder.

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