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Explaining the VAR controversy in Tottenham vs. Chelsea

With a day to sit on it, let’s deconstruct exactly what the heck happened in the first half of Sunday’s match.

Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

Thanks to their 2-0 win over Chelsea on Sunday, selective outrage over the kerfluffle and seemingly-botched VAR decision just before halftime is probably a lot lower on the minds of Tottenham Hotspur fans today. It’s a lot easier to be magnanimous when a refereeing or VAR error doesn’t result in dropped points.

However, in the moment, the decisions made by match official Stuart Attwell and VAR, who initially gave a red card to Hakim Ziyech for shoving Emerson Royal in the face only to rescind the red for a yellow after viewing the monitor, were inexplicable, infuriating, and deeply confusing. It was really, really hard to unpack what all had happened in the moment when it was all taking place, not least because the Premier League doesn’t let fans or the production truck listen in on officials’ conversations or allow them to explain decisions while they’re happening.

But Spurs won, and we’ve had a day to let the dust settle. I think it’s worth looking into what exactly happened and why Attwell and VAR made the decisions they made.

First, let’s take a look at what happened and there’s no better way to do that than by watching the video.

To recap: Richarlison was fouled (we’ll get to that), which led to a stoppage in play. Immediately after the foul, Richarlison and Ziyech squared up to each other, with Richy upset at Ziyech bringing him down. Match official Attwell started by showing a yellow to Kai Havertz. Plenty of other players from both teams got involved in the scrum, and at one point Spurs’ Emerson Royal barged into the back of Ziyech, who retaliated by taking a swing at Royal, connecting with his shoulder but landing a glancing blow to Royal’s head. Royal went down holding his face.

While all of this was taking place, Attwell was conferring with his assistants, and also with the VAR official in the booth. Eventually, Attwell issued a yellow card to Royal for the barge on Ziyech, and then issued Ziyech a straight red card for violent conduct. However, confusingly, Attwell then went to the monitor to view the incident, and returned to waive off the red card and issue a yellow to Ziyech instead.

Fans were apoplectic — not only did VAR rescind the straight red (rarely seen for violent conduct) but it was thought that even with the red turned into a yellow it would be Ziyech’s second yellow card which would result in his sending off.

It didn’t make sense at the time (and still doesn’t at some level), but with time others were able to bring some clarity to the situation. ESPN’s Dale Johnson has a really nice breakdown of what happened, noting that the confusion ultimately was due to a breakdown in the process the officials used to make the decisions on the field.

In short:

  1. A foul is called on Richarlison. A scrum takes place.
  2. Royal rushes in and barges Ziyech in the back.
  3. Ziyech retaliates by throwing a punch at Royal, making contact with his face.
  4. Attwell confers with his assistant, who notified him that a player was struck in the face, but neither saw who threw the punch. Attwell asks VAR to identify who threw the punch.
  5. VAR is able to confirm that Ziyech was the player who hit Royal, which gives Attwell enough info to take the decision to issue Royal a yellow card and Ziyech a straight red card for violent conduct.
  6. VAR then suggests to Attwell to view the incident on the monitor to correct a “clear and obvious error” with his initial call on the field.
  7. Attwell views the Ziyech-Royal incident and decides to rescind the red card for a yellow card, meaning Ziyech is able to continue to stay on the pitch. Play (eventually) resumes.

The biggest point of confusion was that many people thought that Attwell had issued the initial yellow card for the foul on Richarlison to Ziyech. This is a safe, but incorrect, assumption as the tackle on Richarlison was definitely yellow-card worthy. But that wasn’t the call on the field — Attwell had flagged and issued a card not to Ziyech, but to HAVERTZ, who had clipped Richarlison’s heels just prior to Ziyech’s tackle.

This meant that when Ziyech’s red card was rescinded, it was only his first yellow card infraction, not his second because he had not been penalized for his tackle on Richarlison — Havertz had. Havertz, Ziyech, and Royal all ended up getting one yellow each, with nobody sent off.

Clear as mud, right?

Now, we’re a Tottenham Hotspur blog made of Tottenham Hotspur fans, and there are two areas where we can — and probably should!— disagree with the decisions made by Attwell and by VAR. The first is Attwell’s decision to issue the initial yellow to Kai Havertz for clipping Richarlison’s heels instead of the (objectively worse) tackle on Richarlison by Hakim Ziyech. As stated, this is what caused the most confusion, because the Ziyech tackle was absolutely yellow-card worthy. (The Havertz challenge was also a foul, but arguably a less obvious call to make).

The second was VAR’s review of the punch/shove by Ziyech to the face of Emerson Royal. I’m not sure what the justification was to call the initial red card a “clear and obvious error” — there are some suggestions that either it had something to do with Ziyech intending to shove Royal’s shoulder and missing or deflecting his hand onto Royal’s face, or that there wasn’t enough force involved to meet the threshold for violent conduct.

Either way, when a hand hits a face in the Premier League it’s almost always a red card, regardless of intent or the amount of force involved. I’ve seen players sent off for significantly less “intent” and “force” (Son Heung-Min vs. Antonio Rudiger, anyone?), and hands to the face is a clear red line with match officials.

Reading Dale Johnson’s (and other’s) accounts of what happened makes me understand the situation a little better, but I still think Attwell and VAR screwed up twice yesterday: Attwell initially issued the yellow card to the wrong Chelsea player (Havertz, not Ziyech), and VAR wildly rescinded Ziyech’s violent conduct red upon review. Both feel like egregious mistakes to make, and the confusing process that played out at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium only made things worse.

It’s hard to get TOO upset considering that Spurs won the match. But this is just the latest in a long string of confusing and inexplicably infuriating match official decisions made, or influenced, by a VAR system that appears to be inconsistently applied.