A major VAR talking point arose in the Premier League game this weekend between Tottenham and Manchester City. With 35.57 on the clock, Serge Aurier brought down Sergio Aguero in the Spurs penalty area. With 37.58 on the clock, Mike Dean halted play (which had continued for a full two minutes) and brought the players all the way back to give a penalty on the advice of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

The delay of two minutes stopping the game was the VAR and Mike Dean waiting for a “neutral situation” to conduct the review and give the final decision.

This may have you thinking – what happens to the football that took place in those two minutes of football? The Laws of the Game know this as the “post-incident period”, i.e. what takes place between a reviewable incident and a final decision overturning the original on-field decision. Officially, has that football even “taken place” at all or do we simply erase the past with an application of VAR?

Passes, shots and other statistics during the post-incident period

First, it's worth noting that in the eyes of the statisticians the events in the post-incident period didn’t happen if the original decision is overturned. All of those passes, shots, tackles and headers are erased from the annals of footballing history leaving a two-minute black hole where everyone had been running around but no official football had taken place. Now, let's take a look at the Laws of the Game to see what will happen to fouls, yellow and red cards, and the celebrations of those who score a goal in the post-incident period.

Yellow and red cards during the post-incident period

The IFAB VAR Protocol states that “if play continues after an incident which is then reviewed, any disciplinary action taken during the post-incident period is not cancelled, even if the original decision is changed”.

Therefore, had any of the City or Spurs players received a yellow or red card during the two minutes that play continued after the penalty incident, this would have been treated as though it did happen, even though play would eventually restart with the penalty that should have been given two minutes earlier.

The only exception to this principle in the Protocol is if the caution/sending off was given for “stopping a promising attack or denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO)”. This showed in January 2020, where Caglar Soyuncu (Leicester) fouled Shane Long (Southampton) in the penalty area and was yellow-carded for DOGSO. However, when the penalty was checked by VAR it was revealed that Long was offside in the build-up. When the referee awarded the offside decision, he rescinded Soyuncu’s yellow card as the offence had occurred after the offside should have been given. Soyuncu’s foul and yellow card are treated as though they didn’t happen.

Celebrations during the post-incident period

In December 2018, Riccardo Saponara curled in an equaliser for Sampdoria against Juventus in the 92nd minute. A euphoric celebration saw Saponara take off his shirt, a bookable offence. VAR reviewed and the referee deemed that Saponara had been offside in the build-up to the goal. The goal was erased, because the offside should have been given. However, Saponara’s yellow card from his celebration stood. Many felt aggrieved for Saponara, as had the offside flag been raised originally he would not have scored, celebrated, and taken off his shirt.

This is explained by Law 12 of the Laws of the Game which states that “A player must be cautioned, even if the goal is disallowed, for … removing the shirt” (emphasis added). The words in italics were added by IFAB for the 2019/20 Laws to clarify this situation. After the intervention of VAR for offside/handball etc., a goal is treated as though it didn’t happen, but any inappropriate celebration for that ‘goal’ is treated by the Laws as though it did happen.

What’s the logic in maintaining sanctions for certain offences in the post-incident period, but rescinding others?

It lies in the justification for the sanction and impact of the offence itself.

Yellow and red cards for DOGSO or stopping a promising attack, which will be rescinded if they occur during the post-incident period, are sanctions for incidents which take place in the course of the game. For example, fouling somebody who is through on goal does not endanger their safety or reflect badly on the sport at all. So, if these offences take place during the post-incident period, the sanction is rescinded to reflect the fact that the game should have been stopped earlier and the offending player should not have been in the circumstances where they commit the offence.

Yellow and red cards for inappropriate celebrations, violent conduct, serious foul play, biting, spitting, abuse or other similar behaviour are awarded because the conduct is seen as unacceptable in any circumstances on a football pitch. Regardless of whether VAR changes the referee’s decision, if this behaviour takes place in the post-incident period the impact of the action (on other players’ safety, the image of the game etc.) is the same.

Therefore, players should be mindful that a post-incident passage of play doesn’t give them licence to misbehave; if they pick up yellow or red cards for an offence that is ‘not in the normal course of the game’, they won’t be reprieved by a reversed decision, even though the rest of that passage of play will be treated as though it never happened at all.

The on-field decision was no penalty and because the ball remained in play, the game continued while the VAR checked for a possible penalty.