Raphael Honigstein

Everything you need to know about video assistant referees

Words: Raphael Honigstein
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Montage

Raphael Honigstein looks at VARs, the likely consequences and the real advantage of using them 
Raphael Honigstein
Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is The Red Bulletin’s expert football columnist and also writes for The Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung.

With both the Champions League and domestic campaigns now entering the critical stage of the season, intense pressure is on referees to make the right calls.

Last month’s controversial quarter-final second leg between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich did much to further public support for next year’s introduction of video assistant referees in certain competitions. But it’s important to understand the rather narrow focus of the new technology, as well as some of its likely consequences. 

When will VAR be used? 

FIFA allow VAR to look at goals, straight red cards, penalties and cases of mistaken identity only. 

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The Bundesliga has been trialling the system offline this season. What were their findings? 

In the first 29 match days, referees made 90 wrong decisions (0.09 per game or nine decisions in every 100 games) that had a material impact on the game. Out of those, 65 (0.06 per game, six in every 100 games) could have been corrected by the correct use of a VAR. The remainder were outside the scope of the technology – second yellow cards, for example, or the awarding of a free-kick or corner that leads to a goal.

These seem like very small numbers.

That’s right. The team of German referees participating in the trial only counted “clearly” wrong decisions. If the decision was unclear or a matter of interpretation, it wasn’t counted. The German trial also recommend that a VAR will only contact the referee if the decision was clearly wrong.  

One undoubted benefit of the new technology is the possibility to punish off-the-ball incidents immediately, rather than retroactively
One of the advantages of using a VAR

Sounds like a recipe for further controversy.  

Possibly. The blame could well shift: from referees making a slight mistake to VARs not willing to correct that slight mistake. Tricky questions of transparency will come into play here as well. On the one hand, nobody wants a running commentary from VARs but on the other, it would be good to hear their reasons for refusing particularly contentious decisions. The referee on the ground will also be able to consult video footage at his own request.

Why aren’t second yellow cards included? 

If you look at second yellows, you would have to look at the first ones, too, which is impractical. The threshold for yellows is also much lower than for straight reds, so it’ll be harder to for VARs to identify “clearly” wrong decisions in that respect. Referees who have already booked a player might in future be reluctant to show him a straight red instead of a second yellow because their decision in the first instance can be overruled but not in the second. 

One undoubted benefit of the new technology is the possibility to punish off-the-ball incidents immediately, rather than retroactively. 

What about offsides? 

As things stand, offside decisions can only be overruled if they lead to a goal. There’s no alternative: you can’t make amends for a chance or a goal that could have happened if the assistant referee on the sideline hadn’t raised his flag before.

In practice, the new technology is likely to favour the defending team. They now have a safety net for a wrong offside goal whereas the attacking side will only benefit if the striker can put the ball in before the game has been interrupted by a wrong offside call. That lopsided balance creates a problem for assistants on the line and referees in marginal situations.

If the flag is raised and the whistle blown quickly, strikers are deprived of an opportunity to score, without any chance for redress.  If, on the other hand, the officials wait a little longer to interrupt play, there’ll be more dubious goals and more cases of VARs being forced to overrule the men on the pitch later on. There’s no obvious solution to this dilemma. Ideally, motion sensors can one day take offsides out of the decision making process altogether.

Is it a similar situation with penalties? 

In some respects. A penalty decision provides a natural break in the flow of the game and a chance for a VAR to scrutinise the decision. That’s obviously good news for defenders and bad news for strikers, who might not only have to wait longer before they can take the penalty – which, statistically speaking, is a disadvantage – but can also find the initial decision getting overturned, and maybe get a yellow card for simulation as well. 

On the plus side, defenders will have to be a lot more careful in the box, knowing that cameras from every possible angle will be on them. Speed is of the essence here. If the game carries on after a wrongly overlooked penalty, a VAR must come in relatively quickly to avoid a goal being scored at the other end. Psychologically, it might be a little easier for VARs to get involved after the whistle has blown, which would slightly favour the defending team. 

In addition, the inherent element of interpretation involved in hand ball decisions will make VARs wary of interfering in those cases, too. 

So would Bayern have won the tie against Real Madrid if VAR had been in place?

Impossible to say. Two of Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals in extra-time would have been chalked off for offside but the key decision – the sending off of Arturo Vidal for a second bookable offence – would have been outside the scope of the new technology. The same goes for Robert Lewandowski’s chance to run through on goal. Once the whistle for offside is blown, the situation cannot be re-enacted.

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04 2017 The Red Bulletin

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