The video assistant referee system introduced in the Bundesliga this season has had both critics and teething problems but played its part in some major decisions this weekend. Despite some successes, problems remain.
When Timo Werner hit the deck on Friday night, Hamburg’s players must’ve thought all their good work in the first half had come undone. The Germany striker’s reputation for theatrics didn’t stop the referee pointing to the spot to give RB Leipzig a penalty that could’ve broken the deadlock.
But the hosts were saved, temporarily as it turned out, by the video referee, who decided that Albin Ekdal had won the ball. It was widely regarded as the right decision - even by Leipzig's own Twitter account - and was made in relatively quick time without any disruption to play.
The following day, VAR was again called in to action – this time in Borussia Dortmund’s clash with Freiburg. Yoric Ravet clattered in to Dortmund fullback Marcel Schmelzer just before the half-hour mark and received a yellow card. But the decision then went upstairs and the video referee in Cologne ruled the tackle was dangerous enough to warrant red.
Slowly not surely?
The call incensed Christian Streich, Freiburg’s usually sanguine coach, so much that he sarcastically applauded the match officials as Ravet headed for the tunnel. Streich later said he supported the use of the technology but Ravet’s teammate Amir Abrashi was not so positive.
“I really do not like it,” he fumed. “If it is in slow motion, then it looks bad. But he does not mean it to be a ‘break your leg’ tackle.”
Despite Freiburg’s protests, most observers again agreed that the correct call had been made. The tackle looked late and dangerous and Schmelzer was stretchered off and taken to hospital (where it was later confirmed he would be out for six weeks).
After what the Bundesliga described as “massive technical problems” that impacted all of the 15:30 kickoffs in the first weekend of the league season, these two incidents looked to be a boost to the popularity of an innovation that was always going to be controversial in a sport resistant to on-pitch change.
While their thoughts are obviously of a partisan nature, Streich and Abrashi weren’t the only ones to disagree with the prevailing opinions. Abrashi’s point about slow motion making tackles look worse is valid and is also often the case when players go to ground at high speeds.
Humans still decisive
Furthermore, both of these decisions were subjective. There’s nothing to say that, had the role of the on-pitch and video referee been reversed, the decision would have been the same.
Unlike tennis – an early adopter of video technology – most refereeing decisions in football rely on judgement. A serve is either inside the line or out but the amount of contact required for a free kick or the malicious intent of a late tackle are impossible to define in empirical terms.
There are exceptions – offside is one and the ball crossing a touchline is another – but without a drastic change in the laws, the majority of refereeing decisions in a football match rely on human calculations.
No amount of technological fine-tuning is going to change that, which begs the question of whether the VAR should be used in less instances than it currently is. But ultimately it also seems logical to argue that a person with time, multiple camera angles and replays is better equipped to make an informed judgement than a person who gets one look from one angle observed by thousands of people.
The decisions made by VAR will never be universally acknowledged as correct but if justice is more often served with it than without, then doesn’t the use of technology make sense?