The era of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in the Bundesliga started Friday with the system providing a penalty kick to Bayern Munich, which beat Bayern Leverkusen, 3-1, in the season opener.
Since implementation of the system in MLS began earlier this month, two FC Dallas goals have been disallowed after match officials viewed replays. In both cases, fouls were committed by FCD
players prior to a goal being scored, and since the system calls for all scoring plays to be reviewed, there’s a concern that the use of VAR will take goals away, not provide opportunities for
them to be scored.
However, the system allows the officials to examine any game-changing situation, which certainly includes those involving possible goals. In the Bundesliga opener,
Bayern led, 2-0, when forward Robert Lewandowski went down in the penalty area while being tackled by Charles Aranguiz.
Referee Tobias Stieler, who had initially
waved for play to continue, decided to check the replay after consulting with officials at the league’s VAR central control center, which is in Cologne. This process differs from the MLS
version, by which the center referee views the replay on a monitor near the sideline. However, in both versions the final decision lies with the match referee. The VAR can discuss situations and make
recommendations but the center referee remains the ultimate authority.
After viewing the replay, Stieler awarded a penalty kick and cautioned Aránguiz for pulling back Lewandowski
during the attack. Lewandowski converted the penalty kick for Bayern, which had scored twice in the first half through debutants Niklas Suele and Corentin Tolisso, and duly saw out the
victory as it begins a quest to win a sixth straight Bundesliga title.
As the nation’s most successful and powerful club, Bayern always generates skepticism about referees being
swayed in its favor, and the implementation of VAR will not change that. And while anything that causes more goals to be scored is normally praised, seeing more penalty kicks awarded isn’t
necessarily an optimum method to achieve this aim. But that isn't the only manner by which VAR can aid attacking play.
A subtle benefit of VAR is certainly possible, and that is an
encouragement to allow the officials to let play continue if they are uncertain an infraction has occurred. It’s been 25 years since the offside law was changed to allow attackers
“even” with the second-to-last defender to remain in play, yet still there are blatant errors by which the flag goes up erroneously and kills dead a promising attack.
offenses are missed as well, but the complex visual problem presented by multiple reference points – the second-to-last defender, the attackers, the ball – in motion have proven to be
terribly difficult for human beings to process successfully. The change in offside interpretation notwithstanding, the incidence of incorrect offside decisions stopping legal play is startlingly
VAR can’t rectify such mistakes after they have occurred, but it can alter the dynamic if assistant referees take to heart the recommendation to keep the flag down unless they
are certain the play is offside. If play continues and no goal is scored, the play won’t be subject to VAR, though of course the TV audience -- and media attendees and assessors -- will see a
replay. And if the ball goes in the net, the scoring play will be scrutinized by the video assistant referee and either the goal will stand or it will be disallowed.
won’t be easy for assistant referees, who are presented in a typical game with dozens of situations to be interpreted: offside, ball out of play, ball over the goal line, corner kick or goal
kick, foul committed, etc. They are instructed to be decisive and asking them to shift their binary switch to a third setting, neutral, when necessary contradicts much of their training.
Center referees, too, are in a tricky spot. They still need to call the game to the best of their ability, and yet must also weigh the influence of VAR during the run of play, not just during
consultations with his video colleagues about a possible review. It won’t be easy to keep the whistle away from the mouth when a possible handball occurs in the penalty area and wait for a
stoppage, but that is the only method by which VAR can be utilized properly. The danger will be officials stuck in neutral too much of the time and not making enough calls correctly on the spot.
No one wants VAR to become a crutch for incompetent officials, and no one wants the most powerful clubs like Bayern to get unnecessary assistance. (Just think about what the reaction will be in Italy
the first time mighty Juve gets a goal thanks to VAR.)
Yet the system has great potential to aid attacking play as well as take away tainted goals. If “clear and obvious
error” is the standard, examples of blown offside calls can be seen in every league and competition, and if it takes regular, intense video scrutiny to improve the problem, that’s fine by