What lessons can be learned from VAR's use in Germany and Italy?
English football had its first video assistant referee (VAR) controversy during Wednesday’s FA Cup replay between Chelsea and Norwich, yet if Serie A and the Bundesliga are anything to go by, it could be the first of many.
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte could not understand why referee Graham Scott and VAR Mike Jones did not award Willian what he and many other experts thought was a clear penalty. Instead the Brazilian player was booked for diving.
But that one incident pales in comparison to Germany where poor application, delays and technical problems have led to 47% of players wanting to abolish VAR, according to a survey in Kicker magazine.
But the view in Italy has been more positive with one Serie A expert describing its use for one injury-time winner as “positively tantric”.
Did the Bundesliga rush in too soon?
Both Germany and Italy introduced VAR across their top leagues this season, and the results have been mixed.
There appears to be a willingness to embrace the technology, but as German football expert Raphael Honigstein told ESPN: “The reason the players don’t like it is because the way it’s been implemented.”
Despite what it called “thorough” tests last term, there have still been embarrassing episodes where VAR has not worked, and they have not been able to use lines across the pitch during replays to check for offside decisions.
According to German commentator Taufig Khalil, referees have been too willing to consult the VARs based in a Cologne office, rather than only use it for a “clear and obvious error”, and too slow to make decisions.
One example came in Borussia Dortmund’s 2-1 win over Augsburg where Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek appealed for a penalty following a set-piece, but it was not until Augsburg had a won a corner at the other end that the incident was signalled for review.
And there have still been incidents where even though the VAR intervened, it has still not delivered what many considered the correct decision.
In October, Freiburg’s Caglar Soyuncu was sent off after 12 minutes for a handball during his team’s 3-0 defeat by Stuttgart.
The Freiburg coach Christian Streich called it a “scandal” and even the referee admitted after the game that “there were arguments for both red and yellow cards”.
Germany’s VAR chief loses his job
The situation in Germany has not been helped by a controversy surrounding VAR project manager Hellmut Krug, who at the start of the season said “nobody will have reason to complain” about refereeing decisions.
He was removed from his position in October after German newspaper Bild claimed he had influenced the VAR who reviewed two penalty decisions in the 1-1 draw between his hometown club Schalke and Wolfsburg.
Krug denied he had any influence, but lost his job days later and was replaced by Lutz Michael Frohlich.
Khalil says that under Frohlich’s regime, Bundesliga referees have been sent away to a winter training camp in Majorca to try and come up with better guidelines for using VAR in the second half of the season.
“They’ve been told that it has to be a very special situation to use VAR and they must be over at the review area within 30 seconds and make a decision within 45 seconds,” he said.
“Previously, it was taking up to two minutes to make a decision and this is totally disastrous for the players and the fans.”
Serie A shows more level approach
The reaction to VAR in Italy appears to have been more positive, and its use has been a source of pride for a league which wants to prove it is a moderniser and considers its referees among the best in Europe, says Italian football expert James Horncastle.
Rather than trigger VAR reviews for minor incidents, Italian referees have developed their approach to use it for “clear and obvious errors” – a strategy which the Premier League is trying to adopt.
“The use of VAR can almost be divided into three parts for the first half of the season,” said Horncastle.
“At first, it was like the referees had a new toy, and they used it excessively. After the two international breaks in September and October, they started using it less and seemed to strike the right balance, and towards the end, some club owners have been saying that it hasn’t been used enough.”
The Italian Football Federation and the Italian Referees’ Association even held a recent masterclass by showing footage of incidents to managers and the media, including the audio track between the referee and VAR, to improve understanding of how they come to a decision.
“They said that of 1,078 VAR decisions made in the first half of the season, 60 corrections were made by the VAR with 49 of those being the right decision,” Horncastle added.
“So only 11 mistakes were made using VAR from 1,078 decisions, which equates to 1%.”
Has Serie A seen any controversies?
Of course, there have still been huge controversies, not least in the Coppa Italia earlier this month when Juventus beat Torino 2-0 thanks to a controversial Mario Mandzukic goal.
Referee Daniele Doveri was invited to review the goal after the VAR spotted a foul in the build-up but after reviewing the footage he did not spot any infringement, and sent off Torino boss Sinisa Mihajlovic for his protests. For that error Doveri was suspended for two games.
Mihajlovic, meanwhile, was sacked the following day.
More blatantly, Sampdoria midfielder Lucas Torreira used his hands to stop a cross against Sassuolo in December, but avoided conceding a penalty and a red card because a technician could not provide the VAR with the right angle soon enough.
“There have been teething problems,” said Horncastle. “But as Inter boss Luciano Spalletti has said, when he watches football from other leagues it feels like something is missing. There is no going back.
“Fans have reacted well so far because they feel it has offered a greater sense of justice, which – given the history of Italian football – is important.”
What can be learned from both leagues?
In addition to potential mistakes being made, Horncastle says Serie A has shown VAR can add to the sense of occasion too.
When Roma’s Federico Fazio scored a injury-time winner against Cagliari and had to wait for the VAR to confirm the goal, Horncastle described it as “positively tantric”.
“It made the goal and the winner all the better,” he added.
Serie A’s use of the technology has been well-received, communication has been more transparent than Germany and decisions have been made quickly in order to maintain the rhythm of games.
Importantly, the VAR has not been overly used, which is an lesson the Premier League may want to heed. They have already said they do not want to undermine the authority of the on-field referee, whose decision is final.
As long as referees are consistent in maintaining that approach, then the clear and obvious errors will be reduced but there will still be space to have a ding-dong in the pub about those which are less clear-cut.