Mike Riley admits VAR has ‘long way to go’ before it can be deemed successful

Paul MacInnes on 22 November 2019

Mike Riley has admitted there is “still a long way to go” before VAR can be considered a success in the Premier League, as the manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) sought to defuse tension over the controversial new technology.

Last week, Riley received the backing of Premier League clubs over VAR, despite the near-endless furore over its use since the start of the season. Now he hopes to persuade the public – and especially match-going fans – that improvements can be made to a system he describes as “one of the most exciting things that will happen in football in our lifetime”.

Greater consistency and quicker decision times, two of the main grounds for complaint, are possible this season, according to Riley – and without making changes to the rules on VAR. However, he also believes the top priority must be to eliminate incorrect “overturns” – where a VAR imposes a mistake on a referee.

“We will all be debating VAR until we become accustomed to it,” he said. “Look at the developments the referees have made through this process and they’ve been really good, but there’s still a long way to go.

“There are significant things we can do to improve it. We can get better consistency in decision-making, we can improve the timings and if we achieve those – which we will over time – then what we’ll end up with is better quality decision-making that minimises the impact on the game.

“I was speaking to Howard Webb [the former Premier League referee, now head of refereeing in Major League Soccer] and he said the worst outcome was where the referee and team on the field make the right decision, but the VAR intervenes to make the wrong decision. It will happen, because it happens everywhere. If we’re trying to protect against that, there will be times when we don’t intervene but people think we should. Still, that’s a better place to be than a situation where everyone says you shouldn’t.”

The Premier League believes there have been four instances of incorrect overturns during the first 12 rounds of matches. Three – involving Aaron Connolly for Brighton against Everton, Gerard Deulofeu for Watford against Chelsea and Daniel James for Manchester United against Norwich – had penalties given when the referee had decided none was necessary. The fourth involved a goal being ruled out; Sokratis Papastathopoulos’s late effort for Arsenal against Crystal Palace that would have won his side the game.

Riley believes the solution to fixing these errors and issues more broadly is to double down on the current rules. Central to this is the criteria that says a video assistant should only overrule a referee when they have made a “clear and obvious” error.

Referees have needed time to reach decisions.
Referees have needed time to reach decisions. Photograph: Rich Linley - CameraSport/CameraSport via Getty Images

“All of us have got to go through this learning point and come out with a greater consistency [on] where we want VAR to be,” Riley said. “If we keep at the forefront of our mind that what we are trying to correct are the clear and obvious errors, what the International Football Associations Board called the ‘egregious’ errors, that’s a better place to be in terms of creating minimum interference but still getting maximum benefit.”

The raw numbers show that VAR has improved the quality of decision-making this season – 91% of decisions taken by referees and VARs have been correct, compared to 82% at this point last season. Up to and including matchday 11, there have been 24 errors in “key match incidents” (including the four erroneous overturns). At the same point last season the total was 47.

More than half the checks undertaken by VAR have been completed in under 30 seconds, while 24 – 3% of the total – have taken more than 90 seconds.

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The cause of most of these lengthy delays is attributed to VARs making several offside checks as part of one review. Offside has also proven a controversial part of the use of VAR more generally, with some decisions being made on the basis of a body part being little more than an inch offside. Premier League clubs are happy to see this approach continue, however, as they believe it applies consistency.

Riley is convinced that improved consistency and efficiency is possible with the rules as they are and there will be no major changes to the VAR protocol this season, and perhaps not next season either. The possibility of allowing referees to explain decisions to the crowd looks likely at some point in the future, but some of the more colourful proposed changes – including managers having the ability to challenge referees’ decisions as in tennis and the NFL – are thought to be non-starters.

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