VAR in the Premier League 'a learning curve' for everyone - Mike Riley

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STOCKLEY PARK, England -- VAR has had a rocky start to life in the Premier League. It is now in use in 27 domestic leagues across the world, from Australia to Israel and China to Colombia, but English football has, by comparison, been a late convert.

Determined not to rush into the use of video technology, two years were spent holding trials in a test environment, while also using the FA Cup and Carabao Cup as guinea pigs. But rather than introducing a fully honed product, it is perceived as an ill-judged hybrid, with VARs unsure about when they should intervene and fans disconnected with the game.

Last season, PGMOL stats say that 82% of key match-changing incidents were correct. This season, that is up to 91% -- and would be higher but for four incorrect interventions. It's fair to say supporters are not feeling that extra 9%; the negative impact of VAR outweighs the positive.

Mike Riley, general manager of the PGMOL, the body responsible for match officials, is acutely aware of the challenges VAR faces.

"We understand what they [referees] are trying to achieve as a group, in terms of where they draw the lines on decisions," Riley said, discussing VAR at the Premier League's Stockley Park base in West London. "The learning curve that we're all going through now is the same as the VARs: what decisions do we expect them to make as the VAR? What is clearly and obviously an error in Premier League football? And the fascinating thing through the first 12 match rounds is that debate throughout football."

The Premier League did not see a single VAR-influenced penalty or red card in the first 90 games, then in round 10 there were four penalties and a red card. It seemed like the search for the desired "minimum interference, maximum benefit" was done with a blindfold.

Manchester United's Daniel James was awarded a penalty after colliding with Norwich's Ben Godfrey, while Brighton's Aaron Connolly earned a spot-kick after Everton's Michael Keane accidentally landed on the striker's foot. Watford's Gerard Deulofeu was given a penalty against Chelsea, and Arsenal saw Sokratis' late winner against Crystal Palace chalked off. All were decisions made by the VAR, and all should have stayed with the match referee.

Riley insists officials are working hard to improve, to make sure the VARs are learning when they should intervene and when to step back.

"All of us have got to go through this learning point to come out with a greater consistency in where we want the VAR to be," Riley said. "If we keep at the forefront of our mind that what we're trying to correct is the clear and obvious errors, what the IFAB [football's lawmakers] describe as the egregious errors, that's a better place to be in terms of keeping minimum interference but still getting the maximum benefit."

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The Premier League stakeholders' meeting in the international break went on for over four hours, and it was dominated by VAR. Improving the supporter experience was made a priority, and talks will be held with supporters' groups to canvas their views. But it seems unlikely there is any quick fix to the disconnect between the fan in the stadium and the VAR process, with IFAB protocol not permitting discussions between referee and the VAR to be broadcast.

But while the official line is that VAR is under constant review, there will be no change in the "use sparingly" policy on pitchside monitors, which have not been used once in 120 games. The authority of the match official is being called into question, but the Premier League, and its clubs, are happy. Whether this is truly viable in the long term, with Premier League referees using the monitors on Champions League duty, is questionable.

Riley added: "This is not referees saying we think we ought to do it this way, it's not the Premier League saying we ought to do it this way. It's the clubs, the managers, the fans -- which is why the fans' survey is a really good thing -- all going, 'what do we actually want of the benefits of VAR to improve Premier League football?'

"You look at any country that has implemented VAR, and everyone in the game has to go through that learning curve together. We've been very good at understanding and analysing refereeing decisions, and you'll have debate every week previously about 'I thought that was a penalty, no I didn't think it was a penalty' and the reasons why. We're now going through a process of adding VAR to that mix, accepting at the same time that we're far from perfect and we've got to improve the way we do things.

"You put the two together and, in time, you get something that does benefit the game. You look at other competitions that currently use VAR, in Europe some countries are in their third year and they are still having the same debates, probably more refined but still the same things."

Even though the majority of reviews are completed within 30 seconds, it is those which take in advance of one minute that anger fans. On average, a goal celebration takes 62 seconds, and while 54% of reviews are completed within 30 seconds and 91% within a minute, it's the 3% which last longer than 90 seconds that frustrate supporters. It took 3 minutes 40 seconds to disallow a Sheffield United goal at Tottenham for offside, an obvious example of where VAR must improve.

Offside continues to be a thorny issue, with the Premier League's decision to use an armpit as the reference point for deciding the forward position of an attacking player being particularly controversial. The Bundesliga has trialed, and implemented, a triangulation system that uses multiple cameras to make offside decisions more accurate. It doesn't address the issue of tight offside calls being within the spirit of the game, but it shows leagues are trying to take the VAR process forward.

"If you look at the developments referees have made through this process, they're really good -- but knowing they've still got a long way to go," Riley said. "There are significant things we can do to improve. We can get better consistency in decision-making as VARs, we can improve the timings so we have that minimum interference.

"And if we achieve those, which we will over time, then what we'll end up with is better quality decision making, better than 91%, and actually in a way that minimises the impact on the game. But we'll all be debating VAR until we become accustomed to it."