LONDON — England’s Premier League has long prided itself on the kind of soccer it sells to the world, a compelling product that it bills as a unique brand of high-octane, fast-and-furious soccer. So it is perhaps little surprise that the league’s introduction this season of video assistant refereeing — the game-pausing, controversy-inducing, fan-aggravating replay system in growing use worldwide — has been an uncommonly bad fit here, a case of sound and fury meeting a handbrake.
The new system has dominated coverage of the first four months of the season, where hardly a week has gone by without a major V.A.R.-induced controversy. A missed penalty at Bournemouth. A disallowed goal at Manchester United. A toe, or an armpit, inches offside at one stadium, a handball overlooked at another.
Not even the biggest matches have been immune. Long before the final whistle blew in Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over Manchester City on Nov. 10, in one glaring example, the match already had been overshadowed by yet more questions about officiating, with City Manager Pep Guardiola quickly transformed into an internet meme over his televised outrage at two calls in particular.
Afterward, a markedly calmer Guardiola demurred when he was asked about the decisions he had protested. “You’ll have to ask Mike Riley and the big bosses about that,” he said. “Don’t ask me. Ask them.”
Riley, the Premier League’s head of officiating, would prefer no one was talking about him at all. A former match official, he, like most referees, spent his entire career doing his best to go unnoticed. This season, though, Riley has been transformed into a convenient lightning rod, a totem onto which players, coaches, fans and pundits can pin their frustrations with V.A.R.
Asked this week what his life had been like at the center of every V.A.R. storm, Riley, a slight man with a race-walker’s build, went out of his way not to answer. “We’re involved in one of the most exciting things that will happen in football in our lifetime,” he said, ignoring the question.
The task he has been handed has not been not easy. He has been asked to balance a type of English soccer exceptionalism — the need to retain that fast-paced game that brings in the big money and those millions of worldwide eyeballs — with the intrusions inherent in any replay system that stops the game’s natural flow, and sometimes makes things worse.
There have been missteps, Riley conceded during a media briefing this week, including four times when V.A.R. officials overturned on-field penalty decisions that had actually been correct.
For Riley, who spoke for over two hours last week with executives from the league’s 20 clubs to try to quiet growing consternation about V.A.R., such errors are the worst possible outcome.
But for some of the game’s global leaders, the Premier League’s unique brand of officiating is creating a far larger risk, because it asks players to perform under one system domestically and under another when they travel for international competitions like the Champions League and World Cup qualifying matches.
The Premier League, for example, maintains a more lenient attitude to physical contact and even handballs than elsewhere. That means Trent Alexander-Arnold’s uncalled handball against Manchester City two weeks ago, one of the calls that stoked Guardiola’s rage, most likely would have resulted in a penalty kick if the teams had met in the Champions League. But Premier League referees also have not consulted pitch-side monitors to assess replays even once in 120 matches this season, a situation that has not gone unnoticed by the public or the game’s global rule-makers.
FIFA, in a statement this week that did not mention the Premier League specifically, said, “Since the beginning of V.A.R. implementation in its competitions, FIFA has always recommended referees to have an on-field review before deciding to overturn or not overturn the decision initially taken.”
Riley and other Premier League officials said it was unlikely there would be any significant changes soon. Their recent meeting with Premier League team representatives ended with the participants agreeing to stick with the status quo: that only under exceptional circumstances would referees consult sideline video monitors. The teams may have been comforted by some numbers: they were told key decisions were now correct 91 percent of the time, up 9 percentage points from last season, while only 3 percent of cases had taken longer than 90 seconds to judge.
Whatever the procedures — and the self-proclaimed accuracy — the controversy and criticisms have been ceaseless. Gary Lineker, a former England national team captain and now a popular television commentator, has been a regular opponent, declaring himself earlier this month to be “sick of VAR.”
Jamie Carragher, the former Liverpool defender who is now a featured pundit on Sky Sports, had initially been supportive of V.A.R. But he recently concluded he might have been wrong in calling for the introduction of video replays, and suggested the league should consider scrapping the idea altogether.
Riley, in inviting teams along with reporters for a briefing this week, appeared to be pleading for patience. “You look at any country that’s implemented V.A.R. and everyone in the game has to go through that learning curve together,” he said.
For Riley, the controversies are as much a function of understanding that some decisions, like offside, are grounded in fact while others are always likely to retain a degree of subjectivity. This month, for example, the armpit of Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino became a trending topic on Twitter after V.A.R. officials declared that the position of his was enough to justify a hairline offside decision.
More recently, Sheffield United had a goal against Tottenham wiped out on offside call that even with the benefit of V.A.R. appeared to be too close to call. The frame rates available to the officials are still not quick enough to provide 100 percent accuracy, but as long as there is consistency in how decisions are arrived at, Riley said, teams must accept of them.
Yet at the same time, Riley predicted the use of technology could lead to changes in the Laws of the Game, an area governed by an arcane body known as the International Football Association Board, or IFAB. One possible change being considered is a tweak to the offside rule so that only feet — and not armpits or knees or anything else a player can legally use to score — factor in a player’s position.
But even then, Riley said, he and his team will continue to see things their way.
“They’re trying to suit the world game,” Riley said of IFAB. “We’re trying to suit the Premier League.”