By Tony Attwood
Several things happened towards the end of last season. Arsenal’s winning streak was the one most of us noticed, followed by the significant decline in the number of injuries. Plus, as Blacksheep pointed out to me when we were reviewing last season the other evening, the length of time those players who were injured were unavailable for selection declined significantly too.
And as always I wanted to know “why?”
Why we improved in the second half of the season was fairly obvious. We had the players available.
But why did we get fewer injuries, and why were the injured returned to duty more quickly? Was it all because the training routine was changed? Were the medical staff better at getting the injured back? Or were their fewer injuries on the pitch, and were those we did get, less serious and so repairable more quickly?
It is difficult to say, but I have a suspicion that something else happened as well. I believe that the willingness of the refs to allow other teams to attack Arsenal with illegal physical challenges that went unpunished, actually diminished. As a result, the free-for-all attitude adopted by some defenders that we have seen among many teams playing against Arsenal became a little more restrained in the second half of the season.
This was not revealed directly through a rise in the number of punishments for opposition players or the number of free kicks for Arsenal, although I thought there was a tendency in this direction, but through what I saw as a decline in the number of unpunished assaults.
At the highest level this is obvious – we didn’t see anything of the type that led Mr Wenger famously to describe Abou Diaby as “the victim of an assassin’s tackle that went unpunished.”
But it is at the more subtle level that I felt things were just getting that little bit better.
If that was indeed what we saw in the late winter and spring of 2015 then the question to ask, as always, is why? Was it by purest chance – the random throw of the dice? That vision which leads some people to suggest that referees “mistakes” in allowing awful tackles to go unpunished, or only mildly punished, happen to all teams equally.
Or was something else going on?
I am always cautious about suggesting that Untold has an influence on football. We are getting about 800,000 page views a month according to Google Analytics, which is a lot of reading by a lot of people, and that is very gratifying. But that doesn’t mean people who can influence the game in any way are a) reading, b) taking any notice and c) actually changing things.
But, against that, very occasionally people with some position in the game do, in private, say “We read Untold – not every article not every day, but you are known…” And that includes, apparently, some referees talking to each other about the referee preview we give them before each match.
Then there are the times when an Untold article has later popped up with a bit of a re-write, in the national press, or where suddenly a paper runs articles on one of our themes that they have never touched before. That too looks like the media is taking note, but no proof of course.
So, I’m cautious, on this one, but I am just wondering if the combination of the referee previews before each game by Andrew and the ref reviews after each game by Walter, are not throwing a rather unwelcome spotlight on some refs who are to a small degree, changing their stance.
Now, if those refs were grossly incompetent (something we have never alleged) such spotlighting would not make a blind bit of difference. You can’t turn an incompetent ref over night into a quality official.
But supposing, just for the moment, that there was Type III match fixing going on. That very subtle approach in which a few refs are approached by a few club owners, (as has been commonplace in Italy and elsewhere), with the suggestion that “anything you can do to stop Arsenal winning in any game would not go unnoticed by us.”
Thus a number of kicks go unpunished, a player eases back in the face of such an onslaught, or indeed carries an injury, the number of players either out of the side or operating below par rises and what should have been a set of wins for Arsenal becomes draws and even a defeat.
These bad decisions are not even free kicks let alone penalties awarded (although that can be the case on occasion), it is just low level attrition that goes unpunished from the off, and so grows and grows – and adds significantly to our injury list.
I’ve often made it clear that my interpretation of the current state of refereeing is set up to allow Type III Match Fixing. The small number of referees PGMO employs means that Arsenal gets the same referees over and over and over again – thus increasing their influence, if they were to be biased. There should be enough refs so that each referee takes each club only twice in a season.
Second there is no regional balance among referees selected for the Premier League, which makes it even more difficult to restrict the number of times we get a ref.
Third, PGMO, which could be an open organisation, welcoming comments and providing proper analyses to the public, refuses to explain its assertion that the number of mistakes made by each ref in each game is a matter of one or two percent. If they had nothing to hide, PGMO would hide nothing.
Now I see no movement from PGMO, but I did perceive this change among some referees in the second half of last season. That doesn’t mean the club’s training hadn’t changed, nor that the club’s medical team were or were not better equipped. I have no idea if either was true.
But I do think there is a case to be cautiously optimistic about the way referees started to handle Arsenal games in the second half of the season.
Now I know that we often get commentators on Untold making rude comments about the sanity of any writer who suggests that the refereeing of Arsenal is biased – and we then return and say, “we have years and years of detailed analyses of Arsenal games and other games not involving Arsenal, presented and prepared by referees and ex-referees, published on this site and Referee Decisions, which suggest this”. Show us where you think the analysis is wrong.
And anyway I am not presenting a statistical analysis here to prove my point. I am talking about my overall impression.
But if it is true, and if the years of Type III match fixing are coming to an end then it will indeed be worrying some other clubs that have for years benefitted by the insidious system. As I have said before last season all we needed was two defeats to have been victories, and one draw to have been a victory, and we would have won the league.
That is not to suggest that those matches were deliberately fixed, although there was some very, very strange goings on in one of them which even the press were bemused about. But because they saw that match in isolation they drew no conclusions. But it is to suggest that without such happenings, whatever their cause, Arsenal would be in a much, much better position.
I think there was a change in refereeing attitudes towards us in the second half of last season, and if that is so, and if it continues, we could easily have picked up the points that we needed to win the league. I suspect one or two clubs are getting rather worried, if they’ve spotted that trend too.
Anniversary of the day:
- 2 July 1977: Bob Wilson, the goalkeeping hero of the first Double season, re-signed for Arsenal as emergency cover, but didn’t give up his TV work.
Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910