What’s going on with English Refereeing?
I love all things ‘Untold’, with one exception. I find myself constantly disagreeing with the analysis of refereeing. Unlike many readers of this site, I don’t see any evidence of a systematic refereeing bias against Arsenal.
I certainly see a lot of mistakes, and I have some sympathy with Tony’s view that PMGO standards are poor (the self-assessments are risible). I also feel frustration at the mistakes (Ramsay Liverpool, Bellerin Newcastle). However there are a number of reasons why refereeing may appear to be biased against you:
- If you are a team like Arsenal which generally dominates possession, you will be the victim of more fouls than you mete out. This is because most fouls are committed by the team without the ball. If the referee makes mistakes with a fixed percentage of fouls, he will fail to award you a foul more often than your opponents.
- Similarly, if you do most of the attacking, you are going to be unlucky with penalty shouts and offsides more often than your opponents
- A lot of fans watch home matches live, and away matches on TV. Referees are generally biased against away teams, due to sub-conscious crowd influence. They make most mistakes in favour of the home team. If you are watching on TV with the benefit of replays, analysis etc, you will easily see the mistakes made against you. It may not be so obvious that the same thing is happening to your opponents when they play at the Ems and you are watching live with 55,000 like-minded friends.
- Arsenal’s style is a difficult one for referees. A lot of our players deliberately try to draw players in to a tackle and then play the ball after the opponent is committed to the tackle (I call this the ‘offload pass’ after the similar tactic in rugby). This is an effective tactic, as it creates space for the player receiving the pass. It also, inevitably leads to late tackles, which may be made worse by the fact that the passing player is concentrating on making the pass and not preparing for the impact. This is basically what happened with Coquelin and Mitrovic. Coquelin didn’t evade the descending boot because he was focussed on the pass.
- Perception bias (see below)
In my life, I have been involved in a number of institutions such as political parties, companies and football teams. All of them, without exception, see the world as biased against them. This in not always a bad thing as it promotes cohesion. Maureen goes to great lengths to create the ‘us against the world’ spirit at Chelsea. The fortress mentality also did us a lot of good during the ‘2 point deduction for fighting at Man U and Tony Adams imprisonment’ season (1990-91). We won the league comfortably.
I think the root cause of this perception bias or ‘bias paranoia’ is mostly to do with perspective. When we are emotionally invested in something, we tend to see the world differently.
For example, over the last ten years, Wenger has tried to play a fast paced passing game. We fans, therefore see this type of game as ‘real football’. We see those who play a physically aggressive form of football (Stoke) as playing ‘the wrong way’.
As a result, when we see referees allowing Stoke to rough us up in an attempt to disrupt our passing game, we think the referee is biased against us. Without spending time on Stoke blog sites, I am pretty sure that they think referees are biased against them because they:
- ‘over-protect’ namby-pamby southerners
- Protect the ‘big teams’ (who are more likely to play the passing style game)
- Are influenced by Stoke’s reputation even before a ball is kicked
In reality, the referees are picking a ‘middle way’ between allowing Stoke to play their way and protecting Arsenal from physical abuse when they try to play the beautiful game. Both sets of fans perceive bias because neither team is being allowed to play the game exactly as they want to, and believe that it should be played.
It is interesting to note that things look a bit different so far this season. The most extraordinary aspect of the season, so far, is that away teams are doing well and home teams are doing badly (Arsenal are a good example, not the exception).
This is interesting, in particular, because most home advantage arises from subconscious intimidation of referees by home fans. Is it possible that PMGO have become aware of this, and are making a deliberate effort to counteract it by being hard on home teams?
This certainly looked like the case against Newcastle. I wasn’t there, but I understand that the referee came under incredible pressure from the disgruntled home fans, but resisted it. Marriner was consistently carding the home team for violent conduct right from the start of the game.
Usually, referees allow this kind of fouling to go unpunished. They seem to think that players are still ‘adjusting to the pace of the game’, when in fact, they are deliberately assaulting their opponents. They are usually particularly generous with home players in this regard. This kind of refereeing laxity is particularly dangerous at the start of the game. It sets the tone for the match, and leads away players to expect to be fouled every time they touch the ball, thus restricting their play.
Newcastle appeared to be trying to carry out something that has become a pretty standard tactical approach for non-top-four teams at home against Arsenal over the last ten years. That tactical approach is what I call ‘hometown roughing’, a variant of the old ‘kick em off the park’.
Basically, you persistently rotationally foul Arsenal, particularly in the first ten minutes. You are trying to make them uncomfortable on the ball. You hope that this makes them pass too quickly, miscontrol the ball, or take their eye off the pass recipient to look at the incoming tackler. This should lead to mistakes or misplaced passes.
This is particularly effective if you are the home team, because the home crowd will prevent the referee from giving too many cards and fouls against you. Fergie invented this tactic, in desperation, at the end of the 49 game run. It was much admired and widely copied (Bolton were its earliest imitators). It is interesting that Wenger never seems to comment on this tactic (perhaps he doesn’t want to encourage it). Diaby, Eduardo and Ramsay all suffered their injuries during away matches.
The tactic didn’t work on Saturday because the referee was on top of violent conduct right from the start. Is this just a coincidence or is there some concerted effort by referees to address the home advantage problem? Is this why away teams are doing so well in the Premiership? Is this a sign of things to come?
I doubt it. Even if there is a new PMGO initiative, most such initiatives peter out, maybe with a little lasting effect. The home advantage bias is embedded in most sports around the world. If it is to be eradicated, I find it hard to believe that PMGO is the institution to finally root it out.
It would certainly be to Arsenal’s advantage if there was a crackdown on violent conduct and ‘hometown roughing’. This would probably also advantage the other top teams, as high quality teams will tend to pass the ball more, but Arsenal might benefit the most, as the most extreme example of a ‘passing team’.
‘Hometown roughing’ is a tactic that gives the smaller teams a chance against the more skilful teams. If it were to be eradicated, the league might become slightly less competitive, and a bit more like the Spanish league. I get the firm impression that the lesser teams are not allowed to rough up Real Madrid and Barca.
And this brings me to my final point. The performance of English teams in Europe is inexplicably poor compared to their financial muscle. Money is not everything in football, but other things being equal, it is a big advantage. I suspect that the relatively lax attitude of English referees towards violence is one of the major factors explaining the poor performance of English teams (lax compared to Spain, strict compared to 20 years ago).
I think that English teams are playing more ‘tough’ games than their CL opponents. A close game, say a 1-0 is more tiring than a 3-0 because the close game will be played at 100% right to the end. In a 3-0, both teams will ease off towards the end.
Also, physical contact is tiring. Players use a lot of strength in preparing for and receiving ‘a hit’ and the blunt force leads to muscle fibre damage (that’s why boxing is so incredibly physically tiring). This effect is also cumulative over a season, and so the form of English teams seems to deteriorate as the competition progresses (note also how poorly Premiership players perform in World and European cups – its not just the English ones – Per and Mesut were probably the most disappointing performers in Germany’s World Cup winning team.)
As a result of the close matches and the physical contact, English CL players are less physically fresh than their Spanish opponents (Real and Barca win most of their games by several goals, as do Bayern Munich).
There is also a consequence that the physical conditioning of English players is not quite right. English teams are built to withstand Stoke, not Barcelona. There is too much emphasis on strength, and not enough on agility. As a crude generalisation, heavy muscling, particularly in the upper body, will make you stronger, but less agile. This means that in CL matches which are not refereed by English referees, the English teams give away too many fouls and struggle to match Barcelona’s speed of movement. Note how much Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott seem to have ‘bulked up’ in recent times.
So, if the PMGO really are coming down hard on ‘hometown roughing’, you can expect a few things to happen:
- Arsenal should benefit at home and in Europe
- The Premier League may become less competitive
- English teams will do better in Europe (Premiership players may also do better in World Cups).
3 September 1988: “Never take too much notice of the first home game” was etched in the minds of supporters as Arsenal lost the first home game of the season: Arsenal 2 (Marwood, Smith) Aston Villa 3. After five games and two defeats Arsenal were 7th.
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