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By Sir Hardly Anyone
It is not that often that there is a whole series of events in which the referee disagrees with most of the crowd, but the crowd end up delirious, but that is what happened on Sunday in Arsenal’s game against Manchester City. And I can say that as a fact as I was there being as delirious as the next man (who went totally bonkers).
As you will recall it started with a possible red card for Kovacic following his challenge on Ødegaard in the 29th minute, as the Manchester City player caught Ødegaard with his studs above the ankle. It must have been phenomenally painful. The referee, Michael Oliver got out the yellow card, and VAR didn’t disagree. Yellow it was.
So we might ask the question, with a different referee might something else have happened? And the answer is yes.
Michael Oliver is running at 4.5 yellow cards per match this season, significantly below Andy Madely who has waved 6.3 yellow cards per game in this campaign. On the other hand Oliver hasn’t shown a single red card this season. Every other referee who has overseen four or more gmaes this season in the Premier League has shown at least one red card.
In fact he only showed one red card in the whole of last season in which he oversaw 30 Premier League games, while referees such as Taylor, Madely, Coote and Salisbury all waved three or more red cards last season – and all of those referees oversaw far fewer Premier League games than Oliver.
And to be clear I am not saying I want lots more cards. What I want is consistency from one ref to another.
Now of course every game is different, but as ESPN said, “Kovacic is fortunate to only get a yellow card…. The Manchester City midfielder is late and catches Ødegaard, and there appears to be enough impact to make the leg bend.” They then compare the lunge with “Malo Gusto‘s red card for Chelsea against Aston Villa, and Curtis Jones’ dismissal for Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur.”
So as we can immediately see, whether one gets a red card or not is dependent not only on the way the tackle goes, but also on the referee, for in the Premier League we have red card refs and non-red card refs. And from this one can tell how many cards there are likely to be in a game before it even kicks off.
But to be clear I am not trying to say more and more red cards is good; rather that the clubs know which referee they have got, and what sort of record he has in dishing out the cards. Manchester City would have seen it was Oliver running the show, and so known they were likely to get away with more rather than less in the way of fouling.
Now we should also note here that it was Oliver who was involved earlier in the season when VAR failed to tell him that the goal by Nathan Aké (again for Manchester City, this time against Fulham) was offside.
Of course this is not to say that Oliver is consistently giving Manchester City the benefit of the doubt – he did on VAR’s command dissallow a Manchester City goal against Chelsea last season. But it is all a bit of an unfortunate coincidence, and there was more of this on Sunday’s game because most commentators have agreed that Kovacic should have got a yellow for his challenge on Rice a little later.
However the rules say that if a referee makes no decision, then VAR can’t intervene – which of course gives the refs rather a neat way out, and explains why Oliver can keep making things happen in his way – just one red card in 30 games last season – although that rather looks as if he felt he ought to be giving someone a red at some time. That one was overturned on appeal.
And indeed in cases like this we can get that horrible feeling that referees are not just judging the match as it goes, but rather trying to respond to statistics. For in 2021/22 he waved seven red cards (although some sources say it was eight), way above every other referee. Other refs at the top of the league showed five reds (two referees) one four and one three. Then suddenly he drops to very, very few. It all really seems a bit unbalanced, as if PGMO has warned him not to give so many.
Indeed there is a theory doing the rounds that some referees are very reluctant to show two yellows one after the other – and certainly general observation seems not only to suggest this but that some playes are taking advantage of the fact, so that if they get one yellow they feel free to go in with a very strong tackle moments later, knowing the ref will let it go.
This is something we could do with more statistics on, but of course you know what these PGMO people are like – the stats simply are not there to help us make a judgement. Indeed when Liverpool’s Jota was sent off for two yellows one straight after the other the Panel said the second foul was not worthy of a caution.
It all seems rather unsatisfactory.
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