How we can tell there is still something seriously wrong with Premier League refereeing.

On Monday 20 August Untold may disappear for a while.  For details please see the home page.


by Tony Attwood

In March this year, the Sky Sports website opened an article on refereeing with the comment by Keith Hackett that players and pundits criticising referees in the Premier League is “a little bit like me advising Lionel Messi on how he can improve his performance and where he went wrong.”

And of course we can see what he meant.  When you don’t do a job, how can you criticise someone who is recognised as an expert in that job?

Everyone does it of course – we criticise everyone from journalists to footballers from house builders to Northamptonshire County Council (who have now gone bust – which is rather close to my heart since I live in Northamptonshire).

So it we stopped criticising things we maybe don’t know too much about we’d have a lot less to talk about.

Except sometimes, it turns out we do know.  Because sometimes journalists are spinning a tale, some house builders are crooks, some referees are inept, and Northamptonshire County Council is made up of bungling idiots with their own political agenda that resulted in those of us living in the area having most of our public services that we have paid for removed.

Indeed Sky’s example about Messi reveals something much more disturbing than the fact that people who aren’t qualified to make criticisms do so all the time, because the analogy with a referee criticising Messi is false.  For no one has ever suggested that Messi might be engaged in some nefarious, dubious or downright illegal activity on the pitch.  (Off the pitch he certainly has been.  In 2017 Messi was given a 21 month prison sentence in Spain for tax fraud of €4.1m between 2007 and 2009.   He didn’t go to prison, but paid a fine instead in keeping with standard practice in Spain.  But on the pitch, no, he’s a genius).

So now let us compare the Messi situation with the English referee situation properly.

I repeat, on the pitch there is no question that Messi is a genius whose abilities are awe inspiring.   And he doesn’t always have an unexpected injury and so never play against a certain club.  If he did we would have reason to be doubtful about how honest or straight he is as a player.   Off the pitch we know he is a crook and a liar when it comes to tax fraud, but on the pitch, no question.  A genius.

So now let us consider the comparison.  The point that a retired referee criticising top referees would be as stupid as a ex-player or a pundit criticising a current top player.

Where the comparison breaks down is this: we have no reason to criticise Messi on the pitch because there is nothing to give us a suspicion that Messi is anything other than a top player who gives of his best.  But there is every reason to give us a suspicion that things are not well with PL referees.

First of all there is the fact that refereeing is run in the Premier League in a very different way from the way it is run in other countries – via an utterly secret organisation that will not explain what it is up to and why it is so secret: the PGMO.  When an organisation is shadowy and secret it is reasonable to ask, “why it is so secret?”   Not only do we not have an answer to that question, we don’t even have the media asking the question.  That is another reason to be suspicious.

Second there is the number of referees that PGMO employs.  Both logic and corruption cases in other countries suggest that one of the prime ways to ensure that match fixing does not take place is to have enough referees so that each ref only gets to control games involving any particular club, twice in a season.   Then if he is bent, the level of damage he will do is very limited.

Third there is good reason to be worried about match fixing itself because of the evolution of Type III match fixing.  In the old days the cry would be that ref x favours club y.   But Type III match fixing which evolved in Italy meant that bought referees were instructed not so much to favour the club that gave them the “bonus” for being helpful, but to make sure their closest rivals didn’t get the run of the ball.  So if club A thought that clubs B, C or D might overtake it in the league it would say to a bought ref, “if club B, C or D get a chance of a last minute penalty to give them a victory, just wave the appeals away.”  That sort of thing is much harder to spot.

Fourth, while most of Europe’s main leagues and indeed even Fifa have adopted video refereeing technology the Premier League has not.   VAR makes type III match fixing – and indeed all cheating- much harder to arrange.

Now in the little piece by Sky about refereeing, none of these points were even mentioned.  Instead the entire piece was about the accuracy level of the referees’ decision making along with the careful use of language to suggest that those who make criticisms of referees are “fixating”.  One could say that is the fifth reason to be worried.  One only tends to get this sort of deflective article where there really is a problem.

Consider this sentence: “It is natural for fans, players and managers to fixate on the decisions that cost their side, the penalty that never was and the soft red card at the weekend. But just how many decisions do referees have to make, and how many do they get right? You may be surprised at the findings.”

That is a very clever use of deflection – answering a valid question through failing to address key issues, putting down anyone who asks the question, and then talking about something else.  It is of course what politicians do, usually prefacing their comments with the phrase, “Let me be clear…”

Note the language: “It is natural for fans, players and managers to fixate…”    “Natural” – it is just part of their nature.  “Fixate” – they are not balanced creatures, but subject to whims and unhealthy obsession.

Even the question they ask (“But just how many decisions do referees have to make, and how many do they get right?”) is irrelevant, because a referee can get 99.9% of decisions right but still, if he has been bought, could make one dubious decision in the 89th minute and change the course of the game.  Indeed Sky’s own point about just how many decisions a ref makes in a game gives weight to this point.

A game which is being drawn, and then has one team get a penalty that isn’t a penalty, gives one side two extra points.  But in the way that Sky analyse it, it is merely one decision among 245.  So even if they were to admit it was an error they can still claim that it is an error rate of under 0.4% – which looks very good.

In fact elsewhere they state that, “In total, refs make around five errors per game, meaning they are right 98 per cent of the time,” and cite that as a positive.   But under the Type III match fixing that was evolved in Italy all it took was one or two “errors” a game to change a game.   In short, the referee error rate is high enough to allow match fixing to happen.

Thus the obvious solution would be to bring in VAR (rather than be the only major league standing out against it), dramatically increase the number of referees (so that the impact of any bent referees would be reduced), and to stop giving false analogies and illogical briefings which appear to have no function other than to mislead casual readers and hide the real dangers.

If you are a long term reader of Untold you will know that for many years the quality of refereeing in the Premier League was a major concern of this blog.  We produced many reports both here and (after the criticism was raised that we were all Arsenal fans and therefore our judgement could not be trusted) on the Referee Decisions web site (where referees who supported other teams undertook the reviews).

You might also know that at one stage we analysed the first 160 games in the Premier League one season, looking at all the matches and presenting video evidence to support the findings.  That study is still available on this site.

Some of our work has been criticised but never with evidence that undermines the fundamental findings (normally it is on the basis that because a correspondent could find in the thousands of decisions analysed a couple that he felt were not analysed correctly the whole review was invalid.)

But let us imagine there is nothing wrong with refereeing in this country.   One would then ask, why is PGMO so secretive, and why do media outlets that have a vested interested in talking up the quality of refereeing (such as Sky) use emotive language and fail to address the reasonable issues about secrecy, non-use of VAR and the small number of referees employed?

Indeed one might also ask why the Sky story contained quite so many irrelevant facts.  Here’s another one, “Many supporters would struggle to give the name of a single linesman in the Premier League, but the outcome of a game can hinge on their decisions.

“The assistant referee makes on average 50 decisions each game; 45 of these are pure offside judgements, with four of these resulting in offside flags. Their accuracy? Again, a staggering 98 per cent.”

98% accuracy is not enough, if the 2% error rate contains match changing decisions.  That is in fact exactly what we would predict if Type III match fixing were going on.  And as for giving the name of an assistant referee – where is the relevance in that?  It is a comment put in entirely to suggest that those who make criticisms are lacking in knowledge – without considering that the knowledge itself is not important.

This sort of approach (picking on an irrelevance and claiming one’s lack of knowledge of this point suggests one is unfit to make a criticism) is known sometimes as deflection, and what Sky put out was a piece that was total deflection throughout.

Untold doesn’t do referee reviews any more because a) having done the 160 match reviews, there was nothing more we could do, b) our dedicated team were spending hours and hours doing the work, and in the end we were just confirming our own previous findings and c) we were making only limited impact on public opinion.  In fact it could be argued it was our work that caused the League, PGMO and the broadcasters to band together and produce articles such as that noted above.

But none of this means that the problem has gone away.

Indeed we’ll all know when the problem is fixed.   Because at that point…

1. PGMO will become an open body which does its own public, fulsome equivalent of our “160 games” series all the time.

2. The number of referees in the PL will increase so no referee gets any team more than twice in a season

3. There are no more deflective articles of the type highlighted here.

4. Refereeing stops becoming a topic of discussion, not because of PGMO and media deflection, but because the accuracy level really has risen to the level that PGMO and its media allies suggests has already happened.



6 Replies to “How we can tell there is still something seriously wrong with Premier League refereeing.”

  1. Thanks Tony. Another provocative poke in PiGMobs direction.
    I always read these articles with”WHY” buzzing tween the ears. Which is a mild relief from tinnitus. I also always am hoping that this time you’ll be revealing the the answer.
    I infrequently raise this issue at sporting venues…. the pub, and usually receive short ,if perceptible at all, shrift. But times are a changing. I even got thru a piecemeal description of type 3 match fixing during the CL final I was at….. in the pub, clearly.
    One day , as you say, all may be revealed. Hopefully there is no corruption, just unmitigated incompetence and we can all have a jolly good laugh about what twits they were.
    I have another dream involving The Kosh lifting the PL trophy.

  2. Well, since the majority of the PL clubs (excluding Arsenal FC) have voted YES to postpone the use of VAR in the premier League games this season until God knows when they’ll vote NO not to postpone the use of the technology any longer. The PGMO can not totally be blamed as it’s hand looked to has been further strengthened to continue with match referring riging in the PL this season.
    God saves Arsenal. Amen!
    For God’s sake, how could the majority of the PL clubs voted against the official application of the VAR in the PL games this season? Is it because they are afraid Arsenal might win the PL Title this season if the VAR application is introduced in the PL games or what?

    Let it be on record that the majority of the PL clubs who voted against the official introduction of the VAR for use in the PL games this season did so to continue with the use of the now old fashion analogue way of football match referring application in the game which has been faced out by Fifa as seen at the last World Cup in Russia and is being faced out too by the 4 top European Leagues in favour of the use of the modern digital VAR technology to assist the match officiating referee to dichage his match referring better. But the PGMO is still using the outdated way of match referring in the PL matches this season whereby 4 match officials will control the match but with no VAR application to assist them perform better in their match referring officiating. Save, the goal line technology that is being used in the game to determine when the ball has crossed the goal line. But this technology application is not used to also determine when the ball has disputedly crossed the touchline. Why? Sometimes the ball does cross the line but the linesman doesn’t raise the flag.

    Let me say I refuse to buy into the logic in some quarters that Mikel Arteta masterminded the Man City 0-2 defeat of Arsenal at the Ems in the PL last Sunday. For, Man City played an overreach physical game in the match injuring AMN without punishment by the match referee, Michael Oliver who happens to be one of the well known anti-Arsenal referees at the PGMO. Even Raheem Sterling ought to have been sent off for the 2nd serious bookable offence he committed in the game but Michael Oliver ignored the offence and allowed him to continue playing.

    I watched the Arsenal vs Man City game live on my TV set and I saw and noted everything that happened in the match. My submission is, Arsenal lost the PL match at home to Man City last Sunday because the Gunners of Bellerin, Aubameyang in the first half and Lacazette in the 2nd half were not clinical in taking the glaring goals scoring opportunities and bury them as they seized the opportunities which their fellow Gunners created for them to score but choose to profigate in front of Man City goalmouth. Why? If you keep missing your good goals scoring chances in a game you could be punished. And that what Ma City did to us last Sunday in the game at the Ems. It is not that Mikle Arteta was one kind of a genius that saw Arsenal got beaten in game in my own view.

    Arsenal should not panic as they go to Chelsea on Saturday but keep composure and be confident to beat Chelsea. Let:s forget about the criticisms of Cech by some pundits. Cech tried his best in the match for Arsenal notably stopping Aguero from scoring a 3rd goal for Man City when the Man Of Match player on Arsenal side, the tiring Guendouzi when been the only defender at the back lost the control of the ball to allow Aguero pounced on it. I believe what Arsenal need to do to beat Chelsea at the Bridge on Saturday is to eschew any form of profigancy in front of the Chelsea goalmouth. Once they take their chances and bury them appropriately, I am confidence they’ll beat Chelsea.

  3. This business of there being (on average) 245 decisions to be made by the referee per game (about 3 per minute) is probably wrong.

    Let’s look at free kick situations in attacking positions (which includes corner kicks). It’s probably not considered a foul for one player to illegally contact another player before the ball is put into play (in the eyes of the officials and league), but all of that contact can be subject to a caution for unsportmanlike conduct. Thee can be as many as 20 players jostling with each other, so that it is possible that more than 40 decisions are being made just for that one event. If you had 6 such free kicks in a game, that could be 240 decisions all by itself. The EPL prides itself on being a “tough” league, and officials are nominally instructed to ignore these incidents. Sometimes you do see an official move in and talk to players that are a little too rambunctious. Strictly speaking, ignoring any of those incidents is a mistake. If nothing else, all of those incidents needs to be considered in light of “persistent infringement”.

    There is no hard and fast rule on what constitutes persistent infringement, but if a caution is issued to one person a significant length of time into the game for N infractions, you should see that others who have fouled more than that at the same time have also been cautioned for persistent infringement. Xhaka seems to run afoul of this problem a lot, but maybe I am imagining things. But to have other players not cautioned for more than N offences is likely a set of mistakes.

    The ratio of fouls to cards should be reasonably consistent across the league. For teams and for players. You should not be seeing players or teams that have abnormal foul to card ratios that are too small or too big.

    It is probably an error to issue cards to one team early in the game, and then to even things up near the end of the game. The statistics of the number of player minutes played under caution should be about the same for all teams.

    That is a sample of places where errors by officials can happen, and are usually not considered by the various muppets spewing in the medja. And I include Hackett in that group.

  4. Well for one the absence of VAR in the EPL wasn’t the refs decision. The clubs made that decision.
    2ndly, if you agree one major decision out of 245 is significant enough to tilt match by a bent referee, why do you then argue that the “few” arguments against your 160 game analysis are too few to significantly mar your work as bent?

  5. Because our analysis is an attempt to see what happened in the game by looking at it after. If people said look there is a mistake here, then we could debate if that mistake is game changing or not. If not then it makes little difference to the overall analysis.
    With the official review of the referees that is reported in that article, there is no analysis at all. When they speak of mistakes, we don’t know if they are looking at an illegal thrown in on the half way line not being spotted or whether it is an obvious penalty not given.
    The reason for there being no VAR this year was because the clubs were given a briefing by PGMO and told that they saw major flaws in the system, including slowing down the game, and that this could cause knock on effects. The clubs by a majority took that advice.

  6. @tony,But that’s exactly what happened. People looked at your individual interpretation of match changing events and said “look that’s not what happened” they more likely got banned instead of reviewing your report

Comments are closed.