What do we make of the standard of officiating in the Premier League?
I can’t claim to have done a statistical tracking study over the years, but this season seems to have some of the worst when it comes to the general standard of refereeing in the league. I’m of course biased to the decisions that go against Arsenal, but the few other games I’ve watched, and many clips that have been posted on social media from various league matches, seem to regularly display poor decisions that are made by referees.
For Arsenal, the most recent is the elbow to Hector Bellerin’s face as Marcos Alonso headed Chelsea’s first goal past (a disappointing) Petr Cech. I saw a clip of how Bellerin reacted to the challenge as he fell to the ground, and my stomach turned a bit. It’s clear that Alonso’s elbow made serious impact and I’d have thought a foul would be given – referees see less obvious fouls when players are jostling in the penalty area during corner kicks.
The other big talking point from our club’s perspective is the red card Xhaka received for what seemed like a textbook yellow card offence during the match against Swansea in the first half of the season. I don’t know what’s been more frustrating about that one: the fact that it didn’t look anywhere close to a red, or the fact that no one has been sent off for a similar foul since.
Then there’s that unofficial stat that shows how Man United have had as many as 6 offside goals allowed, one of which even received goal of the month. It would seem the message being sent is that referees’ decisions will be protected to the extent that a goal that should have been disallowed will still be eligible to receive such an award.
One could comb through all the games this season and would find a myriad of incorrect decisions made during this season. That is an exercise we won’t undertake here. Rather I’m more concerned about how and why those decisions occur, and when they do, what is done about it. As much as I can empathise with referees (it’s a tough job officiating matches in a league as fast as this one), it’s a job they signed up for, which they are paid well to perform, so a certain standard is reasonably expected.
Referee protection is one of the primary issues for me. Firstly, let’s be clear: protection of match officials is a necessity. They’re often on the receiving end of quite a lot of abuse which is unfair and unacceptable. Yet, at times it seems that the authorities are more interested in protecting officials than sorting out the actual officiating and ensuring that incorrect decisions are rectified.
For instance, the FA and PGMOL work under the principle that no retrospective action is taken if the referee saw an incident and didn’t believe there was any infringement worthy of punishment, even though replays clearly show a blatant foul. This principle seems to be more about protecting the referee’s “professional integrity” than seeking to make the correct decision. For example, the Pogba-on-Henderson incident that went unpunished. If no retrospective action has been taken on that, are we to accept that the referee saw nothing wrong with it? That’s shocking. Papi Djilobodji of Sunderland was retrospectively banned for something similar (off the ball incident), so why not Pogba?
Another pet peeve of mine is the brainless commentary by the so-called pundits. Regarding the Bellerin incident, the general consensus from these ex-pro’s is that there was nothing wrong with Alonso’s challenge. The favoured line of thinking is that Alonso “wanted it more.” Seriously?? A player has suffered a potential concussion, and this is how the influential voices on our TV screens respond? Have we not learnt anything from the serious head injuries that players have suffered in the past? Jason Cundy on talkSPORT said elbows are part of the game and there was no foul. Yes, apparently smashing a player’s face into concussion is legal (Marouane Fellaini must have learnt this from the same school Cundy did). Are we waiting for a player to actually lose his life before we start using our brains (excuse the pun)?
What must be said, though, is that behind the scenes, referees seem to be required to account for a lot of the decisions they make. Matt Dickinson wrote an article in the Times after the incident during the dying minutes of the Burnley match where Arsène Wenger and Anthony Taylor (playing fourth official on the day) had an altercation. I find it interesting that in all of that, little was mentioned of why Taylor followed Wenger down the tunnel. As per my understanding, it’s the stewards who are tasked with ensuring the manager doesn’t hang around but duly leaves as instructed. So why did Taylor feel the need to further confront a manager who was no longer in the dugout or technical area? Wenger was obviously banned, but questions should be raised regarding Taylor’s part in the whole thing.
Anyway, the piece was generally received negatively – mostly because of Dickinson’s suggested punishment for Wenger – but it had content I found eye-opening. It detailed the rigorous process that refs go through, where they are made to answer for almost every decision (mostly the contentious ones really) they made during a match, with a detailed explanation of why they made the call they did. This is followed by an extensive review process that aims to help the referee make better calls going forward. From that perspective, it would seem a lot is done to try and improve the standard of officiating. It then boggles the mind that decision-making in general seems to be getting worse, not better. At least from my point of view.
'Refs are useless' says everyone. 'Here's an idea to improve them' says no one ever. It's beyond a joke https://t.co/T7KzQpBF1C
— Matt Dickinson (@DickinsonTimes) January 27, 2017
Now that football referees have professional status, and given the extensive review system they are subjected to, I believe the next steps must be taken in the interest of improving standards. Much of the football world has been crying out for video technology to be introduced. The main objection is that it would kill the flow of the game. I think unpunished time-wasting is already doing a great job of that, thanks very much, and not a lot has been done to properly deal with it, besides leaving it it to the ref’s subjective judgement. So perhaps that in itself is not a good enough argument against trialling the video option.
I think it could work, especially if we adopt a hybrid between what rugby and cricket have. The match referee can be allowed to consult the TV ref at any moment a big decision is uncertain, and the TV ref can alert the match referee of any obvious things he’s missed. In addition, each team could be given a set number of appeals, say 2 per match, which they lose if the ref’s decision is proven to have been correct. In that way, incorrect decisions can be rectified or avoided before they make a material difference to the match result.
All in all, I think the football world is not expecting perfection, but only asking for consistency. For instance, take the new sterner stance on infractions in the 18 yard area, which we were told would lead to penalties being awarded for shirt-pulling. It seems only a few refs applied the rule, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen penalties awarded for such fouls. Has it been completely scrapped? Again, if we look at the aforementioned Xhaka red card, it’s difficult to have seen Juan Mata’s two-footed tackle on Jamie Vardy only receive a yellow when it looked a straight red and absolutely worse than Xhaka’s.
As football fans, we’re obviously prone to act out of emotion, and we’ll almost always be biased towards the teams we support. But there are clear issues with officiating in general that need to be addressed, and in its current state, I’m not sure PGMOL and the FA have the ‘political will’ to find lasting solutions. When you consider the revelations by former referee Mark Halsey in September, and that farce of a match at Old Trafford that would have been Arsenal’s 50th unbeaten league game (if we must go back that far), one begins to wonder whether there’s an element of corruption we should be worried about here. It’s obviously all speculation, but you know what they say about smoke and fire.