Arsenal - Oi Ref!!
At the end of February Arsene vented his frustration at the number of yellow cards we picked up compared to the number of offences committed. Goodplaya and others posted a list showing the ratio of cards to fouls in the premiership illustrating Arsene`s point that we picked up a card on average every 5.45 fouls while the premiership average was 7.9. Nearest to us was Blackburn at 6.26 and even Bolton got away with 6.46 fouls per card. At the time the list set a few hares running and a vigorous debate as to whether we were being unfairly treated or not. Some pointed out that the cards weren`t all issued for fouls but included other offences such as dissent. This was about two thirds of the way through the season and I was interested to see whether this debate had any effect on how we were treated in the last third of the season.
At first sight it seems as though we did get a response as we were allowed 10.8 fouls per card in the remainder of the season while the premiership average was 11.29. In other words we were given an extra 5.35 fouls per card while, collectively, the others only managed an extra 3.39. Still the stats seem to show that, in any case, refs get a little more forgiving towards the back end of the season. We ended the season having committed the least number of fouls at 402 with a yellow card count of 59 equal to one every 6.8 fouls. The team with the most fouls at 597, Watford, picked up 44 yellows a card every 13.6 fouls. Closest to us in fewest fouls was Sp*rs who with 434 were allowed 9.23 fouls for each of their 47 yellows.
The old cliché that refs are only human is obviously true (in most cases) and research showed some time ago that there is a definite tendency to give decisions in favour of the home side especially when confronted with vociferous home support. In theory though as every team plays home and away this 'natural` bias should even out over the season. But I wonder whether Arsenals style can count against us. Terry Venables said recently "If matches were won on points, like title fights in boxing, Arsenal would top the league every year". Do we dominate games so convincingly that refs feel the need, entirely sub-consciously, to even things up - give a little to the underdog as it were? This is a remark bound to earn the scorn of many, including some gooners, but to me it is just a normal, understandable human reaction if it is true.
There is a British culture of refereeing which seems to reflect a tradition of work rate and grit as virtuous qualities, which they are to some extent. I recall an incident in ManU`s CL campaign last season where Scholes was booked and Fergie claimed that he would have got away with it in the Premiership. That was true and therein lies a problem. A mistimed tackle can be accepted provided the tackler has a 50% or so chance of getting the ball. Too often such tackles in the premiership are allowed when there is at best only a 40% chance of success. Punishing such events automatically encourages better tackling. At the same time professional fouls where a player deliberately blocks another player doesn`t always get punished. Such tackles should also be mandatory bookings to allow the type of attacking moves we all appreciate. Changing this refereeing culture will suit Arsenal but will also improve the game in this country by encouraging more open, flowing, expansive play. In time this will also improve the national team and so it is in everyone`s interests to get the balance of refereeing priorities right. Trevor Brooking recently regretted the lack of technique amongst our U21 players. In part at least the road to improvement depends on recognising that technique needs to be rewarded in competitive games.
Serie A has some 32 referees on its roster, the Bundesliga has 40 and the Premiership has about 17. Does this lead to the culture of celebrity affecting referees and their ability to make decisions without first considering the impact on their celebrity image? This was something that I believe affected Graham Polls decision making and that of Jeff Winter before him. Both were acutely aware of the 'star` status amongst the refereeing community. More referees with TV games more widely spread amongst individual referees would reduce their individual profile which, I feel, is as it should be.
Global betting on single premiership games can be as high as £200m. Betting patterns change significantly when individual referees are named before the match. Professional gamblers monitor and understand individual referees` quirks and inclinations and use these to try to forecast the outcome of games. If gamblers are aware of this then so are other professionals in the game. It stands to reason that the more anonymous a referee is the less predictable he will be and the fairer the outcome of the game. So increase the number of referees substantially and reduce their celebrity please.