Football, more than nearly any other sport, relies on referees to get the balance correct. After all in a sport where teams routinely win by a single goal, a single bad call can mean the difference between winning and losing. And after this weekend’s results one thing is very clear, the referees in the Premier League are not getting the balance correct and desperately need help in the form of video replay.
In the Villa-Tottenham match, referee Neil Swarbrick gave a red card to Villa’s Christian Benteke for raising his hands to Ryan Mason’s face. It was exactly the wrong call and given for all the wrong reasons.
In the build up to the card, Benteke was shielding the ball when Erik Lamela tried to shoulder barge him off. The smaller Spurs man comically bounced off of Benteke and crumpled in a heap on the ground. Lamela got up and rushed Benteke trying to win the ball back with a wild tackle and as he passed the Belgian lashed out with his arm and looked to have caught the Villa man in the face.
Meanwhile Lamela’s Spurs teammate Ryan Mason steamed in and was all hands and feet trying to get the ball and at the exact moment that Lamela looks to have struck Benteke’s face, Benteke turned around to confront his assailant. Mason got in Benteke’s face, headbutted him, and then when Benteke had the temerity to raise his hands to push Mason away from him, Mason grabbed his face like… well, like a liar… and pretended he was injured. Seeing his teammate mortally wounded, Erik Lamela did the thing that must come naturally to him, and ran over to the referee, eyes wide at the horror he’d just seen, and brandishing an imaginary card demanded that Benteke be sent off.
Swarbrick took Lamela’s bait — hook, line, sinker, and subscription to Bass Pro Monthly — and after a brief conference with his sideline official showed Benteke a red card. The problem here is that it was always going to be Benteke who got sent off.
The reason is simple, the Premier League and their referees reward aggression and punish retribution. They always have as long as I’ve been watching. Remember when Arsenal’s Gervinho was fouled in the box by Newcastle’s Joey Barton, then Barton screamed at him and hauled him up off the ground by his shirt and when Gervinho put his hands up to get this monster off him, Barton collapsed on the ground like his face had been ripped off. And in a mirror of Spurs man Lamela wild-eyed and looking for the referee to punish, Barton’s teammate Steven Taylor ran straight to the referee, gesturing as if Gervinho had elbowed Barton. Gervinho saw red, Barton saw a pay rise.
I’ve seen this happen countless times, Patrick Vieira was sent off for a confrontation on Dennis Wise after the Leicester man tackled Robert Pires and then yelled at Pires to get off the ground. Jeremy Aliadiere was sent off for touching Javier Mascherano’s face after the Argentinian had made his umpteenth brutal tackle on the Frenchman. Too often this happens that referees allow aggressive play and then punish the opposition for standing up to these bullies.
The formula to get a player sent off in the Premier League is simple: aggressively harass the opponent, wait for the opponent to attempt any retribution, and if he does collapse in a heap on the ground like you’ve been shot while your teammates run straight at the official eyes wide at the injustice of it all.
After Benteke was sent off, Tottenham stormed back and won the game 2-1. All the talk this weekend has been about Harry Kane’s free kick which won the match, but it was a poor referees decision which cost Villa three points. Let’s hope Villa avoid relegation by more than three points or it could be a decision which cost the club and supporters millions of Pounds.
Meanwhile in the earlier match, Michael Oliver had a different kind of nightmare. The kind of nightmare where he refuses to award three stonewall penalties.
The game was Man City versus Man United and Man United were outclassed in every position on the pitch: Yaya Toure dominated the midfield, Sergio Aguero dominated the United backfield, and Vincent Komapny dominated the United forwards. United’s frustration grew until, in the 39th minute, Chris Smalling got himself sent off for two absurd fouls.
Playing against 10 men, City took the game into another gear and started creating good chance after good chance. The first came almost immediately after Smalling was sent off: Fellaini was filling in at center back and Aguero collected the ball deep in the penalty box. Fellaini, because he’s a terrible defender* kicks Aguero’s Achilles, Aguero goes down (as you do when your Achilles has been kicked because that hurts) and Fellaini looks at referee Michael Oliver. Oliver swallowed his whistle.
United sorted out their back line but City were still on top of their local rivals and on the stroke of half-time had a second stonewall penalty turned down. Yaya Toure beat the sleeping Rojo to a ball flipped over the defense, and Rojo went through the back of Toure, between his legs, and maybe got a nick on the ball as he hauled the Ivorian down.
People comically don’t see this as a foul because “Rojo got some of the ball”. There is no “got some of the ball” rule. If you take out your opponent, who is in an obvious goal scoring position (as Yaya Toure was), with a tackle from behind – going through the man to win the ball – and you bring the man down so that he can’t recover the ball and score? That is a red card and a penalty.
The third, however, was possibly the most egregious of them all. Referee Oliver is staring, unobstructed, at Kun Aguero as he dribbles across the United box. He then watches as Aguero is fouled by both Carrick and Fellaini and refuses to award the penalty. Fellaini even makes the face that proves he is guilty.
English football is no longer a game played behind closed doors, un-televised, and only reported on by a handful of scribes and witnesses in the stands. These games are now broadcast all over the world, with instant replay, and fans are able to capture moments on their vine and tweet them out to their followers. In short, every aspect of the game is now viewed through the lens of technology. Every aspect save one: the view of the referee. It’s time that referees are given the same benefit as the rest of the world. It’s time that referees are given instant replay.
Since I know this idea engenders a visceral reaction I will suggest that the FA and PGMOL start simply, with post match red-card reviews. Major League Soccer does this. Ex-post facto they punish players who commit red card offenses which the referee saw and punished with only a yellow card. They also punish players who got away with fouls. In the Benteke situation above this means that Erik Lamela and Ryan Mason would receive retroactive red cards for their actions. This doesn’t help Villa get their three points back, but it does put all the players on alert that their bad behavior will no longer be tolerated. That players will no longer be able to get away scot-free with endless provocations.
After that, I think managers should be allowed to demand a single, or maybe one per half, referee adjudication using video replay. This would solve the problem of Michael Oliver not calling a penalty in the Manchester Derby. At least I hope it would force Oliver to call those plays correctly. There’s still no guarantee that the referee would change his mind.
But at least we would all be on the same page and right now, referees in the Premier League aren’t even i the same paper. They are still using papyrus.
*I say this for the benefit of the three Arsenal fans who still think he could play defensive midfield for Arsenal. He can’t. He can’t because he has almost no understanding of how to defend. His idea of defense is “sticking a foot in”. So, unless you want to risk conceding a penalty every time you play, you don’t play Fellaini as a defensive midfielder.