The referee myth

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but the bi-annual referee criticism forum is in session. From Martin Atkinson’s failure to send Chelsea defender David Luiz at Stamford Bridge to Massimo Bussaca’s decision to send off Robin van Persie at the Nou Camp on Tuesday night, the role of the referee in these key matches has been under scrutiny more than ever before.

The link between player and manager pressure and referee performance is an age old debate and one that is incredibly difficult to accurately settle. Everyone knows that winning a penalty at Old Trafford has been a rarity in recent seasons, and several times over the last 18 months it might be argued that John Terry has been given freedom to handle in his own box during games at Stamford Bridge – but why do these perceived injustices continue to occur?

If you look at the way these top sides have consistently been accused of influencing officials, it is impossible not to sympathise with the referee that crumbles and decides not to award a penalty against players or managers that have a reputation for regular and vociferous complaining.

I wrote earlier this week about the need for sides to rule the influence of the referee irrelevant through their performance – if you find yourself relying on one decision to go your way then there is every chance that you will, rightly or wrongly, lose out.

This may well be easier said than done for a lowly Premier League side visiting Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge, but the ultimate message is that there is an inevitable risk of an official making a crucial call in a tight game – if you are happy to let your players take that risk, then blaming the referee when he makes a bad call becomes futile.

Arsene Wenger may well have a point in criticising the decision of Bussaca during Tuesday night’s game, but the reality is that his game plan relied heavily on many things going Arsenal’s way at the Nou Camp. As Robin van Persie very accurately surmised, there were 95,000 people packed into the stadium during the match and as such you may reasonably expect the partisan crowd to have some bearing on some 50-50 decisions – it is part of the reason why so few teams are able to travel to Spain and win.

If you look at Wenger’s complaints, whilst they are certainly reasonable, they are also completely necessary. Having lost a Carling Cup final to Birmingham, thrown away two points at home to Sunderland in the league and now crashing out of Europe, a basic admittance that his side weren’t good enough to compete with Barcelona could have done major damage to his side’s confidence ahead of the remaining key fixtures this season.

In fact, Wenger might even argue that a Champions League exit is better this way. Pride intact, the Frenchman can rightly point to the sending off as a pivotal moment in the game without losing face to Arsenal fans who now run the risk of seeing the number of success starved seasons stretch to six. The statistical domination over two legs can be happily put aside with that decision acting as an asterisk to Barcelona’s victory.

Ultimately then, the role of the referee is not as simple as the accurate interpretation of events on the pitch. Managers, players and fans may ask for precise decision making at all times, but the varying goals and objectives of each side mean that sometimes incorrect decisions can be just as beneficial as making the right call.

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