Commentary

The EPL puts on a show -- only the referees disappoint

Holiday soccer means, inevitably, the English Premier League. The only top league that elects not to take time off. It means binge-watching, which I’m told is not good for me, while it also provides an opportunity for a concentrated look at the EPL.

Over the past week I’ve watched 8 games more or less through their 90 minutes, and have seen bits and pieces and highlights from about 10 more. My overall verdict is that the EPL has put on a hell of a show.

The level of play and the entertainment value have been consistently high. I didn’t see a really dud game. Four of the games were outstanding.

It has to be said that the refereeing was the weakest part of the show. VAR, that refereeing subsidiary (though how long VAR will remain in a secondary role is anyone’s guess) did rather better.

A good place to start is the Tottenham-Chelsea game. At the end of the first half, a forward pass from Chelsea’s Willian was chased by teammate Marcos Alonso into the Tottenham area. Tottenham goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga ran forward and attempted an elaborate side volley, almost a karate kick, to clear the ball. He missed the ball completely, only just failed to kick Alonso’s head, then barreled into him and flattened him. A seriously dangerous maneuver, but one that looked almost comical.

What followed was anything but comical. Referee Anthony Taylor immediately whistled and signaled for a free kick (or was it a goal kick?) for Tottenham. Incredible. Gazzaniga had just committed what TV guru Gary Neville promptly termed “an assault,” which Taylor was completely ignoring. Neville was amazed that VAR was necessary to spot this.

But VAR was necessary. It came on scene rapidly in its best moment. It quickly ruled that Gazzaniga had fouled Alonso, and awarded Chelsea a penalty kick. Even so, Gazzaniga escaped with a yellow card, for what was surely a red-card offense (“endangering the safety of an opponent”).

A few days later it was the goalkeepers in the Wolverhampton-Manchester City game who provided a sensational opening, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. With a mere 10 minutes on the clock, Diogo Jota broke clean through the Man City defense. Keeper Ederson came flying out of his area -- he failed to get the ball, but made contact with Jota, enough to bring him down.

This time the referee, Martin Atkinson, showed the red card at once. No need for VAR. Man City was down to 10 men. Unusual to see a player ejected that early in a game. And even more unusual to see a goalkeeper ejected.

Ten minutes later VAR was at work again, awarding Man City a penalty (correctly) which referee Atkinson had missed. Raheem Sterling took the kick and Wolves’ keeper Rui Patricio saved it brilliantly. As Wolves players congratulated him, VAR intervened again. There had been encroachment by Wolves players. The kick must be taken again.

Up stepped Sterling for a second try. Patricio saved again, but blocked the ball directly back to Sterling, who scored easily. Two great saves, but the unlucky Patricio had given up a goal. It got better for him, though, as Wolves went on to win the game.

On the whole, goalkeepers did not have too cheerful a time in these games. Arsenal’s Bernd Leno came off worst, with a huge error that presented Chelsea’s Jorginho with an easy tap in to score the tying goal. Chelsea’s winning goal followed four minutes later.

Lest I’m leaving an impression of disrespecting goalkeepers, I should mention a very good save by Man U’s David De Gea, and a superb save by Watford’s Ben Foster, the sort of breath-taking athletic moves that -- obviously -- only goalkeepers can employ. Soccer would be a poorer game without them.

But there is this ongoing problem of goalkeepers barging into -- jumping into -- other players. Ederson did it and got red-carded (not for the violent play, but for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity to Wolves). Gazzaniga did it and got only a yellow. While Southampton’s Alex McCarthy did it and received no punishment at all.

That last incident, from the Chelsea-Southampton game, is worth pondering. Chelsea’s Fikayo Tomori played a long high ball into the Southampton goalmouth. McCarthy ran out of his goal to meet it, jumped high, right knee raised, into a couple of players, hitting one of them with his thigh and leaving him on the ground, holding his head.

The intriguing thing is that the injured player was a Southampton teammate of McCarthy, defender Jack Stephens. Referee Jonathan Moss quickly blew his whistle -- but of course, given that referees are not obliged to identify their calls, indeed have no generally accepted set of signals to do so, it was not clear what he had called. More than likely it was because of a possible head injury.

Yet it seems to me that McCarthy had committed a foul against his own player, by “playing in a dangerous manner.” This is one of the very few occasions when the rules do not specify that the victim of player violence has to be an opponent. The wording here is: “any action that, while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone (including the player themself) ..." That "someone" (the italics are mine) must include a teammate.

Referee Moss could -- and in my opinion should -- have penalized McCarthy for playing in a dangerous manner -- which would have meant an indirect free kick for Chelsea in the Southampton area. But if the referee is calling a foul on a teammate, why would he not call McCarthy for “jumping at” Stephens? “Jumping at” (carelessly or recklessly) is clearly identified in Rule 12 as an offense to be punished with a direct free kick -- a penalty kick if within the penalty area. Ah well, such a call, for fouling a teammate, seems to be a non-starter because the rules specify that the jump must be made at “an opponent.”

The above incidents are merely the latest to expose that goalkeepers continue to commit dangerous fouls. They do so regularly because they are allowed to by ignorant refereeing which ignores the existing rules and refuses to punish obvious fouls.

The prime exhibit here is referee Anthony Taylor, who managed to completely ignore a dangerous and spectacularly obvious foul right in front of him. I have not been particularly aware of Taylor as a referee. NBC’s Arlo White says that “he’s an excellent referee.” Maybe. But is it possible to be even a merely good referee while neglecting to apply the rules, while allowing repeated dangerous fouls to go unpunished?

In the chain of responsibility, goalkeepers commit violent fouls because they’re taught that is the thing to do, and the referees allow it. The referees allow it because none of their superiors raises any objections. Those superiors -- ultimately the Rip van Winkles at IFAB (still, apparently, living in the Harald Schumacher era) but also the FIFA Referees Committee -- have it in their power to set things aright by demanding the current rules be enforced, and by rewriting them where necessary to present a new, more practical -- and safer -- definition of just what is legitimate goalkeeper play, and what is not permitted.

11 comments about "The EPL puts on a show -- only the referees disappoint".
  1. beautiful game, December 30, 2019 at 5:13 p.m.

    Paul is right. I watched several EPL games since Christmas and every match had non-calls that had comatose referees. It's being repeated weekly.  EPL gets first honors for referee incompetence over the euro-leagues that I follow. FIFA's inaction to repeal its own standing SOP of referee game management is appalling.

  2. uffe gustafsson, December 30, 2019 at 8:08 p.m.

    Paul is so right on the goalie bicycle effort on that ball and missed it so clearly, I called out clear red card and to my surprise he called it I think a foul or something against the fwd. that’s just ludicrous. 
    The EPL refs are notorious of looking away from bad fouls, saw one player pulling down the player by his shirt and arm and no call and ended up in a goal for the team. Pulling down a player any part of the field is a yellow don’t care if it’s in a danger area.
    they need to inforce the rule book by the book.
    this notion of a tactical foul need to be looked at and different punishment to be called.
    that is so wrong.

  3. Peter Bechtold, December 30, 2019 at 8:35 p.m.

    An important and necessary article, thanks PG. My addition is that this is primarily a problem in UK where referees have been notorious for allowing more physical contact than elsewhere. This applies to goalkeepers being attacked a,nd also attacking aggressively themselves in turn. In other European leagues, refereeing is much stricter,which surprises me because British referees used to be the gold standard in earlier decades.
    In addition, VAR usage or application in the EPL has been the worst I have seen, something that is being commented on by increasing pundits. I rarely recommend US usage for elsewhere, but American referees in most sports explain their decisions to the crowds by microphones or known hand signals. There is no reason why football referees cannot do the same.

  4. beautiful game replied, December 30, 2019 at 10:32 p.m.

    If FIFA encourages this kind of mockery by its officials, than you want that same official to give a rational explanation?!!? 

  5. Thomas Brannan, December 30, 2019 at 11:38 p.m.

    1) Schumacher v Battison yes.  Romanian referee I seem to remember. Old guy didn't move well.  Hot day.  Who knows what else.  Did he blank out or did his personal outlook influence his decision?

    2) Refereeing to an extent is cultural, no matter what the law says. To me Germans seem to enforce the law best over the years.   British refereeing is in part responsible for British style of play.  And therefore, player development.  Referee and Style stem from Culture.

    3) Regarding VAR:  Ther will always be differences in referees.  i.e. Each referee is different and each referee will make a different call on a virtually same situation at different times sometimes.  One of the criticisms from managers/coaches, Santo - Klopp etc is that it takes the excitement out of a goal when it is reviewed.  Anyone who ever got a goal in a big game knows what that is like and it is taken away.  If it is offside and proven to be wrong then it is wrong and the goal shouldn't be awarded.  However, the game should not be robotic or technologized.  How about this:
    The referee and ARs are in charge.  When there is a perceived egregious offense the Manager can challenge that call.  The manager gets one challenge a game.  If the manger is upheld in his challenge he keeps his challenge.  If he loses his challenge he doesn't have one the rest of the game and the referee's decision is final.  Have the Referee's Goal Watch give a different tone or vibration than when the ball goes over the goal line when the manager makes the challenge.
    What would happen then might be if a goal is scored toward the end of the match what would the manager have to lose if he challenged.  Nothing.  Therefore, if a manager makes a challenge in the last 10 to 15 minutes before the end of the 90 minutes and loses he would lose his challenge for the remainder of the match and lose his challenge for the next match as well.
    Klopp probably would not have challenged Neto's goal for offside.  That goal would stand if not challenged. Some really good goals have been called back.  Neto's goal being called back is an offense to the game.  The grey area in those goals is the lightest shade of grey.
    To get it exactly correct would necessitate technology in the passers shoe as well.  i.e. when did the ball leave his foot / when was it played.
    You can't take the human element out of a game playe by humans.

  6. frank schoon, December 31, 2019 at 8:59 a.m.

    Nothing has changed all of a sudden in English soccer. The Brits have always been tough, hardnosed and FAIR and not dirty and are respected worldwide. This has always been part of their DNA. I hear so often  complains by Dutch commentators criticizing the Dutch referees for being such "wussies" and would say that calls like that would never be seen in the EPL. They further blame the dutch refs for making the dutch players 'sissyfied' and therefore not prepare the players for tough international competition. There will always be a dangerous situations once in while, that's something one can't avoid and it can happen ANYWHERE.

    Right now the big complaint with the VAR in England is the offside calls, in other words some goals recently have been nullified due to a VAR call. The problem is that noone and I mean noone in the stadium or by the refs could have seen it was offside unless the VAR ,with a microscope detected the player off by a 1/4 of an inch...THIS IS CRAZY.  Many clubs in England now want to change the offside rule saying, if you can't openly notice a player as being offside then it is not offside, even if the VAR is able to a microscopic difference using a lasing pointer lets say. 

  7. R2 Dad replied, January 1, 2020 at 12:36 p.m.

    Until recently the interpretation was that if the attacker was even with the defender the attacker should be given the benefit of the doubt and offside was not called. Somehow FIFA/IFAB has decided the attacker can no longer be considered "even", and that has resulted in the English FA chalking off a half dozen goals just in December that would have otherwise counted. Now the Premier League is half-way through their season so cannot change interpretation. This will have to wait until June, but in the mean time expect more of the same. At least the pundits aren't demanding the end of VAR, just a better version from England.

  8. frank schoon replied, January 2, 2020 at 9:08 a.m.

    R2, Unbelievable....van Hanegem had written in his column the other day about the VAR that it is not the final arbiter but the two refs who are watching it on the screen who will decide  even though  they can have a different perception on a foul...leading to say that it still comes down to a human decision in the end. He further stated that the VAR should only be used for the most flagrant fouls

  9. R2 Dad replied, January 2, 2020 at 11:47 a.m.

    EPL is bad at managing "clear and obvious" and has chosen to ignore that requirement. are we going to have to rely on FIFA to have an intervention? plus, the Euros are coming. will/should UEFA omit English refs this summer?

  10. humble 1, January 2, 2020 at 3:42 a.m.

    If you watched the Liga MX final on the evening of the 29th, and the Premier League games earlier that same day, that same day, then you saw that the Mexican's are better at managing VAR than the English.  Why?  Simple answer.  Liga MX referees control all the game, they decide to use VAR then they run to the side line and look at the screen - they make the final call.  There were two goals turned by VAR in the Liga MX Clausura final leg, both calls made by the referee. English refs lose credibility and the game stagnates while they all stand around waiting for the VAR word back from London.  Joke. That's what it is.  I guest they think they are smarter than all the leagues around the world that do what Liga MX does but they certainly do look the fools.  Unfortunately with all the $$$ rolling into the Premier League the fools get the last laugh.  

  11. Michael Saunders, January 20, 2020 at 9:35 a.m.

    Paul:   Applaud your ongoing reporting on GK violent fouls.  We have seen the horrendous injuries that have resulted from feckless refs and lack of clear cut consistent policy on what is dangerous, even life threatening fouls.  The defense we always hear is that GKs are vulnerable to players actions when they are making saves in the air,  I have discussed this matter with numerous GKs, players and coaches who are blind to the potential consequences of the type of actions GKs use in the name of protecting themselves.    


    The good news is that the VAR holds referees responsible as  pointed out by your article.  What one should not forget, it works both ways.  We saw that this weeked when MUs DeGea was fouled by Liverpool.   The refreee missed it, goal subesquently scored, VAR forced referee to change his non-call.  

    Still I am not sure how the inherent approach towards GK dangerous & reckless plays will change.    I'm afarid it will only be addressed when a top striker or the like  somewhere in the world is killed by the actions of a GK.    Perhaps the data hounds can scour through the videos where major injuries occurred to GKs vs players to grasp the severity of ignoring the obvious. 
     

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