Weekend Games Highlight (Again) Dreadful State of Premier League Referees

By Sonny Turner

Another weekend of Premier League football, another weekend of refereeing mistakes. The best league in the world, the worst referees in the world. Continuous mistakes are being made every week in the Premier League, and even with the assistance of VAR, rules are not being implemented. Every week it seems the standard of refereeing drops even lower.

Just to begin, in the first few minutes of the Watford vs Spurs game at Vicarage Road came the first of that game’s poor refereeing decisions, with Spurs being denied a penalty for handball. As Lucas Moura flicked the ball attempting to work a goalscoring opportunity, it hit the outstretched arm of a Watford defender, whose hand was placed on Moura’s chest. The ball was deemed to be too close and moving too quickly for the Watford player to move his arm out of the way. These are not the rules. According to the FA website, a foul is committed when “the hand/arm has made their [a player’s] body unnaturally bigger”. Apparently full extension of an arm outwards does not make your body unnaturally bigger. To further compound the miserable state of refereeing, a penalty was given for handball against Jan Vertonghen, with the ball hitting the defender’s outstretched arm. Why was this a penalty and not the previous almost identical incident? Both players committed the same offence, only one was punished.

With VAR in the spotlight every week, the system did itself no favours when a three and a half minute delay to change the referee’s batteries for his communication technology to VAR hub Stockley Park, resulted in only two minutes added time at the end of the first half, and this without even taking into account the others stoppages within the half. Farcical.

Further dire decisions in this game alone involved Etienne Capoue escaping a red card for a dangerous studs-up rake of Japhet Tanganga’s knee, but he didn’t even receive a yellow card, and with the player being booked later on he should have at least been sent off then. To cap a dreadful refereeing performance, Michael Oliver pulled off a common refereeing cop out, with a yellow card apiece for Harry Winks and Abdoulaye Doucoure after being involved in a scuffle which the referee did not even witness, and, if he had done, would have seen that Doucoure should have been shown red for kneeing Winks in the back and then seemingly slapping Jan Vertonghen.

Arsenal vs Sheffield United also had its share of refereeing mistakes, the most glaring of which being one of the most obvious should-be penalties you’re likely to see, not being given. A clear foul on Nicolas Pepe, the attacker being blatantly tripped on his way to goal, was somehow not penalised.

Further refereeing short-comings were in evidence, with notable examples in the Burnley vs Leicester game of common mistakes seen every weekend, if not every match. The overprotective nature of officials towards goalkeepers was evidenced, with Kasper Schmeichel being barely touched (to be fair Schmeichel did not seem to appeal for a free-kick) but receiving a free-kick virtually on his goal-line, the ball, albeit after the whistle, had been volleyed sweetly into the back of the net by Charlie Taylor, why are goalkeepers treated differently from outfield players? Nothing in the rules says they should be. Furthermore, the officials in control of VAR showed further incompetence in missing a clear foul on Jack Cork in the build up to Leicester’s goal, with Dennis Praet making clear contact with Cork’s left leg before touching the ball.

Two of the most common, and vexing, blunders were on display on this game; the officials not punishing dissent and the seemingly forgotten six second rule. One clear example came from Phil Bardsley, who unleashed a torrent of abuse at the referee with no punishment, before throwing the ball away, something else which always seems to go unpunished. The law states that “dissent by word or action” is a yellow card offence, and “using offensive, insulting or abusive language” is a red card offence, Bardsley’s outburst could have quite easily qualified for the latter, if the referees had enough backbone to enforce the law. This backbone would also help with enforcing the six second rule, with it being disregarded in every Premier League game, for example, Nick Pope held on to the ball for 16 seconds at the end of the game to waste time.

The last game of the weekend, Liverpool vs Manchester United, as you can probably guess invariably was affected by poor refereeing. It is in intense derby games such as this where you are likely to hear commentators praising referees for ‘letting the game flow’. What this really means is that the referee is letting fouls go unpunished, the application of the law does not depend on the two teams playing each other, and referees should not ‘let the game flow’, they should punish fouls accordingly.

The main blunder within the game came when a Liverpool second was ruled out for a foul on David De Gea, after the goalkeeper was fairly challenged by Virgil Van Dijk. VAR didn’t see the contact as a foul, but deemed that Van Dijk had made no attempt to play the ball. Van Dijk in reality had kept his eyes on the ball the entire time it was in flight and had even made a heading motion when attempting to reach the ball before De Gea, with former Premier League Peter Walton later confirming that the goal should have stood. Awful.

Witnessed not just in the games at the weekend but every Premier League game is referees’ lack of understanding of football. The advantage rule, for example, is rarely ever applied correctly. The clue is in the name. If the team will gain an advantage by continuing play instead of having a free-kick or penalty then carry on, however, referees believe the rule to be: if a team still has the ball after being fouled then play on, regardless of them being in a worse position. Here the game should take notes from rugby union, whose refereeing standards are excellent, and whose referees perfectly apply the advantage rule, with play continuing if the team are in a better position as a result, with several phases being allowed before the play is brought back to the offence if the non-penalised team have not been able to gain an advantage by this time, or if the ball has been lost within the time frame deemed sufficient, something Premier League referees have no concept of. Another common, and correct, complaint towards Premier League referees is that players have to go down in order to receive a free kick. This is evidenced weekly, with ‘honest’ players staying on their feet after being fouled and receiving nothing, whereas players who are breathed on are regularly rewarded. This dreadful refereeing must stop.

The best league in the world should have the best referees in the world. Go out and get the best referees from around the world. For example, Italian referee Antonio Giua showed the right idea when sending off Mario Balotelli in the Brescia vs Cagliari Serie A game at the weekend after the striker was first given a yellow card for a poor challenge, and then after responding with abuse towards the referee received another yellow and was sent on his way. There is not one Premier League referee who would have also correctly applied the laws of the game in this situation. Premier League referees must improve. Mike Dean refereed his 500th game at the weekend, to which Robbie Savage aptly questioned: “how many good ones has he had?”

The game deserves referees with courage and know-how to uphold the standards of the Premier League. There have been glimpses of competence and successful refereeing, with VAR even displaying how it could be useful amongst testing times. For example, the Norwich vs Bournemouth game saw Ben Godfrey’s reckless studs up challenge on Callum Wilson rightfully upgraded from a yellow to a red card by VAR, we need more decisions like this.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Referees_warm_up.jpg

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