Several weeks ago, the enthralling end of the Arsenal-Burnley match in North London captivated the attention of a lot of soccer fans. In among the wild finish that featured two penalty kicks (or as we quaintly call them here stateside, to the ridicule of Brits, PKs) in stoppage time, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger was dismissed from the match for irresponsible behavior. Suggestions were that he called referee Jonathan Moss a “cheat.”
But of greater concern was that Wenger refused to leave the tunnel and continued watching the match. This caused fourth official Anthony Taylor to walk down the tunnel to admonish Wenger and tell him he had to leave the vicinity of the field. Instead of doing so, Wenger pushed Taylor twice. Not hard, mind you, not particularly threateningly, but he made clear contact with Taylor before departing.
The English FA responded by banning Wenger from the touchline for four games, a move that has coincided with (but is not necessarily related to) Arsenal’s recent drop in form. The ban is fairly lengthy — most managers’ suspensions are typically just one or two games — but certainly warranted considering the provocative contact made with the official. Wenger, for his part, apologized immediately after the match — perhaps he felt better when Arsenal won a penalty in the seventh minute of injury time to win the game — accepted the charges against him, and did not fight the ban. None of this is particularly surprising or unexpected.
Just a few games later, Liverpool faced Chelsea in a crucial match for Liverpool’s title hopes. Chelsea won a penalty kick late in the match, which was subsequently saved by Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet. The Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, clearly excited, and maybe still a bit upset about the decision to award Chelsea the penalty in the first place, turned to fourth official Neil Swarbrick and screamed at him. It turned out he was yelling, “No one can beat us!,” which even Klopp admitted after the match was stupid, considering Liverpool came into the match on a three-game losing streak. Nonetheless, his visual intensity certainly appeared intimidating.
After Klopp’s outburst, Manchester United manager (and long-time referee critic) Jose Mourinho complained that he is treated differently from other managers and that the governing body’s discipline is inconsistent.
So what gives? Is Mourinho getting unfair treatment?
The answer to that likely comes from Mourinho’s long history with officials. His argument that he is being singled out is correct, but his complaint emanates from an argument that past behavior and failure to offer diplomatic retreat should not dictate harsher treatment. It seems to be a foolish stance to take, but interestingly, the argument that reputation should not affect referee decisions is one that courses through the sport at all levels.
This fall, the college referee association sent out a midseason notice to its officials about properly preparing for matches. This included researching the teams in your matches by inspecting box scores, watching video if available, and getting some idea of how particular players play, as well as understanding which players have a penchant for trouble. This correspondence was also sent to local college coaches, some of whom complained that their players were being singled out prior to matches for harsher treatment by the referees. Sound familiar?
There are two schools of thought when it comes to officiating a sport (not just soccer). One school of thought believes that every game is a blank slate and that every player starts clean. This is not an unreasonable position if we are committing to total neutrality. The second school of thought involves officials studying the teams they will officiate so they are better prepared to respond to match flow, tactics, and anticipate problems to avoid being forced to use stronger misconduct that might otherwise affect the match.
Teams attempt to scout their opponents, understand their tactics and strategies, and attempt to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses to achieve better performance. While officials do not look to “exploit weaknesses,” preparation and understanding of the teams and players they are officiating allows them to be more effective at their job. At higher levels of play, it’s almost malpractice to not take a studious approach to the game.
Let’s take, for example, Burnley’s Joey Barton. Google “Joey Barton dirty” or “Joey Barton crazy” for a small sampling of the kinds of awful, terrible, very bad things Joey Barton has done over his career. Focus on just the on-field incidents and try to ignore things like sticking a lit cigar in a youth player’s eye at a Manchester City Christmas party, because as a referee the former are what we’re focused on.
It would be utterly ridiculous for an official to referee a Burnley match without having some semblance of the kind of player Joey Barton is. You see Barton get into a physical challenge with an opponent, prior knowledge allows you to stay on their contact a split second longer to make sure he doesn’t revert to form and rake his cleats down the opponent’s calf when the ball 30 yards up field. It would be foolhardy to ignore his past. Maybe you spring a bit closer to play if you see Barton leaving his feet, so you can provide presence and stop retaliation from occurring.
That’s not to say that officials need to ignore inherent bias in their research. Just because Barton is a known blade doesn’t mean a referee should go in looking for a reason to card him. It’s a fine line to walk, similar to monitoring a rehabilitated thief recently released from prison. The police should not harass the supposedly-rehabilitated thief just because he stole money in the past. But if the thief goes out and tries to buy a gun and a ski mask, the police also should not sit back and wait to see what happens. Maybe the thief thinks he deserves a chance, but past discrepancies require some responsible oversight. Preventative officiating is the best kind.
Back to Mourinho. The difference between him and people like Wenger and Klopp is a relative sense of culpability when they do cross the line. When Mourinho has been charged with misconduct over the years, he tends to claim he is not guilty, defend his behavior, lash out at the mistake the referee made to provoke his response… there is never a moment of, “I should be better.”
In comparison, the very first thing Wenger said at his press conference after he pushed Taylor was, “I regret everything. I should have shut up and gone in and gone home, basically.” Klopp volunteered of his own volition what he had screamed at Swarbrick, and admitted it was a stupid thing to say and do, and that he had been lucky to not be disciplined. There is a simple but clear difference between managers and coaches who claim a referee’s errors are justification for their own immature and irresponsible action and those who may be frustrated in the heat of the moment but accept their behavior crossed a line.
Mourinho suffers a lower tolerance from officials and the governing bodies due to his own ego and inability to respect that others on the field have a job to do as well. As Joey Barton has managed to do on the field, Mourhino has established for himself a particular reputation in the technical area. His outbursts, based on his campaign against officials and governing bodies off the field, have a far worse impact on match control on the field.
Is there a solution to this? Actually, yes. Mourinho could take steps to reform and show respect for officials. He could learn to control his temper and manage his competitive fire. Plenty of managers have developed a tremendous reputation for success and are emotionally involved in their matches (Antonio Conte, Zinedine, Mauricio Pochettino) without becoming focused on referee decisions. Mourinho could thank the officials privately for their efforts and decline to criticize them when baited by interviewers. Just a little bit of respect for them might give him a longer leash when he reacts emotionally in a match.
But as long as his commentary about officials remains negative or sarcastic, he can probably expect the unfairness of it all to continue. You reap what you sow.