During the course of last Sunday’s match versus Burnley it struck me how little data is publicly available on the role of the referees in deciding the fate of the Premier League title. Major game-changing decisions were made at key points by Mr. Moss and his officiating crew that significantly tilted the balance against the Gunners, such as; failing to call the penalty for the foul against Mustafi, the Xhaka red-card, the penalty against Coquelin and the controversial sending-off of Wenger. The fact that Arsenal were able to snatch a win from the jaws of dropping two vital points cannot cover up the fact that Moss was on the verge of causing a mortal blow to Arsenal’s chances of a significant title challenge, minimal as they currently are. Chelsea establishing a 10-point advantage, in their current form, would be almost insurmountable in my opinion.
It strikes me that the role of the referees in punishing or favoring a team is either studiously ignored by the press for reasons best known to themselves or simply underestimated. In a recent tweet I described the situation as two unaccountable institutions dominating the premier league; one fixes the game and the other fixes the narrative.
For me, the penny dropped during the that fateful game in 2005 when referee Mike Riley blatantly corrupted the concept of unbiased officiating by doing everything in his power to favor Manchester United as they ended Arsenal’s historic 49 game unbeaten run. Among Riley’s many exploits was the unpunished multiple hacking by the Nevilles of Arsenal’s potential danger-man, then in-form Jose Antonio Reyes and the phantom penalty granted to Wayne Rooney who, untouched, dived like a swan over the leg of Sol Campbell. Thanks to YouTube this historic chapter of refereeing infamy is easily available for all to see. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3P-pCRhFY9M
Any illusions that Riley’s conduct was without the approval of the English football establishment was to be soon disabused. After a decent interval had elapsed, at the end of the 2008-09 season he retired as a professional referee and immediately thereafter was appointed manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOB), where he is now in charge of all the officials, such as Mr. Moss and his crew, who can rightly be regarded as the inheritors of Mr. Riley’s legacy.
Yet we continue to have prattle by the media, premier league officials and by naive, feckless fans that the referees are doing a honest job under difficult circumstances and that their decisions even out in the end. What a load of bollocks!
I focused on penalty decisions which are measureable and have a clear and decisive impact on results as an average of 80% of all penalties is scored. The unbiased data for the past 20 years is very clear; of all the top teams in the premier league Arsenal is the least favored team by premier league officials.
Liverpool is top of the charts with an average 5.45 penalties per season followed by Chelsea and Manchester United. Arsenal is the least averaging 4.85 penalties.
The data is even more staggering for the past 10 years. I have expanded the number of top teams to six (6) to include the “nouveau riche” Manchester City.
Compared to the previous 10 years the average number of penalties per season has increased by almost 50%, from 68.4 to 98.3. Clearly the referees are now having a more significant impact on the game by awarding one-half more penalties than prior years. Yet Arsenal remains in the lower reaches among top-teams at 5.4 penalties per season. Only North London rivals Tottenham are lower at 4.9. The most dramatic development is that the moneyed teams are getting more penalties in their favor led by the wealthy Chelsea, followed by City and United in that order. Surely this is a case of “follow-the-money” as would be the mantra of any unbiased investigation by law enforcement or any regulatory body.
What is not evident in the table above is gone are the days when a mid-table team, between 1997 and 2006, would be ranked first in penalties awarded, such as; Southampton (97/98), Middlesbrough (99/00), Newcastle (00/01, 01/02 and 03/04) and Crystal Palace (04/05). In the latter years the top-ranked team for penalties has been mostly City, followed by Chelsea and United. Arsenal was an exception in 05/06 and 06/07 and since then it has been downhill with one exception.
The most striking departure from the norm of the refs giving traditional big-teams most of the penalties was last season when Leicester was awarded an unprecedented 13, a record for the past 20 years. As I have observed on twitter this is a clear case of the officials choosing the PL winners and losers as Vardy in particular simply needed to wrap his foot round a defender and throw himself to the ground in the penalty area to earn the decision. As things now stand, the disparity is not as great as three teams are on top (Liverpool, City and Spurs) have all been granted six (6) penalties. Arsenal is close behind with five (5). No wonder the top-six is so closely bunched together, apart from Chelsea who are way out in front. Clearly if the refs award penalties in an unbiased fashion it will not give one team, i.e. Leicester last year, such a decisive advantage.
After last December’s game with City when Leroy Sane clearly scored an offside goal as evident on tv, a technological aid which is easily available to match officials if the powers that be would allow it, Arsene Wenger remarked:
“… as it is well known, the referees are protected very well like the lions in the zoo, so we have to live with those decisions.”
Maybe Arsene has to live with it because he as a manager cannot highlight the bias and disparity in officiating lest he be accused of bringing the game into disrepute. What excuse do we as fans have for not protesting the nonsense that currently prevails where widely-used technology is unavailable officials to help decide game changing decisions like penalties and offsides?
In Part II I will share with you the complementary data on the penalties against. Trust me, the data is equally as damning.