Saturday 13 November 2010

Webb’s Weak Woeful Week

Professional referee Howard Webb had a very busy week recently, officiating three highly competitive matches within days of each other. Despite what some people might say, referees are human—that is, to err is to referee—so it was not surprising that Webb would make some mistakes. However, what was surprising was some of the mistakes he made!

Note: Apologies for this rather long post (because of the pics). You can jump to the final few paragraphs for the summary (see The Big Decisions).

The three matches Webb officiated were:

AC Milan v Real Madrid (UEFA Champions League group match) on Wednesday 3 November 2010;

Liverpool v Chelsea (English Premier League) on Sunday 7 November 2010; and

Tottenham Hotspurs v Sunderland (EPL) on Tuesday 9 November 2010.

In the first match, there were lots of incidents involving playacting, mass confrontation, offsides and dangerous challenges. Here are some examples:

[Real Madrid's Ronaldo is held around his neck ... and then playacts just like Rivaldo (at the 2002 World Cup between Brazil and Turkey) but to no avail]

[Webb likes to use his physical presence to man-manage players]

[AC Milan's second goal was clearly offside. Inexplicably, the AR did not raise his flag to indicate offside. Understandably, Real Madrid felt hard done by.]

[Webb is positioned nearby during the sliding challenge from AC Milan's Prince-Boateng on Real Madrid's Di Maria]

[Webb cautions Prince-Boateng]

The surprise here (or perhaps, knowing that Webb shies away from giving send-offs especially during his exploits at the World Cup final, some might say this is expected) is that Webb did not think Prince-Boateng’s challenge was excessive, despite having a clear and near view. Excessive force does not always mean that a challenge has to be forceful or powerful and results in severe injury. A challenge that is deemed to be unfair and of “excessive force” depends crucially on the area of contact and the mode of contact. For example, use of bony forearms or elbows on the fleshy facial region does not require a strong force to be deemed “excessive”. Also, the SIAPOA criteria used as a guide by referees to help assess the severity of the challenge do not all have to be present for a referee to determine a send-off.

Prince-Boateng’s unfair challenge should have been a send-off due to the area of contact (ankle area), mode of contact (studs), and various SIAPOA criteria (such as speed, intent and aggression). Furthermore, Prince-Boateng even turns his back and lifts his feet to maximize the severity of his challenge on Di Maria.

The second match was actually a relatively smoother affair. Rather than mentioning the officiating, most news reports were waxing lyrical about Fernando Torres scoring two wonderful goals. Indeed, they were fantastic goals of the highest order.

[John Terry points his finger at and questions Howard Webb]

A refereeing incident to mention is what happened immediately prior to Torres’ second goal. Before Torres scored in the 44th minute, Webb played an advantage that obviously didn’t play out the way he wanted. It was for Chelsea’s Ashley Cole in his own half after Liverpool’s Lucas had fouled him. The advantage did not pay off (you can see the position and circumstances of Webb’s advantage here at this link). Webb clearly signals advantage, indicating that he saw the foul on Cole.

It was a difficult advantage to give because Ashley Cole, being left footed, was running into the centre of the pitch from the left side with at least three Liverpool players closing him down and team-mate Drogba getting in his way. Therefore Cole’s opportunity to put the ball into an advantageous attacking position were severely limited. Subsequently, Cole lost the ball because he was quickly closed down (and probably couldn’t kick the ball effectively with his right foot into an advantageous position).

In such scenarios, it would have been better for the referee to whistle and award a free kick to the defending team. As it turned out, the advantage actually turned into a huge disadvantage because Liverpool scored from a situation that was supposed to have favoured Chelsea the defending team.

In the third match, there were again mistakes with news reports highlighting incidents such as a handball before Rafael van der Vaart’s goal for Spurs, a penalty shout for Spurs that was seen as simulation, and a meaty challenge between Lee Cattermole and Luka Modric. Perhaps the fatigue of travelling and officiating three highly-competitive matches within a week affected Webb?

Here, I will comment on the challenge between Sunderland captain Lee Cattermole and Spurs midfielder Luka Modric in the 69th minute. Various news reports (e.g. here and here) have played up this incident, saying that Cattermole should have been sent off. Modric and Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp believed Cattermole intended to injure because he “went over the ball”. Here are the freeze frames:

[Cattermole (red) challenges for the ball, and the impact forces his right foot to bounce up and into Modric (white)]

[Webb has a clear and near view of the challenge]

This is a fair 50-50 challenge for the ball between two players. Both Cattermole and Modric had every intention of playing the ball. Because Cattermole had fully committed to the challenge (this is the type of player he is; no half measures), his right foot bounces off the ball and up into Modric's left lower leg.

Many people do not realize that referees are not trained to assess the consequences of a challenge to determine the nature and severity of the tackle. It seems Modric, Redknapp and others only consider the consequences (their faulty logic being: if someone suffers a bad injury or broken leg, then it must have been a bad tackle deserving a send-off!
). Nevermind the fact that Cattermole and Modric actually both played the ball fairly in a 50-50 challenge.

Just compare this to a 50-50 challenge where one player does not intend to play the ball, but rather intends to injure his opponent. This is a crucial distinction in 50-50 challenges.

[Webb again uses his physical presence]

[Webb cautions Cattermole for a "reckless" challenge]

Webb subsequently cautioned Cattermole, but it can even be argued that no caution was necessary. It was not a mandatory caution. For comparison, remember just 6 days earlier Webb cautioned Prince-Boateng for an unfair, studs up, back turned, sliding body challenge direct into Di Maria … and now he also cautions Cattermole for his fair 50-50 challenge with Modric. A question of consistency arises here for Howard Webb because these two yellow cards were awarded for two very different challenges: one challenge being worthy of a red card, and one challenge not necessarily worthy of any sanction except possibly a free kick.

The Big Decisions

Q: Does Howard Webb appear to get the big decisions correct most of the time?

Let's start by saying it is laughable that Graham Poll compares Howard Webb with the universally respected Pierluigi Collina. Poll suggests their “hands-on approach to officiating” is what makes them similar. If that’s the case, then any number of referees who take a “hands-on approach to officiating” can be said to be like Collina! One might as well say that any bald-headed referee is similar to Collina. That is, Poll should not bother making such superficial comparisons.

What sets Webb apart from Collina is the former’s poor ability to make “Big decisions”. Webb is a good, competent referee; no doubt about it. Plus, he appears to be a great, down-to-earth guy who can hold his own in media interviews. He’s also from Yorkshire, has a good sense of humour (I would think) and is approachable! However, professional referees are paid and trained to get the “Big decisions” correct.

Whether he likes it or not, Webb will forever be remembered for his “painful” performance at the 2010 World Cup Final, and therefore whenever he shies away from the “Big decisions”, observers (like HKRef) will likely take notice.

It has been publicized that sports psychologist Professor Ian Maynard from the Centre of Sport and Exercise Science at Sheffield Hallam University has worked with Webb for more than five years on his mental strength. Maynard said: “[Webb] doesn't hide when a decision needs to be made. That's why he has got the [World Cup] final.”

In hindsight, the headline “Howard Webb not afraid to send off World Cup superstars” was completely regrettable. When it comes to his fair share of “Big decisions”, Webb still has a problem with making a good percentage of them.

On some sites and forums, Howard Webb has even been labelled “Coward Webb”. This is harsh and IMHO disrespectful and completely wrong. A referee who has reached the highest level (and even the pinnacle of officiating by being appointed to a World Cup Final) can never be called a coward. A coward by definition is someone “who shows disgraceful fear or timidity”. Let’s be clear, Howard is no coward. He deserves recognition for his achievements as a referee.

However, it would not be dishonest or disrespectful to say that Webb does appear to get a fair proportion of his “Big decisions” wrong. And by having a sports psychologist proclaiming that Webb does not have a problem with making big decisions—when it seems that he does have a problem—then unfortunately, that is the yardstick by which Webb is measured. Does Howard Webb generally get the Big decisions right?

A: From the evidence of these three matches this week (along with the background and recent history of Webb's exploits), it would appear not.

Finally, in the words of the great Collina himself: “The best referee is one who has the courage to make decisions even when it would be easier not to.”


  1. Hi HKRef. I enjoyed reading your blog and you have good analysis on refereeing. This is a great article. I agree with your opinion about the incidents in all but not the last match. In my opinion, Cattermole's challenge was worthy of a sent-off due to serious foul play. He was so committed that he jumped in the air and made the tackle with excessive force. He must be responsible for his "commitment" if he failed to win the ball cleanly. In this case, he obviously failed to win the ball cleanly. His tackle went straight into and through Modric. And the bottom of his boot made contact just below Modric's knee. The fact that he got to the ball first would not matter because he failed to control his body and put Modric into a dangerous situation.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Once again. I highly appreciate your work here. Keep it up.

  2. You have made a thoughtful and very thorough post, good job.

    However, I must disagree with you on the Cattermole challenge. He is off the floor with his studs up, and for me he is endangering Modric with the challenge.

  3. Even though i agree with you in most of the points raised, i totally disagree with you in the case of Cattermole's tacle on Modric.

    You are right to point out that he went after the ball. But the point is that he used his studs up and the challenge was at least irresponsible if not dangerous to the opposite player. Thus, it must have been at least yellow card if not straight red.

    It doesn't matter if there was a ball if not. It's the same case as Flamini's tacle on Corluca.