Thursday 28 April 2011

Referees In Tune With Team Tactics

Referee Wolfgang Stark (Germany) did an excellent job during the Champions League semi-final first-leg match between Real Madrid and Barcelona on Wednesday 27 April 2011.

He was in tune with the team tactics of both sides, and because of his experience, attitude, calmness and preparation, was able to manage the match as best as could be expected. Where we have previously seen other referees attempting to talk to players instead of handing out cards (e.g. Howard Webb at the 2010 WC Final; Yuichi Nishimura at various matches; etc) Stark did not shy away from making tough decisions during this bad-natured El Clásico match.

Here are some selected incidents with freeze frames. For the SUMMARY, please skip to the end of this long post.

Incident One Off-the-ball Incident: Bodycheck

The R is naturally focused on play, with Real Madrid's Mesut Ozil in the process of fouling Barcelona's Dani Alves. As the whistle is blown, a fallen Barcelona player (Pedro) comes into frame. Not many people saw what happened to Pedro but the ill-feeling between the two teams gathered momentum as the sense of gamesmanship and injustice increased. This incident occurred in the 40th minute.

Mourinho's expression tells us that he knows what's going on

Referee Wolfgang Stark remains calm and stands his ground

Real Madrid #17 (Arbeloa) bodychecks Barcelona #17 (Pedro) as Pedro tries to get into an attacking position. The Referee is focused on the tussle behind Pedro, between Ozil and Alves.

In the end, the R received assistance (from whom? Presumably the 4th Official, who had the best view amongst all match officials) and cautioned Real Madrid's Álvaro Arbeloa in the 40th minute.

Incident Two Off-the-ball Incident: Psychological Pressure

The AR did his job in correctly ruling Real Madrid midfielder Mesut Ozil offside, following Ronaldo's shot that rebounded from the Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes.

However, notice how quickly a Real Madrid substitute is immediately in the face of the AR and complaining about the decision. This is obviously part of Mourinho's game plan.

NOTE: UEFA and other FAs should prevent teams from interfering and influencing match officials. Substitutes who need to warm up should only do so behind the goal-line and not be allowed to talk with and influence match officials.

Incident Three Half-time Scuffle

At half-time, when the players were walking off the pitch Barcelona #15 (Keita) was trying to physically engage with Real Madrid #17 (Arbeloa) about the bodycheck incident on his team-mate Pedro. The 4th Official does an excellent job in preventing this, but can do very little about Barcelona substitute goalkeeper José Pinto getting in Arbeloa's way.

Referee Stark was correct to award a red card to Pinto (substitute in purple, with cornrows/dreadlocks)

Incident Four Ronaldo Foul Outside Box

Real Madrid #7 Cristiano Ronaldo jumps up to head the ball from inside the D. He is fouled in the back by a Barcelona player. A free kick is not given.

Due to the new positioning principles caused by EARs, Referee Stark did not have the correct angle of view to spot the foul. It can be argued that the EAR should have seen the foul but, as seen in this blog, EARs are ineffective and Referees tend not to seek their assistance.
[Note: look out for a future post on positioning]

Incident Five Studs-up Challenge

Immediately following incident four, Real Madrid #3 Pepe loses control of the ball and makes a studs-up challenge over the ball against Barcelona #2 Dani Alves. Barcelona players immediately surround Referee Stark and apply psychological pressure.

Referee Stark remains calm and sends off Pepe

Although Stark did not have the best angle of view of the challenge, it is likely that he received assistance in this major decision. The 4th Official was perhaps in the best position to offer advice.

Also, perhaps some additional cautions would have been justified considering how many players surrounded the Referee. At the very least, Barcelona goalkeeper Valdes should have been cautioned.

Mourinho's face says it all

If Mourinho told his players to tackle hard, press quickly and not give any space to his opponents to prevent them from playing football, what can he expect the consequences to be?

Pepe's challenge was cynical. Notice the straight leg, locked at the knee and ankle.

Also galling is the commentary by Andy Townsend, a former EPL player and all-round nice bloke. Townsend, like everyone else watching on the TV, had the benefit of slow-motion replays but still could not see any fault in Pepe's challenge. Here's what he said:
It's the sort of ball that Pepe is entitled to go for. He rides out of one challenge and then the ball is loose and running towards Dani Alves.

As soon as Pepe made that challenge, Puyol and 7 or 8 Barcelona players sprinted directly at the referee.

See, I don't think that ... honestly that's a really poor decision, I really do. He's come out of one challenge, yes the foot is up, but the intent there is to play the ball. Sorry, the referee has got that one wrong. It's high, it may appear from the angle that he was at very dangerous, but it's a committed challenge, I'm afraid.

Sorry Andy, nice bloke that you are, I'm afraid we don't know what Pepe's intent was (we can't read his mind). However from Pepe's actions, we can say that there is a good chance that it was cynical. Pepe endangered the safety of his opponent, and considering the nature of the challenge and the atmosphere of the match, a red card was appropriate.

Here are some other "committed challenges" for Andy and others to ponder (see cynical challenges).

Incident Six Respect the Referees

Mourinho shows his disdain and lack of respect to match officials

Mourinho is correctly sent away from the technical area and banished to the stands

Match Officials
Referee Wolfgang Stark (GER)
Assistant referees
Jan-Hendrik Salver (GER), Mike Pickel (GER)
Fourth official
Thorsten Kinhöfer (GER)
Additional assistant referees (EARs)
Babak Rafati (GER), Tobias Welz (GER)

When the match officials know that the team tactics is to use as much tricks, theatrics and histrionics as possible to gain the tiniest advantage, they know they cannot relax, not even for a split second.

José Mourinho has gained a reputation for being an astute and highly-successful coach. He has many dimensions to his talents and attributes (i.e. he is not just a brilliant football tactician) and has considered all aspects of the game that could conceivably play a role in handing the tiniest advantages to his team. From a Referee's POV and IMHO, Mourinho has sought to gain advantages from exploiting match officials and perhaps earnestly started the trend of Coordinated and Sustained Referee Baiting on a large scale. As soon as a referee makes a decision against Mourinho's teams, you can be sure that his players have been instructed to apply psychological pressure on the referee, to increase doubt and minimize or lessen the impact of decisions made against them. It is a tactic that even his former players and other teams are well aware of and often exploit.

Mourinho has a track record in this. In terms of footballing skills and technique, his teams (through no fault of his own making) are usually inferior. Think Mourinho's Porto (vs Manchester United), Chelsea (vs Arsenal), Inter Milan (vs Barcelona) and Real Madrid (vs Barcelona). In those circumstances Mourinho's teams are not known for possession football against the better footballing sides, so the obvious tactic is for him to make sure that his teams are robust, solid and a strong unit. They have to work hard, press quickly and challenge tough. This usually results in lots of fouls and cautions (and sometimes send-offs), which is why it is important to apply psychological pressure to match officials. This has now become Mourinho's tried and tested team tactic.

Now, other teams are aware of this. And, as the saying goes, if you can't beat them join them. This is exactly what Barcelona did. Even though Barcelona are the superior footballing team (in terms of skills and technique), at the highest levels this is simply not enough to win matches especially if the other team are constantly locked in gamesmanship. A great recent example is the 2010 WC Final between the Netherlands and Spain, where the team tactics of the Netherlands left much to be desired. Therefore, both Barcelona and Real Madrid knew what the other team's tactics were and instead of focusing on playing football, they sought to gain the tiniest advantage from the referee by using as many tricks, theatrics and histrionics as possible.

The only glimmer of light was Referee Wolfgang Stark's big decision in sending off Pepe in the 61st minute. Despite the huge pressure Stark was under, he used his experience, calm resolve and the help of his team to make the correct decision. Following that, two gems of footballing skill and technique were seen when Barcelona's Lionel Messi scored two great goals in the 76th and 87th minutes. Stark and his team were in tune with team tactics and managed the match accordingly.

José Mourinho had a lot to say about the match officials (see BBC Sport, Guardian, Telegraph and Daily Mail, among others), and it would not be surprising to see UEFA take action against him and his disrespectful remarks about referees.
But even before his post-match comments, Mourinho's team tactics already reveal a lack of respect for match officials. There is little doubt that Mourinho does not believe in respecting referees; he only believes in exploiting them. Mourinho is his own worst enemy.