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.


  1. if you saw the match live and the replays.. you would know that Pepe's send off was incorrect.

  2. And Mr. Anonymous, I'm not sure what you're trying to prove, seeing as this post has plenty of freeze frames detailing the incident.

    In any case, this was a nice read. As a Barca fan, you probably could have gone more into the specific times that Barcelona players playacted though.

  3. *cough *cough

  4. Very informative, especially seeing through the objective POV of an experienced referee such as yourself, rather than through a fan of either team. Thank you.

  5. to Anonymous


    the card was not for contact but for a studs up and dangerous challenge

    seeing it in slow motion I would have given alves a yellow for simulation but the action occurred so fast that it would have been impossible to determine with the naked eye on the pitch.

    This is one of the drawbacks of no replays for the refs and is an aspect of football that you have to accept as a fan.

  6. also you should look at this video

    which gives a somewhat different view of the incident

  7. Studs up by Pepe, both players challeging to get the ball that wasn't under any of both players control. It's a yellow card at best.

  8. The 'Mourinho's expression tells us that he knows what's going on' type of comments add an element of bias in your article that makes more difficult to take it seriously.

  9. Really interesting and well informed piece. Looking forward to following your blog in the future.

    As for the Pepe tackle - look at his follow through after making initial contact with the ball. Instead of following its natural path, Pepe alters the direction of the follow through very slightly in order to follow Alves' leg and therefore make his mark on the player. Correct decision by Stark in my eyes.

  10. Nana said: Marca, the pro-Madrid based news paper asked their readers if Pepe's red card was correct using a poll.

    "In an online poll more than 72% of Marca's readers disagreed with Mourinho's comments that referees favoured Barcelona. (Some 78% felt Pepe's red card was correct.)"

    It has a daily readership of over 2,749,000, the highest in Spain for a daily newspaper, and more than half of sports readership.

  11. Funny how English commentators tried to justify the red card, influencing their watchers.

    While on the Spanish/Dutch/German tv they all called it a correct RED card

  12. Why do referees let these total knobs get away with this? Also, why do football refs lack balls, like their rugby counterparts have?
    Surely Pedro, and Busquets should have at least been cautioned (I reckon sent off would have been better) for trying to con the ref into getting an opponent sent off.
    For me this is now Barca´s plan B. If the pretty football doesn´t work because the other team always have 10 men behind the ball and are very well organised, they resort to trying to get opponents sent off to create the space.
    I have lost virtually all respect for Barca and have not had any repsect for Fifa/Uefa for allowing these scumbags to get away with this.
    They should be totally embarrassed.

  13. Selectively highlighting certain incidents isn't a good scientific method to evaluate whether a referee did well or not. You didn't really mention the Mascherano tackle on Pepe just minutes before did you? It was rather similar. Please go through absolutely every single decision made by the referee (i.e. every stoppage of play) and comment on it, or else you lack credibility. (I leave aside other issues since this is the first one that needs to be addressed before your analysis can be taken seriously)

  14. Anonymous cough cough, that's a well-known maipulated video.

    Mr. Refree, you forgot to mention that Stark should have shown a red card to Chendo after grabbing Pinto from the neck.

  15. Spot on - well, there are only two things I disagree with:

    1 - I think Pepe's challenge was more rash than cynical, he was going for the ball, and

    2 - Andy Townsend is not a nice guy, he's a prick.

    By the way, have you seen this? Which do you think is the real one? or

  16. 1) "going for the ball" or "got the ball first" does not automatically void a foul!!
    2) I agree w/ James...the unnatural angle of his foot is deliberate=serious foul play.
    3) I hated the dramatics by BOTH sides, many comments seem to accuse Barca but by silence absolve RM of simulation etc.

  17. I believe Pepe did intend to hurt Alves, or at least give him physical un-ease with a challenge straight at his ankle/shin area.

    as pointed out by you, his leg was locked in position and he braced for impact, which is necessary when attempting to collide with something much bigger than the football.

    Claims about Pepe not touching Alves I believe are false.

    firstly, I heard contact. I heard on live television the impact and Alves's shout immediately afterwards.

    Also, video editors and special effect designers have pointed out inconsistencies to the frames of the videos Madrid based press have released. They shortened Pepe's leg with editing to justify Pepe's innocence.

    At first I believed it, but after seeing a replay of the match, I realized that there was no way in which Alves could've thrown himself to the ground with one leg, in no position to balance himself or draw energy from the ground. His waist was turning the opposite direction. something else had to make him fall in that direction, and that something had to be Pepe's challenge.

    I believe that it was a mild touch,Pepe didn't sink his boot in Alves's leg.
    And Dani Alves could have been acting when he rolled around on the floor for a couple of seconds.

    but the intention was clearly there and that's what Stark dismissed pepe for. his intention for the challenge and the fact that he made contact with Dani Alves gave him the go to give Pepe the red.

  18. Thanks everyone for reading this post, and for the interesting comments.

    I'll start from where I finished by repeating this sentence: "Mourinho is his own worst enemy." To be clear, I support and advocate football matches to be fair, safe and enjoyable. Gamesmanship goes against these principles because it is a negative facet of football. Although Mourinho did not introduce gamesmanship to football (it has always been present, since the very beginning of competitive matches), his track record shows that he is a chief proponent of the "dark arts" and will not hesitate to tell his players to act in a certain way, if it will help gain any advantage for his team. For instance, this season alone we have seen how he has used his substitutes and assistant coaches to a) pass on messages verbally to his on-field players to intentionally gain yellow cards and send-offs (e.g. Alonso, Ramos in the Champions League final group match); b) influence ARs, 4th Officials and the Referee by immediately disputing and antagonizing them; and c) pass pieces of paper with written instructions to his on-field players.

    All this gamesmanship leads to ill-feeling and, sooner rather than later, other teams will decide to either reciprocate or retaliate. For example, we have seen retaliation in the form of playacting; which is a direct response to Mourinho's tough style of play linked with Coordinated and Sustained Referee Baiting. As a result, fans start complaining about all the tricks, theatrics and histrionics and also mistakenly vent their criticisms at match officials. All the match officials can do is to be aware of team tactics and apply the Laws consistently. They also need help and support from the FAs (UEFA, FIFA, FA, etc) that will protect them from all the unsporting behaviour and mind games which have come about mainly from the team tactics so favoured by Mourinho. For example, UEFA should take action against the substitutes seen disputing and influencing ARs (as highlighted in Incident Two). And as I said before, if other teams cannot beat such gamesmanship, they will join in and ultimately football (and football fans) will be the big losers. Is this what we want to see in football?

    Mourinho is his own worst enemy.

  19. HKRef,

    Great site. As a fellow ref, it is great to see a bit of informed debate on the subject. Too often the discourse devolves into partisan yelling, and opportunistic pontification by the Andy Townsends of the world.

    While I agree with your analysis of the individual decisions Stark made, I differ in my view of his overall performance.

    First of all, it must be said that it was an extremely difficult game to officiate. Both teams were looking for any excuse to vent three games' worth of pent-up frustration and outrage. This was outside of his control, but he did not do enough to reign it in.

    As a referee, one of your core responsibilities is to create an atmosphere of fair play. The way you do that is to earn the respect and trust of players. Players who trust that the referee will punish attempts to break the rules tend to stick to playing football. Referees who lose that trust (often referred to as: control of the game), see players lose control of their emotions and the game devolves into a spectacle where football is notable in its absence.

    Stark did not establish control of the game early enough and was overly lenient with early fouls and dives. Predictably, they escalated. This has been a consistent weakness in Stark's performances for years. In my opinion he relies on his stern appearance and refusal to be drawn into discussions of his decisions to avoid dealing with dissent. His common retreat from protesting players sends a message of weakness that players react to by pushing the boundaries of the law, in a correct assumption that he can be manipulated. He allows ill feelings to foster on both sides, and this shows in the evolution of the games he calls.

    This is not to demean the rest of his performance. He is a top class referee who excells in nearly all areas, but he is human, and this is one area where I believe he suffers.

    For all of the permissiveness of Undiano Mallenco, his superior game control allowed an equally heated Copa del Rey Final between these two teams to develop into an entertaining football match. There was no shortage of foul play or gamesmanship in that game either, but he kept the players more focused on playing than his German counterpart.

    I hope De Bleeckere has a better performance than Stark's. Nobody wants another spectacle like last week's.

  20. To all those saying Pepe's leg was at an 'unnatural angle' and that he 'meant to hurt Alves', I don't know where you're getting this from.

    What's unnatural about it? It's how you reach for things, stretching a limb out to its full extent. I'm not saying it wasn't dangerous, it was, and it probably deserved at least a yellow, but there's no proof it was deliberate. He did actually touch the ball first, so you can't exactly argue he wasn't going for it.