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Arsenal: Why Wenger Is Wrong to Complain About the Referee in the Fulham Loss

H AndelAnalyst IIIJanuary 4, 2012

Arsenal: Why Wenger Is Wrong to Complain About the Referee in the Fulham Loss

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    Arsene Wenger could not hide his frustration towards referee Lee Probert, who reduced Arsenal to 10 men in the 78th minute of the Fulham-Arsenal match, the first for both team in the new year.

    Fulham scored two goals after the dismissal of the Arsenal defender, a factor that Wenger feels affected the outcome of the match. In a reaction tinged with frustration, Wenger spoke out against Probert after the match. Mirror Football quickly reported Wenger as saying the following:

    All the important decisions went against us—the penalty not given on Gervinho, the first yellow card was not a yellow, the second was a foul for us. They tried to get him [Djourou] the second yellow.

     As the Arsenal boss reflected on the implication of the loss to Fulham, he continued.

    It’s difficult to lose a game like that because I felt all the important decisions today went against us.

    And the moment you get the first yellow card they tried every time to get him the second yellow, and the referee was naive enough to give it.

    I saw it coming because of the game when Frei came looking for the second yellow card on Djourou and in the end he got it.

    I tell you the game I’ve seen; I don’t care about the rest.

    The ref influenced the game in completely the wrong way in my opinion, and we cannot influence that.

    Naturally, the Fulham manager, Martin Jol, disagreed.

    Maybe he could accuse me of trying to do something, but I don’t think players can do that. He (Djourou) probably could have had a second booking before that to be fair.

    Wenger, though, feels frustrated by a number of decisions that haven't gone Arsenal's way in recent games. After the incidents in the Fulham game, he couldn't contain the frustration any longer.

    We had a penalty in the last game that was a clear handball, a penalty at Man City and a penalty at Villa Park, but we didn’t get them. You should not ask me what do we have to do to get one. I don’t know.

    There was too much at stake today, and we needed absolutely everything to go for us and to be right. We are guilty because we still gave two stupid goals away. I felt it was a stupid way and we didn’t take our chances.

    It was a massive missed opportunity. We have consistent problems to face and we do it with heart, and it’s very difficult defeat to swallow the defeat as I feel it wasn’t deserved.

    There will be many who agree with Wenger. For example, Charlie Melman, an Arsenal fan and B/R columnist writes:

    Arsenal were denied a clear penalty when our old pal, Philippe Senderos, tripped Gervinho in the box, countless free kicks were not given and in one instance, John Arne Riise actually pushed Johan Djourou off the pitch with both hands in order to win a ball back.

    And this happens in almost every game.

    But the biggest decision that went against Arsenal was Djourou's second yellow card, which was given after the Swiss barely put his hand on Bobby Zamora, causing the latter to tumble to the ground like he had been shot.

    Arsenal are good, but when the other team constantly gets the help of the officials, it's like playing against a team with 14 or 15 men—in other words, completely unfair.

    On the other end of the spectrum, John Hartson, a former Arsenal striker blames Arsenal's indiscipline for Djourou's red card and lambasts Wenger for blaming the referee in an interview with Talksport.

    People are sick of it. You want Wenger to come out and say, ‘Look, my players were ill-disciplined.’

    Over the years at Arsenal, the discipline has been woeful under Wenger. You want him to take it [the blame] on the chin.We all know Arsenal should have won the game, they go 1-0 up but that’s a dangerous score line, they needed that second goal.

    Fulham are always thinking, one more goal and we’re back in this. I’m getting sick of excuses [from Wenger]. I don’t know how you can defend his comments really.

    I genuinely feel Djourou deserved to get sent off.The first tackle on Dembele was a definite booking, and a rash referee could have sent him off.

    Then he gets away with another one on Frei that could have been a booking and then the third one on Zamora. Zamora's a very clever player and if you’re clean through and then pulled back, clever players go down.

    You’ve seen Arsenal players like Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robert Pires all go down under Wenger. This is was what clever players do. If they are touched, if they’ve felt a little bit on the shoulder, they go down. It’s not cheating, it’s clever.

    However you may react to the two opinions given here—the typical whine of an Arsenal fan or the rant of an angry, erstwhile Gunner who attacks his own rather than blaming someone else for the team's travails—what is clear immediately is the subject's contentious nature.

    It is one of the reasons I believe Wenger is wrong in complaining about the referee however aggrieved he felt about Lee Probert's performance. 

    I give six other reasons in the following slides.

Complaining About Referees Is Futile and Dangerous

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    Everton 1, Arsenal 0 was the scoreline at half-time on Tuesday, February 01, 2011 when the two teams met at the Emirates. Everton's goal came about in a controversial manner, scored as it was from an offside position by Louis Saha.

    Wenger and the Arsenal players were understandably unhappy with the result. Arsenal rallied in the second half to win the match.

    Unpalatable news emerged, however, from the press conference after the match at which David Moyes, Everton's manager, accused Arsenal's captain, Cesc Fabregas, of making unsavory comments to referee Lee Mason. The Guardian carried the report.

    Moyes claimed Fábregas had said something 'disgusting' about the match officials at half-time on Tuesday, as the midfielder raged about how the referee, Lee Mason, could have allowed Louis Saha's 24th minute goal to stand, despite claims of offside. According to sources in the tunnel, Fábregas shouted, 'How much have you been paid?' as he walked towards the dressing room. Moyes said that Fábregas should have been sent off for the slur.

    As would be expected, Wenger leapt to the defense of his captain, accusing Moyes of breaking "the unwritten code of managerial conduct."

    I believe it is wrong for Moyes to come out on what he pretends to have heard in the tunnel. If I come out with what I have heard in the tunnel in the last 10 years, you would be amazed. There is a rule in our job to never come out with what is said in the heat of the moment. That is usually respected by everybody.

    Look at the facts. On what kind of accusation do you go against Cesc? The officials say nothing happened. I say nothing happened, and I was next to the referee, and just because a statement comes out [from Moyes] which doesn't even say what Cesc is supposed to have said, you have to create a whole fuss about that.

    Here is the reason why I recount this episode.

    In the very next match—the infamous collapse at Newcastle where Arsenal threw away a four-goal lead—referee Phil Dowd awarded two dodgy penalties to Newcastle.

    While an argument can be made for the first of the two, even Dowd himself could not defend the second were he forced to do so. It was a completely baffling decision.

    Surprisingly, Wenger did not openly complain about the officiating in this match. I suspect that he realized, as I did, that Dowd had been out to punish Wenger and Arsenal for the hearsay about referee Lee Mason and his assistant, Kevin Wright.

    Lee Mason officiates in a Westbrom-Arsenal match, September 22, 2009.

    Wenger has not, since then, openly criticized a Premier League referee. I have suspected all along that the Mason-Dowd incidents have had a lot to do with this.

    Until Fulham.

    If I am right in making this deduction and conclusion (and I'm open to hearing what readers say about this), then why start the cycle all over again?

    The episode I've recounted shows clearly that complaining about referees rarely helps the team. If anything, it makes enemies of referees. Surely, you don't want to make enemies of the referees.

    Let me quote extensively from The Secret Footballer, a former football player who writes anonymously for The Guardian.

    I once won a free kick playing at Old Trafford, and a Manchester United player brought the ball over to the spot where it was to be taken from and handed it to the referee. As I was getting up the player said, 'You've given us fuck all today, like all the other refs that come here.' I looked at the referee and burst out laughing, and the referee joined in. There is goading the ref into giving you a decision and then there is taking the piss.

    What that anecdote shows, though, is that referees are human. And human beings can be emotionally bribed. Knowing this and acting on it is, I'm afraid to say, a massive part of the game, and it has often been the difference between my team's winning and losing. In a nutshell, that is the 'justification' for shouting in the referee's face, waving your finger at him, lambasting him every time he gives something against you and jogging past him and 'getting in his ear.'

    I don't overly like it and I'm uncomfortable doing it, but I would go so far as to say that it is deemed vital within the game and because of that it is going to be extremely difficult for anybody to stop it. The experts in this field are so good at it that the referees almost fail to notice that the banter that they're laughing at is all part of the con.

    What follows this extensive quote is eye-opening.

    It was many years ago that I came to realise that making a referee laugh increased my chances of getting a free kick to go in my favour shortly after.

    In other words, antagonizing a referee isn't going to help your cause the next time you come up against him or his referee buddy. It's in light of this that I believe blaming the referee as Wenger has done in this case is ill-advised.

    If my deduction about the Everton match and Newcastle punishment is correct, it only makes my case more compelling. Wenger—no matter how right or correct he is about the disputed decisions—should have swallowed them and moved on...for the sake of tomorrow. Besides, complaining changes nothing.

Complaining About Referees Is Often Hypocritical

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    Wenger claims:

    When Djourou got the first yellow, every time they went down to get him the second yellow. He did nothing at all. I saw it coming because when Frei came on the game was all [about] looking for the second yellow card for Djourou. The referee was naive enough to give it. We played many games recently, and we knew that if we dropped our level we would be in trouble. But we would not have been in trouble if we had stayed with 11 on the pitch.

    Again, here's Martin Jol's response.

    Maybe he could accuse me of trying to do something, but I don't think the players can do that. The only thing I did was put Frei on the flank, and he is an exciting player. He went one-versus-one all the time and that was probably the problem for Djourou. He probably could have had a second booking before he got it, to be fair.

    Wenger may well be right about Fulham's manager and his players strategically targeting Djourou, but then, isn't that part of the game?

    In my preview of the match, I identified this targeting as a possibility because neither of the players I thought would play as full-backs are comfortable in the position.

    I also noted that both positions have been targeted in previous Arsenal matches. Any clever manager would do that. Wenger should have planned his strategies in full recognition that his opponent would try to exploit these positions.

    When he took off Walcott, this further exposed Djourou. Walcott is a deterrence to wingers and full-backs because they know he can break loose at any time. His mere presence on the pitch can be a defensive strategy even when he doesn't play particularly well.

    But here's a more relevant point. Wolves players accused Arsenal players of causing the dismissal of Nenad Milijas in the match involving the two teams, and their manager concurred.  Wolves' midfielder, Stephen Hunt was outspoken about this.

    The Milijas red card was harsh, it was more [of a tackle] with one leg. Players are clever, and the reactions sometimes do not help the referee. Everyone does it now. We should maybe be better at it. We have been done in the past, like with Woodgate. We should have been surrounding the referee to get him sent off. Every team does it...we don't do it and we get punished. Maybe we should start doing it. 

    In the Aston Villa match, Alex McLeish, although guarded in his choice of words, implied that Alan Hutton's dismissal from the match for two bookable offenses was strategically induced by Robin Van Persie.

    It is vital players don't get yellow cards and red cards, and it is a shame we lose Alan Hutton who had a terrific game.

    It was disappointing the way it happened. He is a mature kid who had played for Rangers, Tottenham, Scotland and Villa.

    He has got to walk away from that. It appeared to be the red mist.

    Van Persie fouled him first before the flare-up in the middle of the pitch. The ref didn't see it, he can't see everything, and Alan has just got to walk away.

    One can dig up other instances where Arsenal players have been accused of conniving to get players sent off.

    What this highlights is that insinuations about an opponent getting a player sent off are not a one-way street. It is a fault that all of the teams may be guilty of, so why complain when you become the victim of the practice?

    But here's my larger point: Managers gladly accept decisions that come their way, but trumpet their complaints against those that don't.

    If it ended there, one could live with the hypocrisy. It doesn't.

    When a controversial decision favors them, managers spend the entire week justifying the decision. Then the next week comes, and the decision is unfavorable. And now they whine and whine and whine.

    In light of this, Wenger should have kept quiet about Lee Probert's decisions.

Referees Are Sacred Cows Who Don't Answer to Managers

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    This point relates to my first. Referees are sacred cows. You can't slaughter one without severe consequences.

    Recall this incident.

    It is the 59th minute of a match that Arsenal are winning on aggregate. Robin Van Persie receives a pass on an offside position.

    The referee blows his whistle, but Van Persies kicks the ball a second or so later. Referee Massimo Busacca brandishes a second yellow and then a red, and Van Persie is off. Three minutes later Barcelona score their equalizing goal and then go on to win the match in the 71st minute.

    Arsene Wenger complains bitterly about Van Persie's dismissal after the match and then pays for it later with a two-match ban that eventually becomes three. 

    Here is what he said after the match.

    It's not a surprise the referee didn't book a single Barcelona player. I just spoke to UEFA people.

    They are shocked as well. He killed a promising, fantastic football match. What for? If it's a bad tackle it's a second bookable offence, but the way he did it is embarrassing if you love the game.

    The three-match ban was a steep price to pay, considering the fact that Arsenal very badly needed their manager on the touch line in the early Champions League matches of the season.

    By all accounts, Wenger was right about the referee's decision, but complaining only made the matter worse.

The Press Goad Then Ridicule

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    After the Barcelona match, the referee's decision became a talking point. The New York Times, CNN, Yahoo Sports, Huffington Post and myriad others all carried columns written on the incident. The British press was understandably supportive of Wenger and never failed to pose the Busacca question in the following days.

    It was not long, however, that the press turned the situation into ridicule. They started observing that Arsenal didn't even have a single shot on goal in the Barça match, how then did they hope to win the match? Here's a typical report.

    Arsene Wenger came out fighting last night with an astonishing verbal attack on UEFA and a ferocious defence of his tactics in Barcelona.

    Wenger branded European football’s governing body ‘a dictatorship’ and accused them of ‘arrogance’ in their reaction to Arsenal’s defeat in the Nou Camp.

    He even suggested they might apologise for mistakes made by referee Massimo Busacca and pledged to defend himself against UEFA charges of improper conduct levelled at him and midfielder Samir Nasri for allegations they hurled X-rated comments at the Swiss official.

    The Arsenal manager hinted yesterday Busacca had made fairly contentious and aggressive remarks of his own as the pair engaged in two arguments in the aftermath of Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat by Barça, which put the Gunners out of the Champions League.

    Notice the description "astonishing verbal attack." But realize that Wenger's statement came about in response to questions from the press.

    Now compare this with the Fulham incident and you see an identical reaction from the press. First they ask the referee question—whether a manager feels undone by a referee's decision. After the manager responds in the spirit of the question, the press follows this up with a hostile article that ridicules the manager.

    One can point to many instances where this is true of Wenger. It's hardly an amusing situation for any Wenger fan, which is why it's best for him to keep quiet about referees and stop giving the press chances to ridicule him.

    For the press, every match Arsenal fails to win is a falling apart. No, you cannot deny them that narrative by pointing to other factors, such as incompetent refereeing. If you do, they'll have you pay for it. They hold the knife and the yam, as a certain proverb goes.

The Press Is Biased

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    Sir Alex Ferguson complains about referees all the time, but how many times does he get ridiculed by the press? I'm open to correction if I'm wrong on this.

    Yes, he gets fined from time to time by the FA, but the narrative the press construct of such incidents are not as damning or ridiculing as those they weave routinely about Wenger.

    And now the new complaining kid on the block is Neil Warnock. Here he is fuming at a match official.

    Here's one sports writer's reaction to Warnock:

    The delightful Warnock appears to have found a loophole in the rules regarding criticism of refs.

    Rather than accuse the match officials of incompetence, he expresses mock sympathy for them while labelling opposition players as cheats.

    His reaction to Joey Barton's red card against Norwich amounted to nothing less than a character assassination of Bradley Johnson.

    Now see him talk about Van Persie after the QPR match.

    'I wish I could educate referees,' Warnock says of Van Persie, and he did. In the Fulham match, Van Persie was fouled all over the place and never got a decision, so who can blame Wenger for complaining? Except that there's no use in doing so.

    Warnock complains about referees all the time, but how many stories have you read about this in the major newspapers?

    André Villas-Boas does the same, and he's all over the sports pages. SAF does so; hardly a story. Warnock rants; not a pip. Wenger? "The Frenchman is losing it!"

    The English Premier League is home to many foreigners and that adds to its color and depth, but sometimes there seems to be a tiny bit of favoritism shown in the way the media treats the diverse actors that crowd the stage of this veritable league.

    I could be wrong.

    If I'm right, then Wenger should perhaps clamp down on the complaining since he finds little sympathy from the press, who could help pressure referees into making better and fairer decisions.

Refereeing Issues Are Highly Subjective

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    In the picture above, QPR players help the referee send off Juan Mata. Here are Chelsea players, crowding the referee in another match.

    You can find similar pictures of any and every Premier League team. The accusation about pressuring the referee can fly hither and thither.

    What is constant is that fans, players and managers hardly ever admit that any decision their side receives is subjective.  It's always right until they're the ones at the wrong end of the decision.

    This, of course, makes such situations highly charged and sensitive.

    If you can hardly get objective opinion on such matters, what's the use of complaining about them? The press, who could help, often feign dispassionate distance when the incident does not fit one on their meta narratives. So, to whom then do you complain?

    You cannot appeal to the FA, neither can you get any explanation from the referees themselves. So again, why complain? 

    In light of such subjectivity and hypocrisy, it would therefore be better for Wenger to hold his peace.

    I should, however, remind the reader that when I say "subjective," I do not mean that managers don't have legitimate complaints from the time to time. They do. See the data from debatable decisions

    The table shows the teams and decisions that went for or against them. See how low the top teams sit on the table.

    If you find yourself disagreeing with the data, then you simply make my point.

    I hope to hear the readers' thoughts on this subject.

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