Why Must We Have What Ifs And Buts

Would we have qualified for the 1/4 finals of the Champions League last night had the referee not shown Robin Van Persie a red card for kicking the ball at the goal?

What a shame that no-one will ever know.

Whilst pretty much everyone agrees that we were beaten by a better team last night, the fact remains that at the time RVP was sent off we were leading the tie and were beginning to threaten Barcelona in midfield. If the crime deserved the punishment, you wouldn’t find many Arsenal fans indulging in any abuse of the referee this morning, but every blog and news article I’ve read is saying the same thing – the referee ruined the game.

There’s really no need to argue about whether the decision was right or wrong. Of course it was wrong. The way in which Van Persie protested lent a huge amount of credibility to his argument that he didn’t hear the whistle which would seem to be the most likely explanation. Even if he had heard the whistle and deliberately blazed his shot wide of the goal, this is hardly the sort of thing that is met with yellow cards in any other match so why this one?

The rule that exists in order to prevent players from petulantly kicking or throwing the ball away essentially comes under the heading of “unsporting behaviour”. Everyone knows what it looks like when players break this rule. There are two categories. One is where a player has been penalised for an offence which he believes he is not guilty of and either kicks a (usually fairly stationary) ball a long distance in anger or throws the ball into ground in disgust – the other is when a decision is given whilst a player whose team is in a winning position in the game is in possession, at which point he plays the ball deliberately away from the location of the incident in order to waste some time. There were 35 minutes to go – was Robin Van Persie really wasting time?

The role of the referee in any sport is not simply to enforce the rules as set out in that sport’s official rule book – it is to manage the game in an appropriate way. In football it is quite common to see challenges go unpunished which, during fractious periods of play, would receive a yellow card. The referee is supposed to use his judgement and discretion and use the rules to control the way in which the game is played. Most of the time, this happens in the manner intended. But every so often we see a referee who gets it all wrong and this last week or two has seen several such incidents.

In my last post, I referred to Mark Clattenburg’s ridiculous award of a penalty for a challenge in the penalty by Blackburn’s Grant Hanley – the challenge, seen in isolation, was a foul. But to give penalties for such things is clearly incorrect, unless they are happening repeatedly. Assuming the referee didn’t believe Van Persie’s defence that he couldn’t hear the whistle, his decision to book him seems to me to be totally out of line with how the game was going and as such, was unnecessary. Had it been 5 minutes from time, it may well have been justified. This is what is meant by managing the game.

As a result, the whole of the football world (and most of the non-football world, judging by the numbers of people in the pub last night!) is forced to resort to pointless speculation as to whether we would have qualified had our only striker not been sent off. Seeing as we had, until that point (and beyond) not had a single shot on target, it would seem sensible to come to the conclusion that we would have lost anyway. But the point is that without the referee’s intervention, who knows what would have happened? We’ve all seen games that completely change their nature at some point.

For what it’s worth, I think that we were lulled into playing too slowly for our own good last night by a very cagey start from the home side. They passed at a snails pace and we were happy to let them for the most part, as we were already ahead in the tie. When we eventually got the ball, not only was our passing too slow and inaccurate, they snapped into the tackle and made space tight for us, meaning that we rarely kept possession for more than 2 or 3 passes.

Nicklas Bendtner should have done better when he had the chance late on but if you look at all the chances that were missed by much more respected players at the other end, it is hard to put all the blame on him. Jack Wilshere and Johann Djourou aside, I think the team let Barcelona dictate the game from start to finish and that was never going to reap rewards for us.

On a final note, I must give credit to Manuel Almunia for an outstanding display. When Szczesny saved Alves’ free kick, injuring his finger and Manuel was shown ready to come on, the outpouring of grief and disappointment in the pub I was in was louder and more disappointed than it would have been had Wenger decided to put himself between the sticks – but he did very well, made the right decisions and kept us in it.

It’s going to take a lot to get the team up for the challenges ahead this season now, especially if we fail to get anything at Old Trafford on Saturday. Being knocked out of 3 out of 4 competitions in 2 weeks is not something I am confident that we have the mental strength for but I guess we’ll find out in West Bromwich on 19th March.