Are referees gifting the EPL to big clubs?
John Terry's initial reaction on Sunday was all anyone needed in order to know what really happened. After egregiously taking out three Tottenham players by launching into them at the goal line, he turned his head to look back over the pile of bodies he created, then leaned back on his elbows as if disappointed that his handiwork had failed to produce a goal.
Then Martin Atkinson pointed to the center circle and ruined (for neutrals) a nicely poised FA Cup semifinal. That's the same Atkinson who, the previous weekend, failed to send off Mario Balotelli for trying to turn Alex Song's leg into some sort of perforated and hinged device.
Terrible officiating isn't currently the sole purview of Atkinson. The litany of bad calls going for big clubs has been growing by the week. Moreover, it seems to be having a drastic impact at both ends of the table, where consequences are the greatest: i.e., title vs. nothing, and relegation vs. survival.
Two offside goals given to Chelsea by referee Michael Jones against Wigan earned Roberto Martinez a nice letter of apology with which to console himself should Wigan go down.
On back-to-back weeks, Lee Mason and Mark Halsey gifted Manchester United PKs for Ashley Young dives against QPR and Aston Villa, respectively. The former was accompanied by a red card for Shaun Derry, effectively ending the contest 15 minutes in. Two weeks earlier, Michael Oliver failed to call a certain penalty for a trip in the 89th minute of Fulham's Danny Murphy at Old Trafford.
This last incident caused Fulham's Martin Jol to remark that the incident called for a "brave" decision by the referee. Huh? If calling fouls is seen as brave when a referee's job is to call fouls, then something is inherently screwed up.
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It also brings out the conspiracy theorists -- OK, theorist, (see: Dalglish, Kenny). The others (like Jol) aren't saying it's premeditated or malicious, just that a pattern of favorable decisions for the richest teams has emerged. And it's not a particularly nice pattern.
Focusing on the Premier League and the lore that the officials are in the bag for the big clubs, let's use penalties as a proxy for any such bias with the following caveat: It's horribly imperfect. There are all sorts of bad decisions that could affect the game in general and scoring plays in particular: offsides not flagged, a free kick given for a phantom foul that turns into a set-piece goal, a corner that should have been a goal kick, etc. Keeping a ledger of all of that would be close to impossible, if only because it's so easy to argue the status of any given call. After all, when three men on the field make these calls while millions watch and dissect replays on TV, differences of opinion are bound to occur.
But PKs are binary -- either given or not -- and do capture some of what we're after, right? Calls for United (e.g., Young's dives) would appear as a large total number awarded for, and opponents who don't get calls (e.g., Murphy's trip) would be contained in a small total number of spot kicks against the Red Devils. So taking the total number of penalties awarded and subtracting the total number of penalties conceded, both home and away, for the five-year span from '07-08 to the current season, if big clubs are getting more calls, the numbers would show a large, positive difference.
It wouldn't shock Jol to see that the numbers show only two clubs with large, positive differences; unsurprisingly, it's the same clubs that have won the Premier League over the time frame in question: Manchester United and Chelsea.
What's remarkable, though, is just how gaudy their numbers are. United is plus-21 (it's been given 36 PKs and conceded 15), Chelsea is plus-17, and nobody else is even in double digits. The next highest squad is Manchester City at plus-9, and plus-10 of that comes over the last two seasons. Another way to look at it: Before City got money and started to threaten the top of the table -- not to mention field players like Kun Aguero and Edin Dzeko -- they were close to a push (minus-1 to be precise). With money (and Dzeko) they are on a plus penalty pace roughly that of United's.
Conspiracy targets Liverpool? plus-4. Bottle-maiming Wenger? Arsenal is minus-4. To put that latter number in some context, only two other sides have managed to stay in the EPL for all five seasons in question with a lower total: Bolton at minus-7 and Sunderland at minus-12.
There is an obvious rebuttal: Well, Manchester United gets that many more penalties because it's the better side and is usually on the attack, so teams are reduced to fouling in order to stop it." To which you can answer, Probably.
That certainly accounts for some of the total. But again, if it's simply that the better teams on the attack are fouled more often in trying to stop them, then why is Arsenal so negative?
It is possible that those frequently complaining are, to some degree, correct. United is not getting more PKs just because it's the better side, but it is winning championships because it is getting more penalties -- or getting more free kicks around the box that maybe weren't fouls, or benefiting from blown offsides calls that lead to goals, or playing more games against 10-men opponents. And it is getting more of those because it does seem to receive generous treatment from the refs.
Isolating which phenomenon accounts for what part of that plus-21 total might not be impossible, but it still might not be intellectually satisfying because there would still be a couple of massive problems.
First, counting if-onlys -- "If only Derry hadn't been carded" -- quickly becomes futile, and it starts to make you sound like a crazy person (see: Dalglish, Kenny). Because once you change one touch, one deflection, one corner, you change the entire rest of the match. Football is sensitive to initial conditions as a sport. (Did you not see Run Lola Run? There's a reason for the Sepp Herberger quotes; that movie is about football.) You'd need quantum mechanics' many worlds to know what really happened. Unfortunately, we all seem to be stuck in this one.
The second problem is fortune itself. There's another EPL team on the good end of almost as many refereeing windfalls as United this season.
They've had eight penalties given to them -- second most of any team in the Prem, behind only United -- while conceding a mere three. More critically, six of their penalties have come in one-goal games. That is to say, they're the kinds of decisions that drastically impact a squad's ability to pick up points (or not drop points) in multiple matches.
They are Blackburn Rovers.
But Blackburn also happens to be terrible. Currently in 19th place, Rovers have conceded more goals than every other side in the league, save pitiful Wolves, and if the season ended today, they would be making travel arrangement for exotic destinations like Burnley and Ipswich.
Let's be clear; being plus-21 (or even plus-17) isn't proof of any kind of conspiracy. That kind of speculation is nonsense. And it'd be ridiculous to say United gets all the calls. There was a late hand ball in the box in the loss to Wigan that wasn't called, and it would have given Man U a penalty and a chance to draw. But again, margins are thin.
So while it's true that getting the odd favorable penalty call -- whether a function of a club's perceived status as big or not -- certainly helps (and might even ultimately help count for the difference between first and second) as Blackburn has conveniently demonstrated, it helps more to be good.