I’ve been watching football for over 24 years, nearly half of my life. And I’ve been watching sports my entire life (basically). I have seen hundreds of unfair matches. I’ve seen thousands of controversial calls. I even lived through the NBA betting scandal and of course the multiple corruption cases in France and Italy. Bottom line is that I’m not even remotely naive about corruption, bias, errors and other maladies which befall sport from time to time and I’ve never seen anything like the Premier League.
I’ve seen plenty of brutal sports. American football literally ruined lives with its legacy of brutality: where helmet to helmet hits were celebrated. Hockey has leaned in to the whole fighting aspect of the game and is now largely a boxing match on ice. And I grew up watching boxing, I’ve literally seen men die from injuries sustained in the ring (Duk-koo Kim). Those sports, however, are intentionally brutal. It’s a feature, not a bug. But I don’t like these sports because they are brutal. If I want to watch people get progressive brain injury, I’d watch American football. If I want to watch boxing on ice, I’d watch hockey. If I wanted to watch the devastating effects of poverty, where two men are paid by the super wealthy to beat the shit out of each other for other working people’s “entertainment”, I’d watch boxing. If I wanted to watch agressive male humping, I’d watch MMA.
I watch football because I love the beauty of the game. Playing tough, playing hard, good challenges, getting in the opponent’s face, pressure, these are all aspects of the beauty of football. Choking someone, running over and elbowing someone in the head, intentionally breaking someone’s leg because you’ve lost your mind? That’s not football. And it’s specifically not even allowed in the sport. In boxing you ARE allowed to punch someone in the face, in football that is specifically forbidden. You are supposed to win the game because you run faster, you have better control of the ball, your shots are more accurate, your passes are better, your teamwork is better, your tactics are superior, the team’s movement is more difficult to counter, the pressing forces turnovers, or even from a moment of brilliance. Football fails for me when a team is awarded a win because one of their players shoved an opponent to the ground from behind with two hands. I don’t even think that’s allowed in American football.
Football fails for me when a player is allowed to run over and elbow an opponent in the head. When this is captured by every camera in the world, when it’s looked at by officials, and when no call is made and very little is even being said about the incident after the match. In fact, the half-time commentators here in the USA said that it was a “great” match because of the physicality. People, it seems, are still stuck in the 1980s version of football, when “the Crazy Gang” was celebrated because they would squeeze another man’s testicles.
This is a league where an Arsenal player was sent off because he took 3 seconds on a throw in – a rule which has since been seemingly abandoned; where you get a red card if you clip someone from behind when they are shooting; where you get a red card for putting your hands on another man’s throat for even a half a second; where you can get a red card for “not making a genuine attempt for the ball”. But apparently, this is also a league where you can go unpunished for hunting an opponent down and elbowing him in the face from behind – an offense which is in clear violation of the Laws of the game.
And in this particular match, these same officials deemed it ok for the ball to go out of play, the striker to push a defender over, and for the goal-scorer to be offside – all in one play. Essentially giving the home team a goal.
But the officials at the center of this particular controversy – Stuart Attwell on the field and Andy Madley in the VAR – have previously made a number of incredibly controversial calls against Arsenal. And I’m going to talk about their record because no one else in the mainstream media is.
The on-field official Stuart Attwell was dropped from the Premier League select group of officials in 2012. He was dropped because he’d made a string of high profile mistakes, which included losing control of several games and making some wild decisions:
“Attwell attracted heavy criticism for awarding Reading a goal against Watford when John Eustace had kicked the ball over the byline four yards wide of the goal before it was put back into play by Noel Hunt. Attwell’s linesman Nigel Bannister signalled for a goal. More recently in December, Attwell sent off Gary Cahill, then of Bolton, for fouling Scott Parker only yards over the halfway line, saying he had denied Tottenham a clear goalscoring opportunity. The red card was overturned on appeal.”
“Following the Watford-Reading game, further controversies followed when he was accused of “losing control” of a Derby-Nottingham Forest derby, having disallowed two Derby goals in the final stages, booking eight players and sending off Forest’s Lewis McGugan. He has also attracted the ire of Wigan manager Roberto Martinez, who accused the referee of lying about his reasons for sending off Gary Caldwell in April 2010, while Stoke’s Danny Higginbotham claimed Attwell could be too easily influenced by players. Later that year, he awarded Liverpool a highly controversial goal against Sunderland. He had awarded the Black Cats a free-kick inside their own half and Michael Turner touched the ball back to Simon Mignolet, apparently for the goalkeeper to take the set-piece. But Attwell ruled the ball active, allowing Fernando Torres to steal it and set up Dirk Kuyt to finish into an empty net.”
To be quite blunt, Attwell is an official with a track record of on-field incompetence. And since his return to the top flight, his Arsenal record has been incredibly odd. Since 2017 he has taken charge of 17 Arsenal matches – Arsenal have won just 7 of those matches, he has never awarded Arsenal a penalty, he has awarded the opponents three pens, Arsenal have had two players sent off, and Arsenal’s opponents have never had a player sent off. Perhaps the most controversial match he refereed was the 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. In that match he cave David Luiz a red card for “not trying to win the ball” in a tackle and awarded Chelsea a penalty in the same action. David Luiz did try to win the ball, however, and this was at a time when attention was being paid to not giving double-jeopardy (pen and red card) for the same action. Basically, in order for the tackle to be a red card, the player had to clearly be trying to stop the player and obviously not going for the ball. Neither of which were true.
Most recently, Attwell was the official in charge of Manchester City’s 2-1 win over Arsenal in London last season. This was a match in which he and VAR awarded City a penalty for Bernardo Silva falling over and Xhaka slight tug on the shirt. He also sent off Gabriel (M.) for a second yellow for the slightest touch on Gabriel (J.). See, in the English Premier League, it’s against the law to touch an opponent if he turns you, but completely ok to chase an opponent down and elbow him in the face.
The VAR official yesterday was Andy Madley and while he wasn’t dropped for five years for gross incompetence, like Stuart Attwell was, he is the official who had a controversial Arsenal match last season. Madley has only taken charge of 4 Arsenal matches but no one can forget the 0-0 match he was in charge of in January against.. (checks notes).. Newcastle. In what was basically a preview of yesterday’s match, Newcastle and their two Brazilian midfielders (Bruno and Joelinton) were given the freedom to boot Arsenal all over the pitch. Newcastle were also “lucky” to escape two very strong penalty calls, which Mikel Arteta pointed out afterwards.
Here’s the frustrating thing though. I’ve been watching Premier League football for over 24 years and despite countless rules changes and interpretations – and to be fair, maybe a slight bit of a culture shift away from overt brutality – this is exactly how the laws have been interpreted IN ARSENAL MATCHES. And I think Arsenal did extremely well dealing with this physical bullshit from the Middle Eastern Stoke City. We pressured them, Saliba and Havertz went in full-blooded on challenges and I felt like we didn’t shy away from their tactics. This is what some folks (notably Robbie Mustoe) called “a great game to watch”. But it’s not a great game to watch for me. I don’t mind physical contact, but I want to see a contest of skill and talent, not one where an opponent runs over and elbows someone in the head or one where a goal is decided by a player shoving the defender (two hands) in the back of the neck.
The cowardice of the Premier League officials, who “don’t want to decide” a game, actually ends up deciding games. Because by letting an opponent shove someone in the back, especially on the goal line, which then sets up the teammates as the ball bounces off the defender as he’s falling down, they are literally deciding the game – just in favor of the player committing the foul. That said, I can’t expect much from the officials as long as they are managed by Howard Webb, the official who was in charge of the worst officiated World Cup final in my life (because of his cowardice) and who was the match official in dozens of Arsenal matches – most notably a League cup final where his cowardice allowed Chelsea to kick Arsenal all over the pitch until everything blew up and he ended up sending off Adebayor for a foul committed by Eboue.
Everyone keeps talking about how brave Webb is for dropping Anthony Taylor a few weeks ago, you know the ref who awarded Saudi Arabia Upon Tyne a hugely controversial penalty and for admitting that the officials are getting things wrong, every single week. But I think it would be more brave if he just flat out admitted that the PGMOL and the officials that they employ are not up to the task of officiating at the highest level and resigned to allow a competent foreign official take over and clean up the mess.