It’s the oldest tactic in a Premier League manager’s playbook, even if it wasn’t taught to them in the ill-fated coaching courses that enabled them to get the job in the first place: when things go wrong, just blame the referee.
Sir Alex Ferguson did it — the former Manchester United manager probably set a record for outbursts against officials — and Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have also taken criticism of referees to the point of being sanctioned. The game’s authorities have warned against doing so again, with bans or fines.
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Punishment often comes with an apology and acknowledgment that they overstepped the mark and will behave better next time. But there’s always next time, and referees are subject to all levels of condemnation and fury from the boss on the touchline. And it’s not just men; Emma Hayes — who, sources told ESPN, is set to be appointed as the next coach of the United States women’s national team — is no stranger to officials during her time as Chelsea manager.
Manchester United’s Erik ten Haag and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta are now continuing the tradition set by their predecessors. Ten Haag hit out at three key decisions that cost his side during Wednesday’s 4-3 Champions League defeat by FC Copenhagen, describing one of them as “embarrassing”, but the former Ajax coach never mentioned the many mistakes his players made. Or even his own in terms of selection and strategy.
In Arteta’s case, barely a week goes by without the Gunners coach pointing the finger at officials – on the field or at the VAR headquarters at Stockley Park – for directly contributing to Arsenal’s dropping points. Arteta said it was an “absolute disgrace” that Anthony Gordon’s goal in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Newcastle United at St James’ Park was allowed to stand after three separate VAR checks. Still, when pushed, he couldn’t say which of the apparent violations — the ball out of play, the offside and the bump on defender Gabriel — the officials wrongly ruled out. The Premier League’s Independent Match Incidents Panel has since ruled the referee and VAR were correct to award the goal.
It’s too easy to say that managers are just looking for a diversionary strategy when introducing officials. More often than not, this credits them with overly strategic thinking when the reality is that they’re just getting angry over a decision they don’t like. In a profession where they are used to getting their demands met at the click of their fingers, they cannot accept the possibility that some things may not go their way. Arteta doubled down on his Newcastle post comments earlier this week, saying his “responsibility to protect my club” only served to highlight an increasingly narrow view of managers’ roles and responsibilities.
That’s why Ange Postecoglou’s mature and reasoned response to Tottenham Hotspur’s chaotic 4-1 defeat against Chelsea on Monday was so jarring, but in a positive way. Spurs suffered their first league defeat of the season in a game where they went down to nine men after red cards for Christian Romero and Destiny Udogi. There were also five goals disallowed, only one by VAR but all requiring lengthy checks.
The Tottenham defeat ticked every box in terms of giving a manager a burning sense of injustice (although both red card decisions were correct.) But waiting for Postecoglou to explode and take on Arteta’s latest rant was disappointing, surprised or elated, depending on who you were. Do what your heart says.
“Premier League managers should be managing their football clubs,” Postecoglou said. “I never did and I never will talk to the referee about the rules of the game. I was taught that you grow up and you respect the officials.
“I think it’s very difficult for referees to be officiating these days. Their authority is steadily diminishing. I grew up in awe of referees. They’d be like cops. Nowadays I think we talk to policemen too. I’m old-school. I’m from a bygone era. Come on. I just love the purity of the game.”
Postecoglou also said he believed he was “in the desert” with his views and that managers, himself included, would always “try to bend the rules” in their favor. The former Celtic manager’s comments were a refreshing change from his rivals’ angry statements this season — and they have become so angry that they risk fueling animosity among supporters, with potentially dangerous consequences.
While Postecoglou has won widespread praise for his refusal to condemn officials, there has been a distinct absence of vocal support from his managerial colleagues. Maybe they are not as rounded or logical as the Spurs boss and, in their view, perhaps the Australians seem to be taking the opposite stance of playing to the gallery. But if they all take a page from Postecoglou’s book and dial down the victimization of officials trying to do an increasingly difficult job, the game will be in a much better place.