October 24, 2004 is a date that shall remain in infamy for all fans of the English Premier League, not the least for fans of Arsenal Football Club. On that day, 14 years ago, Mike Riley, current managing director of PGMOL, performed one of the most scandalous acts of football refereeing in the premier league. Before a worldwide audience, who came to witness whether the Invincibles of Arsenal could make history by going 50 games unbeaten, Riley allowed Manchester United to cheat their way victory in a plainly biased refereeing performance. United was allowed to violate the rules of football with almost total impunity. There are a number of incidents that will be forever remembered as part of Riley’s legacy
- Repeated kicking and fouling of Jose Antonio Reyes, who was then Arsenal’s in-form striker, by the Neville brothers. It was a classic demonstration of “rotational fouling” that went unpunished until deep in the 2nd half, by which time the damage had already been done with Reyes hobbling in pain and having to be substituted.
- Award of a phantom penalty to Wayne Rooney who went sprawling over the leg of Sol Campbell in a dramatic dive, an act simulation that any experienced referee should have detected and punished the diver.
- United’s Van Nistleroy escaping a red card for clearly stamping on Arsenal’s Ashley Cole.
- Rio Ferdinand deliberately barging Freddie Ljunberg in the United box; no penalty.
After the match and to this day, the mainstream media has done everything to cover-up and ignore Riley’s abject, some say premeditated, refereeing performance and the pivotal role it played in determining the result. Instead they have done their best to distract from the game itself and focus on trivialities, by dubbing the game the “Battle of the Buffet,” simply because of post-game histrionics in the tunnel area involving the tossing of pizza in the direction of Alex Ferguson by angry Arsenal players, who were apparently distraught at how they were cheated.
Two years later Riley was promoted to his current position, as man in-charge of PGMOL, seemingly a reward for his refereeing performance. Not surprisingly some of the tools he used to tilt the game in United’s favor are still very much in use today;
- Ignoring FIFA’s rules on reckless and dangerous play. The rules, even then which have subsequently been clarified and tightened-up by FIFA, demand that a yellow card be issued for dangerous play.
- Selective award of penalties, especially the award of penalties-against.
In a study I did for positivelyarsenal.com published in January 2017, comparing the 1st 10 years of Wenger vs 2nd 10 years:
- In the second 10-years there was a 38% increase in penalties awarded by the referees compared to the first 10 (league-wide). Amazingly, not only did Arsenal experience 206% increase in penalties awarded against the club but the average number of penalties was higher than the average for all clubs in the premier league, 4.9 vs 4.7.
- In contrast United only had a 143% increase in penalties-against despite having, for most of those years, arguably the two most physical central defenders in the League, Vidic and Ferdinand. They only had an average of 3 penalties-against per season, well within the league average. While Arsenal was averaging between 3rd and 4th in the league they were conceding penalties at a far greater rate than a club like Liverpool which was ranging between 5th and 6th position in the league. As I argued then this was clear evidence of bias by the Riley’s referees.
Since then the most significant change is that Riley’s refs now refuse to make penalty calls as recently published at UniteForVAR in piece titled The Disappearing Red Card. Remarkably, over the past two seasons red cards have dropped like a stone to less than 50 for the first ever time in 17 years; to 41 in 16/17 and an astonishing 39 in 17/18. This is a trend worth watching carefully.
Also over the past two years there has been a dramatic reduction in the ratio of penalties to yellow cards from an average 5.2% over the past 17 years to 3.2% last season and 2.9% the season before.
Less penalties are being awarded but, in a low-scoring sport like football, one erroneous penalty can not only swing match results but make or break a title-run.
Arsenal’s 11-game Winning Streak
While this is not an Arsenal blog but a medium dedicated to promoting VAR to benefit all clubs in the EPL, as a known supporter of AFC, this writer is well aware of the current wave of emotion among Gooners who are happy and enthused that the club is currently on 11-game winning streak; 7 of those games wins are in the premier league. What is remarkable, however, is the eagerness of the mainstream media and many Gooners to suggest that this streak is unparalleled.
Au contraire. As recent as December 2016 Arsenal completed a 15 game unbeaten streak, including 3-draws, in the league. The majority of fans, yours truly included, were optimistic about the clubs prospects of winning-the-league despite a substantial and vocal Wenger-out faction dogging the club. Injuries especially to Santi Cazorla, a key player, that October and a poor run of games in the post December period caused a horrible slide down the table to finally finish 5th, less than 4th for the first time in 20 years.
In reality the historical data has demonstrated that a league run of 7-wins then a draw, in the case of Arsenal in 2016, is not a good predictor of future title success for any top club in the League.
9-game PL win-streak is the minimum
20 years of Premier League data up to 2017 indicate that at least a 9-game and over winning-streak is highly correlated to Premier League title success. (Note it is not a guarantee.) Arsenal under Wenger did this repeatedly during their 3 title-winning years. So did Chelsea who in 2017, 2007 and 2005 won nine games in a row on their way to the title. A usual I have a table to help make the point:
|Date Last Game||Club||Winning Run||League Position|
It is noticeable that even a 10 or 11 game winning streak is no guarantee of a title as poor old Liverpool demonstrated in both 2013-14 (the curse of Demba Ba) and 2005-06 seasons.
The larger point however is, as Mike Riley’s infamous performance at Old Trafford illustrated, a streak is as good as the refs will allow. Losing Game 50 in that fashion was apparently a heavy psychological blow to Arsenal and afterwards they were never in the title race, coming a miserable 2nd to Chelsea that year.
Today, without a robust, transparent Video Assistant Referee, the PGMOL refusing to penalize players for reckless and dangerous play as demonstrated by a remarkable decline in the issue of 2nd yellow cards, and a trend to awarding less and less penalties, I would advise Gooners to keep a close watch on which referees are assigned to do their games. Watch out for those assignees who are close acolytes of Riley and are prone to make similar decisions as he did 14 years ago.
Trust the data, not the emotional extremes of mainstream media as well as social media. Unlike almost all analysts and commentators, we rely on the data to help us understand the critical role of the refs in determining eventual winners of the top-4 trophy.