It’s the oldest tactic in a Premier League manager’s playbook, although not one they have ever been taught on those much-vaunted coaching courses that enable them to take a job in the first place: When it all goes wrong, just blame the referee.
Sir Alex Ferguson did it — the former Manchester United manager probably set a record for outbursts at the officials — and Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have also taken referee criticism to such an extent that they have been sanctioned by the game’s authorities with bans or fines and warned not to do it again.
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The punishment often comes with an apology and admission that they overstepped the mark and will behave better next time. But there is always a next time, and the referees continue to be subjected to all levels of condemnation and fury from the boss on the touchline. And it isn’t 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 lambasting officials during her time as Chelsea manager.
Manchester United’s Erik ten Hag and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta are the now continuing the tradition set by their predecessors. Ten Hag hit out at three key decisions that cost his team in Wednesday’s 4-3 defeat at FC Copenhagen in the Champions League, describing one of them as “embarrassing,” but not once did the former Ajax coach mention the many mistakes of his players or even his own in terms of selection and tactics.
As for Arteta, barely a week goes by without the Gunners coach pointing the finger squarely at the officials — on the field or at VAR HQ in Stockley Park — for contributing directly to Arsenal dropping points. Arteta said it was an “absolute disgrace” that Anthony Gordon’s goal for Newcastle United in Saturday’s 1-0 win at St James’ Park was allowed to stand after three separate VAR checks. Yet, when pushed, he was unable to say which of the apparent infringements — ball out of play, offside and a push on defender Gabriel — were incorrectly dismissed by the officials. The Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel has since ruled the referee and the VAR were correct to award the goal.
It is too easy to say that managers are just looking for a deflection tactic when they turn on officials. More often than not, that is crediting them with too much strategic thinking when the reality is that they are simply being petulant because of a decision they don’t like. In a profession where they are accustomed to their demands being met at a click of their fingers, they cannot accept the possibility that some things don’t go their way. That Arteta doubled down on his post-Newcastle comments earlier this week, by saying he has a “duty to defend my club” only served to highlight the increasingly narrow view that managers have when it comes to their role and responsibilities.
Which is 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 sense. Spurs suffered their first league defeat of the season in a game that saw them reduced to nine players following red cards for Cristian Romero and Destiny Udogie. There were also five goals disallowed, only one by the VAR but all required lengthy checks.
Tottenham’s defeat ticked every box in terms of giving a manager a burning sense of injustice (even though both red-card decisions were correct.) But anyone waiting for Postecoglou to explode and eclipse Arteta’s recent rant were left disappointed, surprised or elated, depending on your point of view.
“Premier League managers should just manage their football clubs,” Postecoglou said. “I’ve never have and I never will talk to a referee about the rules of the game. I was taught that you grow up and you respect the officials.
“I think it is so hard for referees to officiate these days. Their authority is just constantly getting diminished. I grew up afraid of referees. They would be like policemen. Nowadays I guess we talk back to policemen as well. I’m old-school. I’m from a bygone era. I just love the purity of the game.”
Postecoglou also said he believed he was “in the wilderness” with his views and that managers, himself included, will always “try to bend the rules” in their favour. The former Celtic manager’s comments were a refreshing change to the angry statements of his rivals this season — and they have become so angry that they risk fuelling hostility among supporters, with potentially dangerous consequences.
While Postecoglou has earned widespread praise for his refusal to condemn officials, there has been a distinct absence of vocal support from his managerial colleagues. Maybe they aren’t as rounded or logical as the Spurs boss and, in their eyes, perhaps view the Australian as taking a contrary position to play to the gallery. But if they all took a leaf from Postecoglou’s book and dialled down the victimisation of officials attempting to do an increasingly difficult job, the game would be in a better place.