Oliver’s refereeing hits the bull’s eye

Michael Oliver’s swift and firm reaction to Ander Herrera’s provocative second challenge on Eden Hazard, just moments after he had made clear his disapproval of such tactics to the United captain, was laudatory and must not be allowed to come to be seen as a mistake in hindsight. Oliver’s decision was brave in how early he was prepared to issue a red card to deal with the injustice of a team whose conscious tactic was to repeatedly foul and intimidate Eden Hazard, and nor must the characteristic bard delivered in the guise of innocence by Jose Mourinho be allowed to deter Oliver from acting in such a principled way in the future. At the current rate, he is well on his way to becoming one of the finest referees the English Premier League has had in quite a while, for his refusal to fold in taking big decisions and consistent accuracy in getting them right. For too long now, games have been marred by a combination of appalling refereeing and a tendency for players to treat fair play as nothing more than a slogan. Examples that flit to the mind range from present and past, including Luis Suarez’s recent dive for Barcelona’s crucial fifth goal against PSG to Wayne Rooney’s similar dive in front of an impassioned Old Trafford crowd against Arsenal a few seasons ago, to the deliberate manhandling of Jose Antonio Reyes by a United led by Roy Keane in the heat of the Ferguson years. Far from letting such incidents be characterised as cunning or gladiatorial sport at its finest, Oliver’s refereeing shows a satisfying determination to reveal it for what it really is: cynical cheating that is far from the heroic virtues English football tricks itself into believing it possesses. Given how hard it can be to make such hard decisions, as could be seen by the way the United players physically ganged up on Oliver after he issued the red to Herrera and by how Jose Mourinho publically highlighted his record of issuing (just) penalties and red cards against United this season after the match, Oliver’s willingness to make the right calls appears even more praiseworthy and brave.

The decision was also no more than Jose Mourinho deserved – not only for the nakedly cynical part of his strategy of fouling Hazard, but also for his persistence with his habit of choosing ultra-safe game plans in big games despite the players at his disposal before revelling in the praise showered on him afterwards for his winning habit. Rather than show him as a mercurial, dashing winner with a touch of gold, such continued decisions in big games reveal his character by the way they sacrifice all efforts to create a spectacle in favour of the one-upmanship of the final result. There is also an argument that this is not just the pragmatic tactics of a man who is nonetheless deeply versed in the inner language of the game, and what it means to be a key protagonist in it, but of one who instead occasionally treats football as some kind of conduit to an ongoing spectacle that revolves around him. The red card in this way served as a further satisfying rebuke to Mourinho’s ceaseless antagonism, both how he offered a wry grin straight after the red card and by the bad blood he had created before the fixture in targeting Antonio Conte.

Lest this article come across as entirely critical of Mourinho, however, two caveats must be added. The first is that Michael Cox has written a fascinatingly thought-provoking piece on how Mourinho’s tactics were designed to stop Conte – one that perhaps shows the other side to Mourinho’s big-game tactics, in which tactical preparation, psychology and execution are occasionally combined in hugely impressive fashion. The other is that Mourinho’s comments quite obviously got under the skin of Conte, whose Latin temperament never inspired confidence that his attempt to deflect his barbs would be successful, and which made you wonder whether gamesmanship would triumph over hard-fought success. However, the pre-match backdrop then came to life in gloriously compelling fashion during the match as Conte squared up to Mourinho and perhaps offered the latter a sense that he was beginning to meet his match. The dollop of genuine antipathy was enjoyable to savour and, as long as it doesn’t overheat into the naked and puerile insults that characterised the Mourinho-Guardiola rivalry in Spain, may add a refreshing authenticity to the battles of the Premier League in the future.

The Beauty of Ozil

Of the many myopic views seizing the airwaves in the narcissistic culture that surrounds football these days, none is more misplaced and dangerous than the ceaseless scapegoating of Mesut Ozil. For in continually hanging him out to dry for no other reason than a lack of originality and desire to be heard, football fans and pundits alike are threatening to bury the rare joy of what Ozil brings to the game. Ozil represents the game’s most precious qualities: a blessed mix of vision, technique and intelligence. Every pass and movement he makes reveals him to be one step ahead of the opposition; every failure on his part to find a player or control the ball normally means his team-mates are not quite at his level. So it is galling to find that there are those who believe the sole measure of Ozil’s game must be how much he is prepared to run after the opposition without the ball, like some sort of expensive breed of dog that was brought in merely to be run into the ground. Admittedly, Ozil’s unique gift does not extend to seizing a game by the scruff of its neck and dictating in the manner of Cesc Fabregas or David Silva; but if a team can adapt itself to his game, he promises both successful results and performances adorned with a grace even the formerly-mentioned players cannot quite replicate.

The scapegoating of Ozil is part of a wider trend in Premier League football that has prioritised athletic prowess and pressing at the expense of creativity and improvisation. Look no further than the slow corralling of David Silva at Manchester City, the inability to appreciate the gifts of Sergio Aguero and Cesc Fabregas, and of course, the baying for blood by Arsenal fans towards Mesut Ozil. While the tactical insights brought in by Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte are undoubtedly impressive, there is something that causes one to pause for thought when their plans cannot accommodate nor adapt themselves to the gifts of players who inspire children to follow the game in the first place. If a manager cannot appreciate the gifts of one of the purest, predatory strikers the game has seen in Aguero, is he perhaps guilty of the charge that his ideas have warped him to the fundamental managerial task of enhancing the beautiful game? If the fans applaud a player like Alexis Sanchez for tracking back yet turn a blind eye to the way his dalliance on the ball kills space, are they ignorant to the beating heart of football itself? The beauty of football lies in the rapid, improvised exploitation of space by players gifted with phenomenal speed of thought, vision and technique, at least as much as in the pre-meditated, collective, tactical rehearsal that prizes athleticism over those former qualities.

In the heated atmosphere of Youtube fan channels and 24/7 punditry, players and pundits alike project more of their frustrated idea of what the game should be onto managers and players (the primary protagonists). Yes, our world is about themes such as competition and “heart”, but one can’t help feeling that the constant resort to such platitudes on football airwaves (and via Facebook memes) has twisted our ideals to the point where it is impossible to appreciate the finest qualities of the game. Simply put, Ozil must be protected and his role preserved rather than adapted for the necessities of short-termism and whimsical competitive urges. The game is about competition, but it is also about art and beauty and there is no-one who quite personifies that like the sensitive, intelligent German-Turkish no.10 at Arsenal.