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.

Chelsea’s summer activity: a leopard doesn’t change its spots that easily

For all Chelsea’s recent triumphs and seemingly prudent player acquisitions, there is still something that grates about the manner in which they go about their business. No degree of footballing success can educate Roman Abramovich in the matters of treating a great game and its players with the right respect, and this can be seen in his latest splurging on Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Oscar. Other clubs might have recognised that they were buying players for the future, whose redoubtable talent would need patience and careful management to be unlocked. Yet it is clear by the sums spent on players labelled “starlets”, that Abramovich’s cherry-picking of them has been motivated by the same attitude that saw him spend £50 million for Fernando Torres and expect him to start scoring straightaway. These are players who command the club’s interest for as long as they perceived to be “stars” of the game, and whose lack of a tailored support system once they arrive often means their careers shrivel and falter. It was bad enough for Torres, but to expect three young players – two still in their teens – to shoulder a Premier League title bid next season is an unfair allocation of responsibility that reveals Abramovich’s ongoing failure to understand that signing a chequebook is only the beginning of a club’s investment in a player.

If Oscar, Marin and Hazard thought they had hit the bull’s-eye by signing with a club that reconciled a player’s two great aims of being financially secure and playing at a successful team where they could grow as footballers, they should have taken a second look at the troubles of Romelu Lukaku and Gael Kakuta. Lukaku has spoken openly of the lack of joy and involvement he felt at Chelsea’s double success last season, in which he played a minimal role. It is understandable that his playing time would have been limited by the ceaseless influence of Didier Drogba, but the way his discontent grew away from the pitch suggested that Chelsea have not backed up the money they spend on the best young talent around by investing in a suitable support system and giving them a clear sense of progression and development. Lukaku has now gone on loan at West Brom – something that Gael Kakuta has already done on three separate occasions during his time at the club. Once hailed as the “future of Chelsea”, this young talent is now being discussed in the corridors of power at the club only in the context of including him as part of an exchange deal for the latest young player to catch their fancy – Spanish right-back Cesar Azpilicueta of Marseille. If Kakuta does leave, it will conclude five ruinous years that have seen his career come to a shuddering halt and that illustrate the power Chelsea have to sully even the brightest talents with their myopic approach to team-building.