Column: Mikel Arteta is doing a fine impersonation of the ultimate pub bore
Mikel Arteta is a man you don’t want to sit beside in the pub.
I have two rules when it comes to watching sport in pubs.
1) I try to avoid it at all costs. 2) If that’s not possible, I try to position myself as far away as possible from what I consider the most insufferable person on the planet.
I refer of course to the ultimate pub bore – the fan who never stops moaning about the referee. Handily, these people will reveal themselves within the first five minutes of any game. They just can’t help themselves.
Even if the opening period of the game is completely devoid of incident, they will manufacture outrage from somewhere.
It might be something as mundane as a throw-in going against their team. As soon as they reveal themselves, that’s my queue to move decisively towards the opposite end of the bar.
There is nothing more boring in sport than parsing through every decision a referee makes in a game. Yet somehow it is a growing industry.
Every half-time break inevitably begins by discussing a refereeing call. This has been a trend for a long time. However, the advent of VAR in soccer has increased the scrutiny on referees and officials.
Arteta only adds to officiating obsession.
Every week during the season Dale Johnson of ESPN does a very popular thread on X (formerly Twitter) raking over every VAR decision. Now, Johnson is very good at what he does, but the fact it is so popular says something about the modern fan.
VAR was supposed to clean up and simplify everything for all stakeholders – referees, players, managers, fans. What has it done? Increased tribalism and led to accusations of corruption.
When a referee makes a bad call in real-time fans can grudgingly accept it. When they look at a screen and still make a bad call, fans think he/she must have it in for their team. They call it corruption whereas in fact it is simple incompetence.
Last weekend Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta did his best impression of the pub bore. His comments after the Newcastle defeat were way over the top. Newcastle’s goal had three elements that the VAR looked at.
Was the ball in play, did Joelinton push Gabriel, and was Anthony Gordon offside. There was no evidence to support the first or third element. So, was it a push? It probably was, but it’s a completely subjective call.
The panel that reviews Premier League match officials' decisions has ruled that Anthony Gordon's winner for Newcastle over Arsenal last weekend was correctly awarded, according to reports 🔍✅❌ pic.twitter.com/HamG3wlWkN
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) November 10, 2023
The Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel ruled on Thursday that the referee and the VAR were correct to award Newcastle’s winning goal. In that context, let’s examine Arteta’s post-match comments.
“We lost the match because of the clear and obvious decisions,” he said. “It’s embarrassing. It’s a disgrace. That’s what it is, a disgrace.
“Embarrassing what happened – how this goal stands, in the Premier League – this league we say is the best in the world.
“I’ve been 20 years in this country and now I feel ashamed.
“It’s a disgrace and there’s too much at stake here.
“It’s not good enough here in the Premier League. I feel embarrassed to be part of this.”
"It's embarrassing. It's a disgrace. That's what it is, a disgrace."
Mikel Arteta is NOT happy with the decisions that went against Arsenal in their defeat to Newcastle 😠 pic.twitter.com/wRB4F3Hdvl
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) November 4, 2023
Unhelpfully, Arteta doesn’t actually tell us what aspect of the decision has outraged him so. Was it one of the two elements for which we have seen no conclusive proof were errors? Or the subjective call that the Premier League’s Independent Panel have said was the correct decision?
Arteta also neglects to mention the obvious red card that Kai Havertz avoided in the first half.
Perhaps Arteta would be better off focusing on the fact his side managed just one shot on target in the entire game or how they failed to muster an equaliser despite having over half an hour to do so.
Despite this, Arsenal released a statement backing their manager. They are far from the only culprits – Liverpool fans have had it in for Paul Tierney since Jurgen Klopp criticised him after a 2-2 draw with Spurs in 2021 – but Arsenal do seem particularly sensitive to perceived injustices.
After the apocalypse all that will remain are cockroaches and Arsenal fans complaining about refereeing decisions.
Arteta has a history of moaning about referees, as do most managers in the Premier League. If managers at the top end of the game are behaving in this way, imagine how referees at lower level games are going to be treated.
Reports suggest there is a recruitment crisis for referees. Is it any wonder?
🗣 "I have no problems with any referees. Only you." 😡
Audio from Jurgen Klopp's confrontation with referee Paul Tierney after the game pic.twitter.com/jkcx4slwRk
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) December 19, 2021
Ange sets the example.
It was refreshing to see Tottenham boss Ange Postecoglou come out on Monday night after their defeat to Chelsea and refuse to criticise the referee.
“At some point, we have to accept the referee’s decision,” he said. “That’s how I grew up. This constant erosion of referees’ authority, this is what the game is going to get.
“They will not have any authority, it is going to get diminished and we are going to be in the control of someone a few miles away watching a TV screen.”
Most of the contentious issues in games, like the Joelinton one or Marcus Rashford’s red card for Manchester United on Wednesday (despite being an obvious red card, several ex-players felt it was a terrible call – which just goes to show how ill-judged calls to have ex-pros involved in VAR decisions really are), are subjective calls.
“At some point, we’ve got to accept the referee’s decision.”
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) November 6, 2023
Having VAR doesn’t change that fact. Two referees could look at the same issue and come up with two different calls.
Having a referee go to a screen to make a call on a contentious incident won’t guarantee that they make the decision a former player thinks they should. It just means the game will be held up with no guarantee of the correct decision being reached.
All it will do is increase the scrutiny on referees and take away from what we are supposed to be focusing on – brilliant players, tactical innovations, exciting contests.
Referees chief Howard Webb has been on both Sky Sports and TNT Sports discussing some VAR decisions while allowing recordings to be played on air. Some viewed this as a good thing. ‘At least now we can hear why a referee made a particular call’. This is a slippery slope.
Referees are human, they make mistakes, even with VAR. We seem to want them to be held publicly accountable for all their mistakes. Are we going to start interviewing players after games to go through all the mistakes they make in a game?
‘So, Brian, you didn’t beat the first man with your corner, why was that?’ ‘Sarah, you gave the ball away for the winning goal, what was the thinking there?’
That would be ludicrous and yet we make a huge issue of one or two calls a referee gets incorrect and ignore the dozens they do call correctly.
Referees have always made mistakes and they always will. Demanding infallibility is futile. Referees will only be appreciated when games don’t go ahead because there aren’t sufficient of them to officiate games.
Even the pub bore might have pause to reconsider in that scenario.