Analyse That - Refereeing Pre-Match Analysis Help or Hindrance?

The Euro 2016 competition will be remembered for the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams, but another change behind the scenes aims to improve officiating standards. We examine how pre-match analysis by referees can influence decision-making and potentially promote bias.

Not for the first time under the roof of Stade Pierre-Rauboy in Lille, there was a collective throwing up of arms in protest at another missed (or ignored) foul. A distinctly Italian mannerism, but in this case it was the Irish players and fans who were becoming exasperated by the persistent tactical fouling of the Azzurri. Italians are the undisputed masters of the craft of defending and their willingness to embrace some of the darker arts to protect their goal is only to be expected.  

Shirt pulling, grappling in the box, disrupting counter-attacks with professional fouls high up the pitch are all to be expected, not just by Italian teams but in any competitive game of football.  The Irish assistant manager Roy Keane is also no stranger to this particular aspect of defending, and called on his charges to be similarly streetwise - when pressed by a journalist on the subject he quipped “what do you think I would do?” with a part-mischievous part-menacing grin leaving the assembled press in no doubt how Roy Keane would approach the game.  

“Foul, you mean? Yes. My advice would be: ‘Yeah, take them out.’ We’re not here to make friends. The fans will do that. From a player’s point of view, if you smell danger and you think: ‘We’re in trouble here,’ then yeah, you do whatever you can to get the right result. If that’s a foul, then you foul him. It’s not a crime. You might get a yellow card, you might even get a red but your team might win. Sacrifices. You have to make sacrifices for your team. Does that answer your question?” - Roy Keane speaking before the Ireland-Italy match in Euro 2016

There is a broad acknowledgement that the standard of refereeing in the tournament has so far been acceptable, the highest praise a referee and his team of linesmen and other officials can expect. Rack your brains for obvious howlers and they are hard to come by, save for two legitimate penalty appeals in Ireland’s three group games being overlooked springing to mind.  Pierluigi Collina, once the most respected referee in the game and now UEFA’s head of refereeing, declared that the official body are “happy with the performances of all the referees” so far at the tournament, with no team of officials being stood down following a game-changing decision in the group stages.  

One of the reasons given for the improvement of officiating in the tournament is a pre-match formal tactical analysis of both squads by the refereeing team. Collina has formally introduced the practice as part of the pre-match preparations for all match officials, with a one-hour briefing by expert coaches analysing team tactics and individual characteristics, as well as shapes of play and analysis of set pieces. There is no emphasis on simulation according to the former World Cup final referee, although individual players are highlighted during the analysis so that referees can be “more careful” in matches.  

"They must float as a butterfly when not needed, when he is needed, he must sting like a bee" - Pierluigi Collina on the role of the referee

While the idea in itself is laudable, it would be remiss to attribute a supposedly higher level of officiating in the tournament to this alone. In fact, given that referees are now studying both team’s style of play before matches in an official capacity - and remember Collina often cocooned himself in hotel rooms studying teams and players in an upcoming game - some of the refereeing has left a little to be desired, the Italy-Ireland match being a good case in point.  

“He drew their line-ups on a board, he told us how they would play, who the fiery characters were, where the likely flashpoints would be, what each assistant might expect to happen on his part of the pitch. He covered everything. It was incredible. It was preparation to the nth degree. And, furthermore, he wasn’t wrong.” - Graham Poll on his experience as Pierluigi Collina’s fourth official

As noted earlier, the Azzurri rearguard are nothing if not canny operators. Jamie Carragher directly referred to their game management as “streetwise,” echoing the sentiments of Roy Keane from before the same game.  Surprising then that Ovigiu Hategan, the Romanian referee on the night, did little to discourage an approach to defending that must have been expected.  The first yellow cards on the night were for the coming together of Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu and Ireland’s Shane Long, with the Italians not receiving another booking until the 78th minute. Persistent fouling at set plays as well as a number of professional fouls higher up the pitch escaped similar punishment, despite the referee being entitled to book players if a team is judged to be making repeated offences of a similar nature.

Had Hategan and the expert coaches assisting him failed to recognise how Italy might defend set pieces? It is altogether more likely that they studied the Irish team and felt they were more than equal to the physical aspect of the game that Conte’s men would try to impose. The aforementioned Shane Long and Daryl Murphy are among the Irish squad’s masochists - happy to draw a foul, eager to engage in physical battles with defenders, never putting a foot in where the head will do - and so the referee’s handling of the game may well have been seen to suit both sides.  Both teams prepared to go toe-to-toe, elbow-to-elbow, face-to-face. An old-fashioned no-surrender on the cards, and a referee glowing in the warmest of praises - that of letting the game flow - despite cynical or professional fouling occurring across the pitch.

“They know how to deal with situations. Their defenders mark you so tight at set-pieces that it feels as if they are in your boots. They give cute fouls away. They know how to win” - Jamie Carragher on Italian game management, Daily Mail

Such praise ignores the fact that the Italian defenders were lucky not to concede at least one penalty, that they escaped with only four bookings to their name, and that had Ireland not eventually found a way to win then Collina may not have been so satisfied with refereeing performances in the group stages. The lack of controversy can be attributed to the new system of preparing match officials, but just as easily to the fact that wrong decisions on the whole failed to impact the result of a game sufficiently to be a talking point.  

At the 10th Annual Dubai Sports Council conference in 2015, Collina spoke about the importance of anticipation for referees, stating that “only the referee who can estimate as good as possible what might happen during the match has the potential to reach world-class.”  While Collina may have been able to anticipate or predict without prejudice or bias, it is as yet unclear whether other referees can do likewise.