Scrutiny on referees is increasing – but this is just the start

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Scrutiny on referees is increasing – but this is just the start

It was an illuminating experience to be in the Nottingham Forest press lounge earlier this month when word got around that Mark Clattenburg would be addressing the media following their dramatic defeat to Liverpool.

There had been heated scenes at the final whistle due to an officiating error by Paul Tierney not long before the 99th-minute winner. But the news of Clattenburg’s appearance was still the sort of moment that had reporters looking at each other in bemusement.

Clattenburg is working as a referee analyst at Forest, appointed earlier this season in response to a number of controversial decisions going against the East Midlands club. The former top-flight ref turned Gladiators star rationalised it as follows.

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Dermot Gallagher, Sue Smith and Stephen Warnock discuss the appointment of Mark Clattenburg

“Considering how much work goes into preparing for Premier League matches, it only makes sense that clubs adds to their planning and performance by ensuring they have a good understanding of how the rules are being interpreted by our referees.”

By the time that Darwin Nunez had nodded in at the City Ground, that remit had extended to attempting to confront Tierney about his call. “I went to go into the dressing room but he would not let us in,” said Clattenburg in a tone a little too close to entitlement.

Remember when folk were worried that VAR would bring an end to the debate that some saw as part of football’s charm? Incongruously, it has only exacerbated it. There is more focus than ever on the decision-making of the officials in this post-VAR world.

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Gary Neville reacts to Nottingham Forest’s appointment of former referee Mark Clattenburg

It is easy to characterise this as a public obsession, one that is either indulged or perhaps even driven by the media. Ever popular weekly features such as Ref Watch and Behind the Whistle on a website not far from here certainly add weight to that theory.

But it is nothing compared to the detailed scrutiny from within.

That was illustrated when attending the Opta Forum in London this month. The annual gathering of data analysts, many working within clubs, offers an insight into the current state of analytics and the areas now being explored by those behind the scenes.

When the subject of referees came up, a tale told by Rudy Cuni stood out. An analyst and assistant coach at Ligue 1 club Rennes, he revealed that during his time at Strasbourg they had hired a referee to help profile those people officiating their games.

In the training sessions building up to the next fixture, this new recruit was then instructed to referee in the style of the official who would be handling their next game. The idea was that it would prepare the players for precisely what to expect out on the field.

At Rennes, Cuni has continued to refine this thinking. They noticed that a particular referee awarded an unusually high number of fouls in favour of the home team in the final third of the pitch and wanted to exploit this advantage in front of their own supporters.

Knowing that there was one defender in the opposition team with a propensity to commit such fouls, Rennes tailored their selection, picking a player with good dribbling skills in the hope that this would allow them to win more free-kicks in the danger zone.

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Amid the convivial spirit of a forum focusing on technological advancement, ostensibly a celebration of all things innovation, the first response of those of us in the room was to admire the ingenuity; to marvel at the lengths teams go to in seeking an edge.

It was only afterwards, given the disparity in power between resource-rich clubs and those hapless saps attempting to implement some order, that another thought occurred. Maybe this is more like velociraptors probing the fences for signs of weakness.

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Among like-minded souls, Cuni had felt comfortable enough to open a window into a world that is surely full of such examples. If a modest mid-table outfit in France feels compelled to pursue what seems like the slimmest of marginal gains, what are the big boys doing?

“We always analyse referees from an internal perspective,” said Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez last year. “We check how they conduct the game, whether they are very communicative or not. Those are things that we were working on a long time ago.”

Perhaps this is nothing new. Sir Clive Woodward once suggested before a Six Nations game that England’s coaches should focus on the “particular habits and quirks” of the official every bit as much as on the opposition players. It helped him win rugby union’s World Cup.

“Our in-house referee Steve Lander used to do his homework on next week’s official and adopt his habits in training, refereeing every session in that particular style,” he once explained, adding: “He even used to look at the personality traits of the referee.”

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If football was behind rugby at that stage, over two decades ago now, it will not have stayed there long. That intoxicating combination of wealth and paranoia means it is ripe for this sort of thing. It is a rabbit hole that even the data-sceptics can race down with glee.

Background checks on breakfast habits? Drones checking which side of the bed they woke up on? We are not there yet but talk of referees but if you are less than comfortable with this psychological profiling, you are, like the men and women in the middle, only human.

In the information arms race, referees are tooling up themselves. They now analyse patterns of play and set-piece routines in preparation for their assigned matches in the hope of readying themselves for the specific situations that they could face.

But the words of one analyst from Rennes were a reminder that they are hopelessly outgunned. Any analysis they are doing is nothing compared to the analysis being done on them. And for all the bemusement at Clattenburg, this is likely to be just the start.

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