It was almost the perfect game to celebrate the Premier League’s 30th anniversary. Almost.
There was so much in it that makes the competition great, right until the final seconds. Both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur offered pulsating performances, in an open match, that had many of their stars offering great performances or brilliant moments.
In that sense, both clubs could actually take genuine positives from the game. Chelsea should have won – and probably won well – and offered a superb performance that showed they shouldn’t have been dismissed from the top-four discussion. They remain the real deal. Spurs, meanwhile, should have lost. They were second best for large parts of the game. And yet they still showed a character that has been beyond them in the past, especially against this opposition, to illustrate they genuinely have new mettle. There was something different.
There was a contender’s competitiveness, which reflects Antonio Conte’s immense effect. That competitiveness so clearly translated into the occasion’s coup de grace: pantomime that developed over the course of the game and culminated in the hilarious face-off between the Italian and Thomas Tuchel.
This was pure theatre, which could only be enjoyed. No one got hurt. It was all part of the show. It quickly became apparent that both managers had enjoyed it, too. The two admitted as much. It even seems clear that they actually like each other, and relish the competitiveness. That is what it should be all about.
It quickly evolved into something that the game shouldn’t be about, though. That was Tuchel so singularly and extensively criticising referee Anthony Taylor, to strategically dictate the post-match discussion. And back we go, away from the fun, into the utterly dismal fixation on lines, stills and slow motions.
It should be immediately acknowledged here that there is considerable irony in complaining about the discussion of referees when you are about to contribute to that discussion, but the point is wider.
The point certainly isn’t to complain about refereeing decisions. On that, it should also be acknowledged that the officials got it wrong. Cristian Romero should have been sanctioned – maybe even sent off – for pulling Marc Cucurella’s hair. Kane’s dramatic equalising goal should never have happened. It should have been a free kick. VAR, at the very least, should have spotted it. It was remarkable it didn’t. Taylor should have made the call.
But, equally, that’s the game. VAR, for all the criticism it gets, has actually improved the sport. It has meant more decisions are called correctly. It has left less to the blind luck of whether someone sees something. But it isn’t perfect, particularly since it still involves subjective interpretations, usually in the heat of the moment. That means mistakes will persist.
It’s unfortunate, but also someway inevitable. The rational response, no matter how infuriating, would be to just accept that sometimes they go for you and sometimes they go against you. It’s just that most people tend to fixate on those that went against them, and instantly forget those that went for them.
“It’s part of the game.” And it has led to something that shouldn’t be part of the game, but is now an entirely undesirable new pillar of the Premier League culture.
That is, endless, tedious discussion of refereeing discussions, to the detriment of everything else. It has become like Spain two decades ago, where the front pages of the sports newspapers would be dominated by refereeing decisions. We’re seeing the same now. How many times has there been a brilliant match, full of incident, only to see coverage afterwards descend into where a line was?
This isn’t to say refereeing calls aren’t influential moments. It’s that there are multiple more influential moments that warrant as much attention. There are multiple reasons for this, one of which is reflected by Tuchel’s post-game press conference.
Managerial criticism of referees has been part of the game for some time. The Premier League’s great master, Sir Alex Ferguson, went further and more extreme with it than anyone. Tuchel is just following a long line.
And that isn’t to say his fundamental complaint isn’t justified. But should we really be giving it so much attention? Why was his ire so singularly directed at the officials rather than Romero?
Is that because the unspoken thing is an understanding that footballers are trying to deceive referees all the time, so are part of the problem? That it’s “part of the game”?
And refereeing does have a problem. It is approaching crisis – but not because of performance. It is because very few people actually want to be referees. And why would they? The lower levels where they have to train features worse abuse and even violence, the culture undoubtedly influenced by discussion at the very top. It is why all of this is so unhelpful, and so damaging, to the game. This, to counter one common argument, is not the way to get referees to improve.
It also feeds into a culture where an increasing minority of fans have got so used to social media echo chambers that they can no longer accept any criticism from media. There is now widespread expectation that any coverage should be positive.
You could get into bigger sociological commentary here about how all of this reflects deeper issues in society, not least the polarisation of politics and the “post-truth” era. It can’t just be incompetence or even a basic mistake. It has to be some kind of conspiracy.
That is for another day, though. For the moment, the atmosphere around the Premier League is being poisoned by a level of discussion that is fundamentally tedious.