The Internet is awash with academic research analysing a referee’s job. It ranges from the first port of call – are match officials useless? – to the question of whether decisions are racially motivated (and if this sounds like a joke, hop onto Google now).
Read a fraction of the findings and you’ll reach the conclusion that no species on earth is less well understood. You’ll also remember that no-one cares whether 10 years of fouls in the Bundesliga point to sound judgement or general incompetence. Interest in officiating is choice and immediate. Which is to say, was Mirco Antenucci offside?
The answer there is probably ‘yes’. Replays on Sunday, such as they were, showed his feet in line with Middlesbrough’s defence but his head beyond the last man as the ball deflected to him. By FIFA’s own definition, Antenucci had strayed by six inches. Give it 12 months and the rules will change again but that is the letter of the law as it stands. What mattered was not so much the incident as the suspicion that the officials were reduced to guessing.
Cristhian Stuani and his get-out-of-jail free cards were different again. For his foul on Charlie Taylor in the second half, Stuani should have walked. We know this because Middlesbrough hooked the Uruguayan 10 minutes later. Aitor Karanka said afterwards that Neil Swarbrick, the referee, “wasn’t important for the outcome of the game.” Uwe Rosler thought Swarbrick tipped the balance at a time when Middlesbrough were twitching. A happy coach has no complaints, the beaten coach vents and the world goes round.
They say that contentious decisions even out over nine or 10 months but nobody ever takes the time to count. Nobody takes the time to count because entire seasons don’t depend on good officiating. The truth about referees is that it’s easier to be philosophical when the manager in the other dug-out is ranting about them. Stuani’s offence was blatant. So, too, was Sol Bamba’s handball at MK Dons. Sam Byram might have had a penalty against Ipswich and Leeds were stitched up by six minutes of stoppage-time at Bristol City in August. It sounds like swings and roundabouts and it’s impossible to control.
Rosler’s reaction on Sunday, accusing his players of being “too nice” and essentially giving them carte blanche to needle and harass officials, was heat-of-the-moment stuff. It is doubtful, or at least to be hoped, that he meant as much or repeated that message at Thorp Arch this week. Rosler feeds off statistics and analysis. He will know that mobbing referees is less likely to exert influence than it is to bring misconduct charges or bookings for dissent. He must also know that fixating on the events in the second half at Middlesbrough is deflecting from problems that Swarbrick had no hand in.
Leeds, in one respect, were too nice on Sunday. They were charitable defensively in a way which slit their own throat. The club trailed 2-0 at half-time primarily because of Rosler’s decision to pick Giuseppe Bellusci and Bellusci’s failure to vindicate that selection at all. Calling Middlesbrough “ruthless” flattered them somewhat. Karanka’s players were simply awake.
It would have satisfied everyone had Swarbrick appeared through the mist at full-time and explained himself. It would have been no less helpful had Rosler outlined his reasons for dropping Liam Cooper and breaking up the safest centre-back pairing he has. Bellusci, on the balance of probability, will be back on the bench this weekend. His performance at Middlesbrough – painfully nervous after a month without a start – deserves the curly finger.
Leeds risk tying themselves in knots in other ways, too. The acrimony between the club and Sam Byram is threatening to marginalise a footballer who, in better form and better fettle, Rosler could make good use of. Will Buckley signs tomorrow and the right wing is filling up but Byram could still contribute in the way that Bradley Johnson did in 2011 when he and Ken Bates were falling out over money. Gaetano Berardi is lodged securely at right-back and playing on merit but Rosler patently has doubts about his ability to cope with three games in eight days, as Championship clubs do. Leeds are not so blessed with strength in depth that they can afford to blackball a 22-year-old who has played in the Championship more than 100 times and won the club’s player-of-the-year award two seasons ago.
Beyond that, there is United’s record at home: no wins this season and no wins in seven months. The summer accounted for much of that time but Rosler would not pretend that the streak doesn’t matter. Leeds need a victory over Birmingham, not only as a means of ending their drought but because it would make the difference between 14 points from 10 games and a return of 11 or 12. Elland Road has seen its share of debatable incidents but it has seen a downturn in confidence, too. Only Rosler and his players can deal with that.
The reality for Leeds is that they will get further this season by keeping their house in order than by thinking about the decisions they get and the decisions they don’t. The irony of Middlesbrough was that Rosler’s team have played worse. They were less organised in their victory at MK Dons and more convincing on Sunday than were in previous games against Boro, several of which Leeds shaded.
Minus Chris Wood and crippled by their defence, they were better than the scoreline. To that end, Rosler has something to work on and something he can fix. His team don’t need to aspire to be nasty. The key word used by Rosler on Sunday was “ruthless”. There is a difference.