Martin Atkinson was the major discussion point after Newcastle United's 5-1 victory over Stoke City on Boxing Day, as two of his decisions had a direct impact on the match. Any time two players get sent off within five minutes of each other, the referee is always going to come under intense scrutiny, and this was no exception.
The first sending off was perhaps the most controversial, as Glenn Whelan was booked for the second time in ten minutes when he tackled Yohan Cabaye from behind. Replays showed that the tackle perhaps wasn't as vicious as it looked in real time, but it was late, from a difficult angle, and a bit high. It was a borderline yellow card; a more generous referee or perhaps the same one on a different day could have just as easily called for a simple foul, and the Newcastle players would have protested mildly for a minute or two before getting on with the rest of the game. On the other hand, it's not the kind of foul that never produces a yellow. Whelan's tackle was without a doubt a bookable offense.
So why the controversy? The answer is that what fans want from a match official and what they say they want from a match official are two different things. We say we want consistency, but what we really want is for the referee to make decisions based on the state of the game. In theory, a player that commits a yellow card offense in the mind of the referee should receive a yellow card every time. In practice, referees have a tendency to waffle. Whether or not the player actually receives the booking can be dependent upon his reputation, the time of the match (Lee Cattermole famously avoided a sending off against Newcastle a couple of years ago because his horror tackle happened in the first 90 seconds), where the foul happened on the pitch, whether or not the game has been getting chippy and he needs to make an example of somebody, or any number of other external reasons.
Martin Atkinson didn't play any of those games on Thursday. He judged the action in front of him, and acted accordingly. That's what we want - until it results in a sending off on a borderline call. That it happened the way it did made Mark Hughes' touchline tantrum somewhat understandable, but it doesn't mean that Atkinson was wrong.
The same principle applies to Marc Wilson's foul in the box. He was the last defender marking Loic Remy, and he fouled him, denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity. That's a rulebook sending off, and Atkinson played it by the book. Partisans will feel that "forcing" Stoke to play with 9 men was a harsh decision, but consistency is in this case very important, because teams shouldn't be allowed to get away with more shenanigans simply because they've already dug themselves into a hole.
What's interesting is that Atkinson abandoned this philosophy later on in the match, possibly resulting in the injury of a player. After awarding a second penalty* when Erik Pieters performed a Mortal Kombat-esque sweep of the leg on Hatem Ben Arfa, he clearly decided that Stoke had suffered enough. In the 80th minute, Ben Arfa entered the box again, and Ryan Shawcross made no attempt to play the ball, instead opting to extend his arms and shove HBA to the ground. He essentially dared the referee to award another penalty, and with the score already 5-1, Atkinson declined. A couple of minutes later, Shawcross and Pieters converged just outside the box and took Ben Arfa down once more, but the call was to play on.
*This is why refereeing statistics are inane. In about 10 matches or so, some commentator who has forgotten all about this match will note the high number of red cards and penalties awarded by Atkinson and use that stat to make a point about how strict he is. It's not his fault Stoke had no discipline!
Shawcross, now with the license to play on the wrong side of the line between aggressive and reckless, came in hard and late on a 50/50 ball that Massadio Haidara had already gotten to. He got a piece of the ball, but Haidara, who is just now getting regular game action after Callum McManaman messed up his knee in April, was down. Had Atkinson remained consistent and pointed to the spot after the first Shawcross infraction, this might have been avoided.
Other notes from Thursday's match:
- Anybody who didn't watch the match (and many who did) will write off the scoreline because of the two-man advantage Newcastle enjoyed for an entire half, and well they should. But that doesn't mean they didn't do their job. The Newcastle team of last season (and perhaps earlier this season) might have let this one come down to the wire. It's to their credit that they didn't let up.
- Also, there were seven Stoke defenders in the box when Yohan Cabaye scored his goal. Neither that one nor the one scored by Gouffran were a direct result of the Potters having less people on the pitch. There were also several 1-on-1 battles that Newcastle players won hands down.
- Papiss Cisse's penalty was a microcosm of his time here. He looked incredibly nervous in the run-up, but nothing about the strike itself revealed a lack of confidence. Obviously a penalty goal is much different from one achieved in the run of play, but the look of relief after he scored was revealing.
- Mathieu Debuchy and Davide Santon/Massadio Haidara benefited from not having to worry about tracking back to defend, but man, were all three of them impressive. Debuchy was especially in the mood, creating 3 chances and completing 14 of 19 passes in the attacking third. That this trio were able to do what they did with Erik Pieters on the pitch is an interesting commentary on how that transfer debacle shook out.
- Alan Pardew only gets three substitutions (duh), but I was hoping he'd bring off Yohan Cabaye rather than Yoan Gouffran for the last one. Lately he's been so vital to the midfield, and for him to be fresh against Arsenal would be ideal. Then again, the last 40 minutes or so were basically a training ground exercise.
- Don't tell Stoke fans, but Newcastle were whistled for more fouls than their opponent (10 to 8).
- The final tally for Newcastle: 27 attempts on goal. I'm not sure if this was the first time they had more attempts from inside the box (just barely, 14 to 13) this season, but it was nice to see them get the ball into the mixer, even if it was because they were up by two men.
- After Sunday's match, the season will be half over. Raise your hand if you thought at the beginning of the season that Newcastle would have 33 (or more?) points at the halfway mark. If your hand is up, you're a liar.