On Sunday, Liverpool visited the Emirates to play an Arsenal side they had just recently humiliated 5-1. In the eyes of many, the win established Liverpool as legitimate Premier League contenders and hinted at the second half collapse that has become an annual rite of spring for Arsene Wenger. So, the two sides squaring off again less than two weeks later meant that the rematch in London seemed to have more on the line than most 5th round FA Cup contests. As is the FA's wont, they assigned Howard Webb, an official they hold in high regards, as the match's lead referee. As is Howard Webb's wont, he butchered a string of crucial decisions and became a, if not the, headline of the match.
Now, despite joking that Webb is a puppet of the Illuminati, I don't genuinely believe he has an inherent bias against Liverpool. What I do think is that Webb is so hyper-conscious of officiating decisions overshadowing a match's narrative, that his decisions end up becoming the match's narrative in a terrible self-fulfilling prophesy.
Let's go to the best example and the highest profile moment of Webb's career: the 2010 World Cup final. In what was supposed to be the greatest display of technical football the world has ever seen - the inventors of Total Football squaring off against the modern practitioners - the Oranje, led by Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, relentlessly hacked at their Spanish opposition and turned the game into series of physical assaults. Despite issuing a record 14 yellow cards, it took until extra time for John Heitinga's second yellow - the game's lone dismissal. Amongst the most remembered and discussed moments from this match, of course, was De Jong planting his cleat into the chest of Xabi Alonso and escaping with only a yellow card as his medicine. Spain ended up winning and Alonso didn't end up in the hospital, so all is well that ends well I suppose.
But, as this video documentary intimates, Webb's decisions ended up becoming a major storyline. I would contend that Webb didn't want the final to be remembered with the asterisk *Spain played with a man advantage for much of the match due to Nigel De Jong's red card. Pure speculation, but let's continue to Webb's two Liverpool-related horror performances this season (Yes, I know he's screw-jobbed the Reds over the past several years as well. To document all of them would even be a challenge for the History Channel.)
At Stamford Bridge in December, Liverpool faced off against Chelsea in the midst of a brutal stretch of scheduling that had just seen them lose 2-1 at City. There, several decisions went against the Reds, including a blatantly wrong offside call that denied Raheem Sterling a 1v1 with Joe Hart. Brendan Rodgers had been vocal in the press about his displeasure with Lee Mason's performance and the table was set for a Webb-masterpiece at the Bridge.
Once again Liverpool lost 2-1, this time with the headlines centered around Chelsea's match-winner Samuel Eto'o. The Cameroonian scored Chelsea's second goal in the 34th minute, but should not have even been on the pitch as he planted his studs into Jordan Henderson's knee in the 2nd minute. Webb, miraculously, didn't even issue a yellow card for what most would deem a red card offense.
Fast forward to the second half as Liverpool push for an equalizer, Luis Suarez loses possession to Cesar Azpilicueta and is subsequently hip-checked to the ground by Eto'o as he tries to pursue the Spanish defender. Webb, standing mere feet away and with unblocked vision of the box out, does not blow the whistle for what would have been a penalty. The game spirals out of control in the final minutes, with Brazilians Oscar and Lucas trading hard tackles and Webb looking like a substitute teacher who has lost his class.
Again, it's speculation but my I feel my theory of Webb's desperation to avoid becoming the storyline holds up. An early red card (or even a yellow to a lesser degree) changes the entire composition of any match, and an off the ball foul in the penalty area to (likely) give Liverpool an equalizer would have become the story.
So, that brings us to this past Sunday. Just five minutes after Steven Gerrard converted a Suarez-won penalty, the Gremlin was clumsily and clearly taken down by Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the penalty area once more. The nearby, unobstructed Webb inexcusably failed to call for the spot kick and denied Liverpool a (likely) equalizer. In an equally bizarre moment that positively reeked of the "makeup call" system perfected by David Stern henchmen Joey Crawford and Dick Bavetta, Webb elected not to show Gerrard a second yellow card for an aggressive lunge on Oxlade-Chamberlain.
That Webb continues to consistently influence outcomes through, what I feel to be, his desire to maintain the match's narrative is absolutely infuriating. In a statement so obvious I feel disrespectful presenting it to our incredibly well-informed readers, Webb's job is to make correct, consistent rulings on incidents on a basis totally independent from narratives or previous decisions. If it's a foul, it's a foul. Period. It is not Webb's job to ponder, "Well, it is a foul...but is it worthy of being an early red card in a World Cup Final?" or "Yes, he did foul him...but is an off-ball hip bump worth a late penalty?" It's not Webb's job, nor should it be in his ability, to curate the extent of the referee's influence on a match.
So, to Mr. Webb, if it's a big call in a big game, have some guts and blow the damn whistle. Aren't you a policeman?