Chelsea vs. Burnley: Martin Atkinson Not Incompetent, Ashley Barnes Just Sneaky

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Shortly after Chelsea’s contentious 1-1 draw with Burnley at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Jose Mourinho gave the press his scathing take on the match:

I’m happy that I’m not stupid and I understood everything a couple of months ago. If you tell me this story that started a couple of months ago finished today and now we have 12 matches to play with an advantage of five points, I tell you [we will be] champions. But I don’t know if that story ends here or if you have more waiting for us.

When asked about some missed calls from referee Martin Atkinson, Mourinho responded:

I prefer just to say that this game had four crucial moments: minutes 30, 33, 43 and 69. This is story of the game. I cannot comment because it is difficult for me not to say the truth.

Mourinho was referring here to four crucial non-calls—the first involving a poor challenge from Ashley Barnes on Branislav Ivanovic, the next a handball not called in the box on Michael Kightly, the third a penalty not given when Jason Shackell appeared to shove Diego Costa over, and the fourth involving Barnes again, this time pole-axing Nemanja Matic, which sparked the Chelsea player to run at his attacker and get sent off.

Mourinho was not alone in his disgust over Atkinson’s failure to blow the whistle; former Premier League referee Graham Poll opened his Daily Mail column with this stunning pair of sentences:

A refereeing performance in a Southern Mediterranean or South American country like Martin Atkinson’s at Stamford Bridge on Saturday would have started accusations of corruption. Here in England thankfully we accept honest incompetence.

Even “honest incompetence” is a serious enough accusation to warrant a second look. As with anyone who judges a refereeing performance, there is bound to be some measure of subjectivity involved. However, while I think Atkinson could have done far better here, I’m not certain his performance could be called “incompetent.”

For one, to Burnley’s credit, the match was played by and large on the floor. Sean Dyche’s side were willing to pass the ball, but their enterprising play arguably forced them to play a physical game when out of possession. This also made Atkinson’s job more difficult as both sides were involved in some off-the-ball tussling, some of which was innocent, some of it not. Let’s first look however at the two “middle” missed calls at 33 minutes and 43 minutes.

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I don’t have much to say about the Kightly handball, other than this was about as clear a handball as could be, and should have been given. To my mind, this was Atkinson’s most unforgivable call on the night.

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This next non-call above is, on the other hand, the weakest of Mourinho’s claims to injustice. A reply reveals Shackell did little more than place his hand on Costa’s torso for the Spanish international to collapse in a heap.

The more complex calls involve Ashley Barnes. Here is the first at the half hour mark:

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This clearly should have been a yellow, if not a red. Ivanovic can be heard screaming in pain after the challenge. Yet while Atkinson is well positioned to see the challenge…

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...the line of sight hides Barnes’ sneaky stretched boot. Atkinson may have been paying more attention to whether Barnes raised his elbows. By slyly kicking out in the aerial challenge, Barnes is playing dirty both in his intention to hurt and to conceal. Sometimes avoiding punishment for bad fouls is an art-form perpetrated by the offender. Barnes repeats this trick in the 69th minute challenge which sparked Matic’s shove:

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Again, it is, on its face, a horrific challenge worthy of a straight red. But Barnes’ movement is quick and again well-concealed (no one said a word about it on the call I heard until after Matic shoved him), though Atkinson’s sight line suggests he should have seen it better.

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Barnes, in other words, is a sneaky, dirty player. Burnley were trying to secure a point at the very least at Stamford Bridge, and so a physical game was always on the cards. While Atkinson’s performance wasn’t good, it wasn’t outright incompetent either. Some of the dirtiest tackles are the best-concealed, at least in the few seconds before the slow-motion replay.