I was fortunate enough on my way up to the Premier League to be mentored by a referee who had played the game himself as a semi-pro, and, as a result, the regular meetings we would have over a meal had the bonus of including extended discussions about formations, tactics and their potential to influence our viewing angles.
Since those days, being close to where the ball is going has been the subject of a whole lot of study, to the point where Pierluigi Collina oversaw the appointment of dedicated staff to document tactics employed by the Euro 16 finalists so that match officials could be more effectively prepared for the matches they would be controlling.
This came on the back of a World Cup when FIFA’s Massimo Busacca had been quoted saying he wanted referees to understand more about reading the game, and many attributed the success of that tournament from an officiating point of view to his decision to coach officials on this aspect.
It struck me while watching a recent under-16s game how far-reaching and close to home this trend has become, when I heard a coach clearly tell his players to prepare to go to a back three. The only problem was that the referee in this case did not respond when the change came.
It will affect throw-ins, set-pieces, as well as numerous manoeuvres in the final third and communication between referee and assistants, and the difference it makes is either an opportunity or an an obstacle, depending on how well prepared the team of officials happens to be.
It can’t be right that one of our English FIFA referees missed a legitimate ploy a TV pundit spotted and called ahead of kick-off last season in an important televised Premier League clash which had an effect on relegation. I won’t identify the ref or the match but it sadly highlights how low tactics come on the PGMO priority list.
To use another example from the modern game, a referee might consider occupying deeper positions as he or she is faced with a team employing the high press, and to consider their own vantage point in relation to their active assistant.
Pre-match analysis, as I hope you can appreciate, need not be confined to those going over dossier after dossier for weeks in advance; it has a place at every level of football.
It will pay off for you without a shadow of a doubt if you can can anticipate the optimum position that can only be of benefit for you to adopt, should a key match incident occur during any given passage of play.
The kind of preparation overseen and endorsed by Collina and Busacca, even though it does not appear to have made any discernible impression on the PGMOL, should be part of every current ref’s armoury.
To be blunt, being as exposed as we are to being judged on one critical error, referees can no longer afford NOT to keep up with the way the game is changing. Not only will it save you a lot of unnecessary energy expenditure, it will put you right where you need to be at the very moment the trigger gets pulled, and you won’t spend half of every game playing catch-up!