FEATURE: How Manuel Pellegrini’s referee frustration is focused at Mark Clattenburg

For a man who doesn’t want to talk about referees, as he so often says in his post-match interviews, Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini certainly discusses the officials a fair bit.

He’s a regular with the good old lines like “it was a clear offside” or “it was a clear penalty” or “it was a clear red card” or “the referee didn’t whistle for the foul” and they invariably slip under the radar, as the watching world seems to focus on the “I don’t want to talk about the referee” bit.

City fans often question his tactic of not calling out the officials on making mistakes and the press pack frequently praises him for his reaction of looking at his team’s misgivings, since he quite often also says things like “we made a mistake also” in and around that part of the interview. It means he’s seen as a gentleman, when actually he ticks the box of criticising a referee’s decision without facing FA action.

After all, there’s only really two things they get under the Chilean’s skin. The officials is the first; Jose Mourinho is the second – and he’s long since gone, though nobody expected it would be Pellegrini that lasted the longer in the posts they took up at the same time in 2013 as the two suffered differing fates back in April.


Without getting into the discussion of whether or not the manager’s approach is effective – what good is it hiding your criticism of the referee in the semantics of your interview if it doesn’t make headlines and it doesn’t affect future matches that are officiated by that individual? – there is one man who seems to get to Pellegrini more than any other.

City’s fans have a turbulent relationship with Mark Clattenburg (which is the polite way of saying the vast majority hate his guts), to the point where it has spawned several chants that feature his name. Perhaps it’s a good old fashioned vendetta a portion of supporters have fed into or maybe it’s just the iambic pentameter of his surname, but certainly he’s up there for many as one of the worst in the league.

It started when he (correctly) chose to send off Dedryck Boyata three minutes into a home match with Arsenal in 2010. It was a game City would go on to lose 3-0 – but that call was the right one as the Belgian denied a clear goalscoring opportunity. A penalty against Vincent Kompany was equally as correct later on, but by that point the home supporters had already made up their minds.

Pellegrini almost certainly isn’t a fan of the referee, either.

“I think more important than my view of the penalty is the view that everyone saw what happened. Unfortunately for us, with the same referee in [Mark] Clattenburg, we lost against Tottenham in the first round with two clear goals in offside. Now, with the penalty that was decisive for the game, I have nothing more to say.”

There was no softly-softly approach from the Chilean after the defeat at home to Tottenham. It may have been a combination of anger, disbelief, and the dawning realisation that he’s mucked up this Premier League campaign and his side are well off the pace in the hunt for the title that helped deliver both barrels, but Pellegrini’s not been afraid of calling Clattenburg out before.

Perhaps the decision to award the handball against Raheem Sterling was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, and in his post-match press conference pretty much the whole of the attending journalists missed the bigger story – the manager admitted that those above City in the table are “better teams”, despite them not having invested anything like as much as City have and despite, at the beginning of the campaign, it looking like the Blues had the best squad in the division.

Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

It felt so unusual for the manager to be so heavily critical of the official that that’s where all the eyes were. It was a distraction; while a decoy had our heads turned, Pellegrini stuck his hand into our back pockets and nicked our wallets.

The Chilean’s opinion of the referee seemed to begin to be formed in his first season in Manchester, though they had met before – Clattenburg refereed Malaga’s 1-0 loss at Porto in the Champions League in 2013. The official also took charge of City’s 3-2 defeat at Anfield, where the visitors had come from 2-0 down to draw level – before they threw it away with a soft goal from a Kompany mistake.

In the match, there were two talking points. Clattenburg, having already booked Luis Suarez, chose to ignore a clear dive from the striker when he would have been fully justified in awarding a second yellow card. To compound Pellegrini’s frustration, in the final minute of stoppage time and while the Chilean’s side were losing, Martin Skrtel handled the ball in the box.

The referee didn’t point to the spot.

“There was a very clear penalty for Skrtel with his hand in the box, but I don’t think the result today was for the referee. I think that he made a very good work today in a very difficult game. If he didn’t see that hand, then he didn’t see it.”

City would go on to claim the title that season, but Pellegrini didn’t let that decision go. It continued on into the next campaign, as the Blues drew 2-2 at the Emirates early on – and it went through some revision. Despite admitting the handball call was difficult after the match, he changed his tune a little a few months later.

Again there was controversy over refereeing decisions and it seemed to be City, in the eyes of Pellegrini, who were on the receiving end of the poor calls. The fans were unhappy that Arsenal’s equaliser stood after Sergio Aguero was fouled several times in the build-up.


The second strike – which put the home side in the lead – was clearer, however. As Kompany challenged for the ball, he was shoved in the back by Danny Welbeck, meaning his clearance didn’t have the desired effect. The hosts kept the ball alive, putting it straight back into the box, where Alexis Sanchez fired a thunderbolt past Joe Hart.

The referee missed the shove, though it couldn’t have been clearer. Insult was added to injury as Wilshere then intentionally handled the ball in his own box to steer it away from the on-coming David Silva.

“Both goals of Arsenal were illegal goals, both with clear fouls and the referee didn’t want to whistle. The first one, there are very clear – two or three – pushes to Sergio Aguero, and afterwards, a clear push from Welbeck to Kompany. He goes for the ball without any intention to play [it], and finally with that very clear penalty. Too many things to try to win away with a very good team as Arsenal.

“I don’t think this penalty was more clear than last year with Skrtel and Liverpool with his feet inside the box, but very similar which penalty was more clear – with the same referee.”

The unhappiness with Clattenburg’s officiating continued into the current campaign. With City looking to bounce back from defeats to Juventus and West Ham, the Blues travelled to White Hart Lane – where they started well but forgot to keep playing after 40 minutes of the match.

They took the lead through Kevin De Bruyne, before a ridiculously wide margin was missed for an offside in the build-up to the home side’s equaliser. It wasn’t a direct result, as City had the chance to clear comfortably and failed to take it, before the ball was drilled in from range.

A goalkeeper error from Willy Caballero made it 2-1 to the home side, before another clear offside allowed Harry Kane to score – he was beyond the line when a free kick was taken and never got himself back onside before putting the rebound off the crossbar into the net. Making it worse – he was inside the box when the ball was played and City’s defensive line was outside, meaning the linesman had a marking on the floor by which to measure the decision, and he still got it wrong.

Pellegrini, while critical of his side’s defending, saved the worst for the officials.

“I think it’s very important because we played very well in the first half. That goal was clearly offside – I don’t believe they couldn’t see it – but after that we made also mistakes in clearing the ball. In the second half, two set pieces – one of them also in offside – decided the game.”


It’s worth noting that Clattenburg has refereed City in other matches, with both positive and negative results under Pellegrini and without controversy. The official took charge of the 2-0 win against Watford earlier this season, as well as the 4-2 success at Swansea and 3-1 victory at West Brom in 2014-15 – but it seems his errors stick much more vividly and for much longer in the memory of both the manager and the fans.

Pellegrini seems to save a little something more for Clattenburg when he’s reacting to a poor call. He could have done the same for Bobby Madley or Roger East following games against Everton where they both missed two of the most obvious penalties a match will see – but he didn’t. He went in tough, but after Spurs he was naming names.

It’s probably fair to say the awful decision to award Tottenham was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Chilean. He’s been a regular fan of calling out Clattenburg’s errors – and should he be assigned one of City’s final games of the current campaign, God alone knows what Pellegrini will say should there be any hint of controversy.

Who needs Jose Mourinho to get the City boss to lose his rag?

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Written by David Mooney.


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