When Pep Guardiola met with referees’ boss Mike Riley in January, the Manchester City boss hoped it would give him a better grasp of English football.
His conclusion afterwards was that it was a waste of time.
Guardiola was looking to understand how a team dominating possession stats and committing fewer fouls than most teams in the Premier League could be near the bottom of the Fair Play table.
He also wanted to know why his players were being denied so many game-changing decisions in season-defining matches.
So when PGMOL chief Riley accepted a request from the Catalan to meet at City’s Eihad campus, Guardiola asked his club’s technical department to compile a DVD of contentious incidents so that he could gauge the former FIFA referee’s opinion.
In the words of a high-level City source: “Mike Riley just sat there just nodding his head in agreement with what Pep was saying.
“But he offered no kind of explanation as to how so many elite referees could get so many big decisions wrong.
“By the end of the meeting, Pep was none the wiser.
“He felt like it was nothing more than a box-ticking exercise, a waste of time.”
Guardiola’s meeting with Riley – and City’s growing list of complaints at how they have suffered at the hands of inconsistent officials – will be taken into account when the club’s Abu Dhabi owners undertake their annual review in the coming weeks.
There is some agreement in the Etihad boardroom that Guardiola’s first season in English football could have been very different had the common perception that mistakes even themselves out over the course of a campaign been correct.
City believe refereeing errors cost them valuable points in huge Premier League games against title rivals Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal.
And their FA Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of Arsenal saw David Silva kicked out of the game and referee Craig Pawson disallow a Sergio Aguero goal when his assistant Steve Child wrongly ruled that Leroy Sane’s cross had gone out of play.
A dressing room insider said: “There’s widespread support from the dressing room about the complaints Pep has raised with the authorities.
“We’ve seen a string of decisions go against us this season but it’s not just about us being the victims of a series of clangers by the match officials.
“We’ve seen David Silva kicked out of matches and receive absolutely no protection from officials. Take the Arsenal game. He gets badly fouled by Gabriel. It was a challenge that could easily have provoked a red card or, at least, a yellow. Yet Gabriel got away with it and he kicked David out of the match.
“We keep hearing refs are going to protect the skilful ball players yet that’s not what we’re seeing – and David Silva is just the victim of the worst tackles. We’ve plenty of other examples.”
In the Champions League, Sergio Aguero was denied a clear penalty and booked for diving by Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz when Monaco keeper Danijel Subasic should have been sent off.
City won the game 5-3 but lost the last-16 tie on away goals.
Guardiola has kept his counsel about match officials because of his experiences as a player and coach in Spain.
The belief that there was an institutional bias amongst referees towards Real Madrid was a big part of his education when he was coming through the ranks at Barca’s famous La Masia academy.
One close confidante of the Catalan revealed: “Pep was taught that you couldn’t just beat Madrid by being better than them – you had to be much, much better than them so that you could take bad refereeing out of the equation.
“That was a big part of Johan Cruyff’s philosophy and it has guided Pep as both a player and a coach.
“Cruyff would say that if you continually complain about referees then people eventually stop listening and you get a reputation of being someone who moans every time you lose.
“Pep has spent a lot of time this season trying to get that message across to the players at City.
“There have been times when players have lost their discipline because referees have made game-changing mistakes – like when Aguero and Fernandinho were sent off against Chelsea.
“Of course, it was much easier for Pep to overcome bad referees at Barcelona – because he had Lionel Messi.”
Guardiola accepts that it has taken him time to get a grasp of the more aggressive nature of English football.
And his private belief that fitness levels of match officials needs to be improved is even more applicable in the high-intensity Premier League.
But when defender Bacary Sagna was fined £40,000 by the FA for Tweeting about how City had played against 12 men during the 2-1 victory over Burnley in January, it illustrated how deep the frustration at the Etihad runs.
The decisions that upset Pep
Dec 3, 2016: Man City 1 Chelsea 3
Chelsea’s David Luiz escapes a red card for obstructing Sergio Aguero. Aguero is later sent off for fouling Luiz, and Fernandinho sees red for pushing Cesc Fabregas. Both Fabregas and Nathaniel Chalobah escape red cards, despite escalating a melee following Aguero’s dismissal.
Jan 15, 2017: Everton 4 Man City 0
City are denied a clear penalty when Raheem Sterling is fouled by Toffees keeper Joel Robles with the game goalless. They eventually succumb to their heaviest Premier League defeat of the season.
Jan 21, 2017: Man City 2 Tottenham 2
City are leading 2-1 when Raheem Sterling is nudged in the back by Kyle Walker when through on goal. The Spurs defender escapes giving away a penalty and a red card and the visitors hit back to draw.
Feb 21, 2017: Man City 5 Monaco 3
Sergio Aguero is fouled by Monaco keeper Danijel Subasic, but, instead of giving a penalty and producing a red card, Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz books the City striker for diving. Monaco eventually progress on away goals.
Mar 19, 2017: Man City 1 Liverpool 1
Raheem Sterling is taken out by James Milner when he looks certain to fire into an empty goal from point-blank range. But referee Michael Oliver gives neither a penalty nor a red card and later awards the visitors a spot-kick, despite Gael Clichy making contact with the ball.
Apr 2, 2017: Arsenal 2 Man City 2
City are denied a last-minute penalty when Gunners defender Nacho Monreal clearly handles the ball. Guardiola later claims Monreal admitted his guilt to him.
Apr 23, 2017: Arsenal 2 Man City 1
David Silva is clattered out of the FA Cup semi-final by Gabriel, who escapes sanction, while Sergio Aguero has a goal incorrectly disallowed after assistant Steve Childs judges Leroy Sane’s cross went out of play.
Pep Guardiola has a myriad of problems to address with seven players out of contract.
The City boss needs at least three full-backs, a goalkeeper, a centre- back and a holding midfielder.