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Comparison of fouls across the years

By Tony Attwood

Back in the early days of the century, Arsenal were portrayed as the dirtiest team in the Premier League.  Every time Arsenal got a card there was manufactured outrage by the media.   Interestingly no one ever compared Arsenal’s card level with any other team, and so those who were anti-Arsenal and anti-Wenger were able to claim that the level of Arsenal’s cards were shocking, without anyone knowing Arsenal’s true status.

It was my memory of this and the extreme boredom that comes from hearing endless debates about what is wrong with the England team when the answer is obvious (not enough coaches in England, too many Tottenham players in the team) that made me to look at how fouls and cards have changed since the start of the century.

Here is the table for 2000/1 – the teams played 38 games, exactly the same as now.  The tables are presented in terms of the number of fouls, with the lowest fouling teams at the top.  We can see that the range of the number of fouls by teams through the season ranged from 414 to 618.

The top five in the league that season are marked in red for ease of comparison of level of fouling and league position.

League Tables – Discipline – English Premier – 2000/2001

Position Team
Total Per Game Fouls
per Card
Yellow Red Pts Fouls Yellow Fouls
5 Ipswich 31 2 35.0 414 0.82 10.89 13.35
13 Leicester 56 2 60.0 426 1.47 11.21 7.61
1 Man United 44 3 50.0 433 1.16 11.39 9.84
9 Charlton 44 3 50.0 467 1.16 12.29 10.61
3 Liverpool 50 4 58.0 473 1.32 12.45 9.46
15 West Ham 69 3 75.0 473 1.82 12.45 6.86
8 Aston Villa 66 3 72.0 491 1.74 12.92 7.44
2 Arsenal 48 3 54.0 495 1.26 13.03 10.31
14 Middlesbrough 72 6 84.0 498 1.89 13.11 6.92
10 Southampton 49 1 51.0 509 1.29 13.39 10.39
20 Bradford 57 1 59.0 517 1.50 13.61 9.07
12 Tottenham 45 3 51.0 526 1.18 13.84 11.69
17 Derby 76 2 80.0 529 2.00 13.92 6.96
19 Coventry 76 4 84.0 529 2.00 13.92 6.96
6 Chelsea 75 2 79.0 545 1.97 14.34 7.27
11 Newcastle 48 5 58.0 552 1.26 14.53 11.50
16 Everton 74 5 84.0 558 1.95 14.68 7.54
18 Man City 69 3 75.0 589 1.82 15.50 8.54
4 Leeds 72 3 78.0 589 1.89 15.50 8.18
7 Sunderland 73 5 83.0 618 1.92 16.26 8.47

Fifteen years on the range of fouls is 315 to 472 (compared with 414 to 618).  Thus Man U, the team that was seen to commit the most fouls last season, would have only been the fifth worst team at the start of the century.

League Tables – Discipline – English Premier –  2015/2016

Position Team
Total Per Game Fouls
per Card
Yellow Red Pts Fouls Yellow Fouls
11 Everton 44 5 54.0 315 1.16 8.29 7.16
2 Arsenal 39 4 47.0 350 1.03 9.21 8.97
16 Bournemouth 52 1 54.0 362 1.37 9.53 6.96
7 West Ham 56 5 66.0 381 1.47 10.03 6.80
12 Swansea 62 1 64.0 392 1.63 10.32 6.32
14 West Brom 63 3 69.0 392 1.66 10.32 6.22
17 Sunderland 62 2 66.0 396 1.63 10.42 6.39
1 Leicester 48 3 54.0 405 1.26 10.66 8.44
10 Chelsea 58 6 70.0 408 1.53 10.74 7.03
4 Man City 61 0 61.0 409 1.61 10.76 6.70
18 Newcastle 58 5 68.0 414 1.53 10.89 7.14
6 Southampton 57 6 69.0 416 1.50 10.95 7.30
19 Norwich 61 3 67.0 417 1.61 10.97 6.84
9 Stoke 51 4 59.0 419 1.34 11.03 8.22
8 Liverpool 61 3 67.0 422 1.61 11.11 6.92
20 Aston Villa 75 3 81.0 431 1.97 11.34 5.75
3 Tottenham 72 0 72.0 452 1.89 11.89 6.28
13 Watford 74 3 80.0 460 1.95 12.11 6.22
15 Crystal Palace 60 1 62.0 465 1.58 12.24 7.75
5 Man United 65 1 67.0 472 1.71 12.42 7.26

So the number of fouls has declined.  But this leaves us with a problem.   Is this because

a) Players commit fewer fouls

b) Referees are more lax in terms of blowing for fouls, allowing more events that would have been called fouls at the start of the century, to pass unremarked.

c) Referees are more relaxed in terms of fouls by certain teams – thus picking up some teams for every foul they see but letting others get away with it.

d) Players commit fewer fouls

e) Referees have less idea what is going on.

There is evidence from Untold’s referee team that referees are certainly not equal in awarding fouls by certain team (point c).  There is also evidence that e) is true as I will try and show.

If you watch any films of complete football matches from earlier eras you will notice a different style of play.  The game was slower in terms of its passing movement and defenders look a lot less skilful than now.  As such fouls were easier to see; not least because of the lack of subtlety of the fouls themselves.

Part of this drive towards subtlety in fouling has come about through the increase in punishments.  When all you got for a foul was a free kick against you, and no totting up process, it was easy for lumbering defenders to use their muscle to make up for a use of speed, and to continue to do that all the way through the game, giving away free kicks without any thought that they might be sent off, or miss the next game through gathering too many yellow cards.

Now we have subtlety and speed – and a fair amount of simulation.    But the referee and his assistants are still exactly the same as before – one in the middle, one on each line.  They are fitter than they used to be of course, but not by enough to be able to catch out the range of fouls we now see.

So there is every reason to believe that at least part (and maybe all) of the decline of the number of fouls called is not because the game is cleaner, but because the nature of fouling has changed, and the referees see less because of the speed of the game.

This issue of subtle change over time is also a possible explanation for the fact that the number of yellow cards (31 for the least offending club to 76 for the most in 2001/2) changed to 39 to 75 last year.  The number of fouls has come tumbling down, but the number of cards has stayed in the same sort of range.

The most likely explanation here is that referees know they are picking up a lot less of the game because of the deliberate attempts at cheating, and, once more, the speed of the game.  So they are waving cards more often. Plus of course Fifa is forever expanding the number of offences that merit a yellow.

Thus we see that the big change therefore is in the number of fouls per card.  In 2000/1 it ranged from 6.86 to 13.35.  In 2015/16 it was 5.75 to 8.97.

What this shows us is that in 2000/1 you generally needed to commit many more fouls to get a yellow, than you did in 2015/16.   And from this one could argue that players commit fewer fouls, or are more clever at hiding fouls from the refs.

The next thing we notice is that there is now far less of a relationship between the clubs’ position in the league and its likelihood to be a top fouling team.   As noted above I have marked the top five teams in the league each season in red.   We can see that the top five in 2015/16 are spread out through the league when it is measured in terms of the number of fouls committed, whereas at the start of the century there was a tendency for the lesser fouling teams to be higher up the league.

What this suggests is that in the past the more skilful teams tended to win the league.   It was probably always possible to win the league dirty but clubs didn’t approach matters that way. Now some clubs go out to play in this way.  Stoke are the most obvious example.

Finally to check that this change, with the least fouling clubs not collected near the top but spread out is not a one off I looked at the season before last, and the pattern is still there.

League Tables – Discipline – English Premier – All – 2014/2015

Position Team Played For
Total Per Game Fouls
per Card
Yellow Red Pts Fouls Yellow Fouls
3 Arsenal 38 68 2 72.0 377 1.79 9.92 5.54
1 Chelsea 38 77 4 85.0 382 2.03 10.05 4.96
6 Liverpool 38 66 3 72.0 385 1.74 10.13 5.83
11 Everton 38 66 2 70.0 388 1.74 10.21 5.88
8 Swansea 38 48 5 58.0 398 1.26 10.47 8.29
17 Aston Villa 38 70 7 84.0 400 1.84 10.53 5.71
19 Burnley 38 64 2 68.0 406 1.68 10.68 6.34
12 West Ham 38 64 2 68.0 420 1.68 11.05 6.56
13 West Brom 38 64 3 70.0 423 1.68 11.13 6.61
15 Newcastle 38 66 7 80.0 433 1.74 11.39 6.56
16 Sunderland 38 94 3 100.0 435 2.47 11.45 4.63
5 Tottenham 38 79 4 87.0 441 2.08 11.61 5.58
2 Man City 38 77 2 81.0 445 2.03 11.71 5.78
20 QPR 38 75 3 81.0 447 1.97 11.76 5.96
18 Hull 38 71 6 83.0 451 1.87 11.87 6.35
4 Man United 38 64 5 74.0 453 1.68 11.92 7.08
14 Leicester 38 49 4 57.0 457 1.29 12.03 9.33
7 Southampton 38 57 3 63.0 468 1.50 12.32 8.21
9 Stoke 38 82 1 84.0 486 2.16 12.79 5.93
10 Crystal Palace 38 63 4 71.0 527 1.66 13.87 8.37

This table shows that as for 2015/16, in 2014/15 it was possible to achieve a fairly high position in the league either by being a clean team, or a dirty team.  That never used to be the case.  But it is an approach used by Tottenham and Man U in particular over two seasons.  It is not noticed by the media, of course, but the figures are there, and you can probably predict the coming season, based on these figures.

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9 comments to Comparison of fouls across the years

  • omgarsenal

    Tony and Walter…..as a referee who has officiated across both the 20th and 21st century, I definitely see a change in the game that has rendering catching fouls and cheating even harder than it once was:

    1)Players never really respected the officials much in either era BUT today they are downright abusive and aggressive in far too many instances. This leads to an official getting annoyed (right Walter?) at this attitude and being more inclined to control the game using his cards, imho.

    2)When I first started officiating in the 70’s, players generally didn’t have the finesse and interest in dibing and simulating. This has definitely changed and made it harder to spot the fakers, because they’ve perfected this ¨art¨! We used to say that Italy had 20,000 actors and all the bad ones were on the stage. Now there are hundred of thousands worldwide and most are playing on TV!

    3) Rotational fouling is now coming into vogue, as is shirt pulling, elbowing and studs up tackling on the opponents ankle, to name a few favourites. Officiating has not really improved substantially since I began in the 70’s but the players speed, strength, overall size, skill level and aggressiveness has….it is getting harder and harder to keep^up with it all. FIFA can make the rules but officials need to apply them uniformly and they don’t get a great deal of help or support for that.

    As usual, officials are regarded as an uncomfortable necessity but not worthy of any real concern, as long as the 22+ players get their game. God help us IF we have a bad game or make some serious mistakes….they will line up to chastize us but rarely remember us when all goes well. Maybe the latter is the way it should be but NOT the former!

  • omgarsenal

    Opps…too many typos! dibing=diving, keep up

  • The officiating has not changed in large part because the corrupt nature of FIFA did not want it to change. The officiating is the easiest way for game manipulation so that results favor what FIFA/Uefa/FAs and various corrupt individuals want.

    They need to:
    1) Value getting the decision right and make every effort to help the refs on the field get the decision right.
    2) they need to add an official on the field – 2 field refs and 2 line refs working the game together.
    3) they need to give line refs whistles and authority to call fouls
    4) they need to have more refs and pay the better
    5) they need to have video reply at all high level games with a focus on penalty decisions
    6) the officiating team ought to be able to do all aspects of the game and the duties are assigned randomly just before the game.
    7) no ref should do more than two league games and one cup game with any one team

    this is just a start of suggestions

  • Mick

    Slightly OT
    Mark Clattenburg has been assigned to referee the France/Portugal Euros final on Sunday.

  • WalterBroeckx

    I remember reading an interview with Riley a few years ago in which he said that the main target for referees was to keep the game flowing. And in order to do that… the refs ignore fouls they didn’t ignore in the past.
    This is the main reason for there being fewer fouls in the PL. Mind you from the back of my head I seem to remember that in other leagues the number of given fouls is a lot higher. Don’t have time to go on the lookout for the moment.

    The fact that the cards numbers are roughly the same is because for some type of fouls there is now a mandatory card. If the ref doesn’t give it he will drop points from his report. So he will give more yellow cards for fewer fouls.

    So in short: it is down to Riley and the PGMO. Has it ever been different over the last 6-7 years? 😉

  • Goonermikey

    It is noteworthy that in 2000/2001 Newcastle had an extremely high fouls per card ratio.

    I did some cursory research at that time and from memory there was a very clear reason for that statistic. A certain “football expert” by the name of Alan Shearer managed to commit the most fouls of any premiership player for two (possibly three) consecutive seasons.

    OK Shearer was an old fashioned, rough, tough centre-forward. But the referee/FA bias that existed at that time actually saw Shearer actually go without a single yellow card for about two consecutive seasons too – that was something like 200 fouls without a card (and some of those fouls involved elbows let’s not forget!).

    If I recall correctly during the same era, Patrick Vieira was picking up a yellow for about every three or four fouls!! You draw your own conclusions…..I’m sure they’ll be the same as mine.

  • Gord

    One place where video and computer technology might help, is diving. In a dive, the athlete prepares for contact with the Earth before they notice they have been tripped (or whatever). A computer needs to analyze the athlete’s position frame by frame (preferably much higher than 24 fps frame rate) to look for this.

  • insideright

    It’s become more obvious to me in the last couple of seasons that tackling with the wrong foot (the leg closest to the tackled player) is being punished almost automatically as it is viewed as being almost impossible to do ‘cleanly’. They are often not dirty fouls but, as contact is made with the opponent before the ball, they must be ‘foul’ tackles.

  • Pete

    Two points:

    1. Think the standard of refereeing in the Euros has been vastly better than we see in the PL. Hardly a single game has been ruined/distorted by poor decisions. I think only 2 red cards as well, so the refs have been using their other skills to control games. Very refreshing.

    2. Still can’t quite believe Tottenham avoided any red cards on the field (two retrospectively) last season.

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