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.
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.
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.
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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