Tackles fouls and yellows: how Arsenal have learned to handle the refs




Prior to the game between Arsenal and Wolverhampton, we had a number of comments from Wolverhampton supporters pointing out that Wolverhampton had suffered this season at the hands of referees.

And indeed if we were to include red cards in our regular surveys of the ways referees treat clubs we would indeed see Wolverhampton out on their own with six red cards.  Four clubs below them all have three cards – so Wolverhampton have at least twice as many red cards as any other club this season.   And that difference is emphasised even more when one considers that five clubs (including Arsenal) had no red cards at all this season.

Now if you read the comments on Untold you will know that some Wolverhampton supporters wrote in with what one might call “added vigour” to protest at our earlier analysis of the way they play, with the Wolverhampton fans constantly accusing referees of bias.

We didn’t publish them all because of the intemperate nature of some, but nonetheless, this seemed like a good place to start our review of the way referees have been treating clubs this season: “can we find evidence as to how and why Wolverhampton got double the number of reds of any other club?” 

So to start, here is the usual table of tackles, fouls and yellow cards.  As ever we don’t include red cards because too many clubs (six this season, including Arsenal) don’t get any red cards at all.  And zeros in maths make the statistics impossible to compare.

If you regularly look at our reports on these issues over the years, you will know that we compare the number of tackles with the number of fouls and yellow cards to look for referee inconsistency.  But we have to start with the raw data, and it is below, with the most consistent of teams in the defensive regard being right at the top: Leeds tackle the most, foul the most and get carded the most.

But then it breaks down.  Chelsea tackle the most but are 14th in the fouling league and ninth in terms of yellows: the implication clearly being that they can afford to buy in the best tacklers.  It doesn’t help their league position, but does reduce the card level.

And in fact looking from the top down, the link between tackles fouls and yellow cards is far less obvious than we have seen in the past.  But it is there.  Seven of the top ten tackling teams are in the top ten for fouls, and six of the top ten tackling teams are in the top ten for yellow cards.  We’ll analyse it fully, in the next piece.


Team Tackles pg Tackles pos Fouls pg Fouls Pos Yellow PG Yellow pos
1. Leeds 22.1 1 12.3 1 2.21 1
2. Chelsea 19.5 2 10.4 14 2.03 9
3. Southampton 18.8 3 11.3 5 2.08 11
4. Everton 18.6 4 10.4 15 2.08 6
5. Leicester 18.4 5 10.8 11 1.55 14
6. Crystal Palace 18.2 6 11.7 3 2.08 7
7. Wolverhampton 17.4 7 12.2 2 2.21 2
8. Nottingham Forest 17.3 8 11.7 4 2.21 3
9. Manchester United 17.3 9 11.2 8 2.05 8
10. Aston Villa 16.7 10 11 9 2.11 4
11. Fulham 16.4 11 10.8 10 2.11 5
12. Bournemouth 16.3 12 10.3 16 1.81 12
13. Tottenham 16.2 13 11.2 7 1.97 10
14. Brighton 16.2 14 11.2 6 1.55 15
15. Newcastle 16 15 10.7 12 1.63 13
16. West Ham 16 16 9.5 18 1.16 19
17. Liverpool 15.5 17 10.7 13 1.50 16
18. Brentford 15.4 18 9.3 19 1.45 17
19. Arsenal 14.9 19 9.8 17 1.37 18
20. Manchester City 12.4 20 9.1 20 1.16 20


The numbers however do become clearer when we see that the eight teams that tackle the least are all in the bottom half of the table when it comes to yellow cards.

The complaints of Wolverhampton fans will of course be examined in more detail when we come to the regular “part 2” of the analysis – the relationship between tackles, fouls and cards, but for now let’s note that the bottom five clubs in terms of tackling are also the bottom five in terms of yellow cards this season.  Not exactly in the same order, but as a group they move together.  The message as ever is simple: to avoid yellows and reds, stop tackling.

Yet the difference between clubs in terms of tackling (which is the one element of all this totally under their control, as the judgement of what is a foul and what is worthy of a yellow card is of course in the hands of the referee), between clubs, is large.  And since it is Wolverhampton fans who are putting in the complaints, let’s compare Arsenal and Wolverhampton.

Wolverhampton put in 17% more tackles than Arsenal.  But Wolverhampton have 24.5% more of their tackles seen as fouls, than Arsenal.   And then they end up with 61% more yellow cards than Arsenal.

Now that might seem an unwarranted escalation by referees, but it is something we have noted all the way through these investigations: it doesn’t just happen to Wolverhampton – it happens to all high-volume tacklers.   Referees don’t just give out cards for tackles, they also give out cards for what they consider cumulative bad tackling.

That might be a wrong use of the rules by refs, but I am not trying to judge the rights and wrong, merely look at what happens, and we have seen all the way through these analyses over the years.

Clubs that tackle a lot get given a certain amount of leeway at the start, as fewer of their tackles are called as fouls.  But as time goes on, referees tend to give more and more of these tackles as fouls, and then as yellows.

In 2019/20 Arsenal were top of the league with 86 yellow cards across the season, compared with 84 for Leeds, at the top this season.  Arsenal have now cut that by 40%, kept their players on the pitch and risen up the league from 8th to 2nd.

More on all this, as the analysis continues.

One Reply to “Tackles fouls and yellows: how Arsenal have learned to handle the refs”

  1. As a sggestion count red cards as two yellows for the purpose of analysis. In some cases they are the result of two yellows so there is an argument that this would be valid. Might not make any difference but would be interesting.

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