The most fouled team
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By Tony Attwood
Tackling is by no means the only means of defending: intercepting, marking and harrying all have a place in the game. But still tackling is a major tactic, and it is noticeable how differently each club handles the issue.
To take the simple numbers, we might consider the fact that Leeds United committed 840 tackles in their 38 league games last season, while Arsenal committed 568 tackles and Manchester City (the only team to commit fewer tackles than Arsenal) put in 471.
Tackling has changed quite a lot over the years, but the big revolution happened in 2020/21 compared with the year before. You can see the full set of data here, but in summary, in 2020/21 …
- 17 out of 20 clubs cut their tackling in comparison with the previous year, but Arsenal did it the most.
- 7 out of 20 clubs cut their fouling compared with the previous year, but Arsenal cut theirs the most
- 13 out of the 20 clubs reduced their yellow card rate compared with the previous year, but Arsenal cut theirs the most.
But what impact did this have on other teams? (Figures below come from WhoScored.) The amount Arsenal were fouled by other clubs had been going down year on year. Arsenal were fouled in league matches 456 times in 2018/19, then 437 times in 2019/20. The number of fouls against Arsenal went down to 399 in 2020/21, and then again to 357 in 2021/22. That’s a drop of 28%.
However last season other clubs clearly felt they were not getting the better of Arsenal through legitimate means as the number of fouls against the club shot up almost to the 2019/20 level (433).
Now that all looks rather like Arsenal buying in some good defenders who could either bypass bad tackles or move the ball on quickly. But there is a statistic – never reported by the media – within these figures that might cause us to think again about the way referees call certain tackles fouls and others not.
In 2018/19 Aston Villa were promoted from the Championship through the playoffs and in each of the four seasons since they they have been the most fouled team in the league. Indeed in 2019/20 they were fouled 39% more times than Arsenal and an astonishing 77% more than Manchester City..
So what is going on? Why, year after year, are Aston Villa being fouled more than any other?
Interestingly there is a similar repetitive pattern at the other end of the table. Season after season West Ham get fouled fewer times than any other club – except this last season when West Ham were the 19th most fouled club in the league.
Now I can immediately understand how, for example, Leeds United foul more than other clubs year on year. One can think of the way they play, the sort of players they buy, and the fact that referees most likely approach Leeds’ games expecting Leeds to be a dirty team, and so blow the whistle more.
But why would Aston Villa be fouled 82% more times than West Ham in a season?
We could try the argument that Aston Villa persistently uses players who hold onto the ball too long and invite tackles, and so get fouled while West Ham regularly move the ball on quickly and so can’t be fouled. That is a possible explanation, but it would be odd to see that year after year, and watching videos of the clubs play I don’t really see that.
Or we could argue that this is just a statistical oddity – except the oddities are not just those two clubs. Crystal Palace for example, are regularly the second or third-most-fouled club in the league.
And the differences are large. Aston Villa were fouled 498 times while Manchester United were only fouled 296 times last season.
Certainly fouling is a tactic for breaking up attacks, but then the least fouled teams last season were Manchester United, West Ham United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. There is no connection between these clubs in terms of goals scored. But the patterns are there when we look at clubs that are fouled, and really only two explanations come to mind.
One is that certain teams do tend to hold the ball and run with it more than others, which pass the ball quickly. Thus those teams that hold the ball more tend to get tackled more and get fouled more. The managers might like this as it will bring free kicks and so the clubs are trying to progress through free kicks.
The other is that referees see certain clubs as victims of bad fouls and so are more likely to call a tackle against such a team as a foul. This certainly could be aiding clubs like Aston Villa as they will be getting a lot more free kicks than others.
And we have come across this issue of the referee’s perception of a team before, and that in the notorious case of Leicester City who were able to get away with tackles with impunity and yet would receive far more penalties than other teams. The notion that they got away with it due to referees simply feeling that Leicester were clean tacklers but were harshly treated by other defenders was put forward in Untold, and from that moment the attitude of referees to Leicester seemed to change. Of course I would never claim that Untold influenced how referees saw Leicester – I am sure it a coincidence – once with tackling and once with getting penalties.
And we can say yes it is a coincidence that for four seasons in a row Aston Villa have been fouled more than any other club in the league. Or it simply could be the perception of the referees that any other clubs like to kick Villa off the park, so many more tackles against Villa are called as fouls.
But it is odd that last season West Ham in fact could put in two and a half times as many tackles as Chelsea before getting a card. It’s an extraordinary difference. In fact basically, West Ham could tackle last season with near impunity.
And here’s another point: the rest of the league seemed very reluctant to put in tackles against West Ham for fear of the tackle being called as a foul. West Ham was the 19th most fouled team in the league.
When the opposition won’t tackle you, that helps.
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