How Manchester City manage their defence in a way others can’t.



By Tony Attwood

Last season Manchester City and Newcastle United each conceded 33 goals, which is ten goals fewer than Arsenal in the league.  For Manchester City that was a return to their normal level after the quite extraordinary drop down to the 26 conceded the season before.   Back in 2021 they again had the most solid defence with 32 goals.   In 2020 they slipped and had the second-best defence with 35 goals, with Liverpool conceding 33.   The low 30s is where a team normally needs to be in terms of goals conceded if it wants to win the league. (League tables taken from 11v11).

And indeed season after season Manchester City have the best or second-best defence, as we might expect.  So how do they do it?    Of course, the simple answer is that they have the best defenders.   But we began to wonder if the figures could show us anything else.

Last season Arsenal committed more tackles, had more fouls given against them and gained more yellow cards than Manchester City.  But was this, we wondered, perhaps because of referees or was it player brilliance and tactics?

The prime reason to be suspicious is that instead of referees equally being spread out in terms of which clubs they see, certain clubs get refereed by the same men over and over and over again – something that may not be relevant but which, in the absence of other data, is rather concerning.

Last season five referees oversaw 22 of Manchester City’s 38 games around 58%.  (Figures throughout are from WhoScored) So five men control over half of the club’s games.   That doesn’t show anything is wrong, but if anything were to be wrong, it would mean that very very few people would have to be “influenced” for results to move in one club’s favour.


Referee Man C Games Fouls pg Yel pg Yel Total
1.Simon Hooper 6 9.00 1.33 8
2.Andy Madley 4 8.50 1.50 6
3.Michael Oliver 4 8.00 1.00 4
4.Anthony Taylor 4 8.75 1.50 6
5.Robert Jones 4 12.50 1.25 5


Arsenal however had only three referees undertaking multiple games at this level.  The referee who Arsenal saw the most was Anthony Taylor – a referee whose home win rate was 33.33% – the 17th lowest of all the referees working in the PL last season.

Not surprisingly Arsenal were top of the league in terms of away games but only third in terms of home games.

Referee Arsenal Games Fouls pg Yel pg Yel Total
1.Anthony Taylor 6 10.50 2.00 12
2.Michael Oliver 5 11.00 0.80 4
3.David Coote 4 8.75 1.50 6


Now of course any referee’s figures can be caused because they are a true reflection of reality or because the referee is biased.   But with referees overseeing multiple games we can get an indication of what is going on by comparing the referees in these games with other games.

Simon Hooper oversaw Manchester City games six times – that is 16% of Manchester City’s games, and he is a referee who is 17th in the league table of referees measured by fouls per game.   Where others see fouls, he doesn’t.  He is 16th on the list in order of the number of yellow cards given.

But he is known to treat home and away teams very differently: for example he oversaw 55.2% home wins and 17.2% away wins.  With figures like that one can imagine that away clubs playing against Manchester City started without a chance.

These figures can’t prove that referees favoured Manchester City and disfavoured Arsenal but they can one an uncomfortable feeling because of the disparity between referees.   And when one adds in the difference that emerges from the tackles, fouls and yellow cards stats, then there is certainly enough here to warrant an investigation that something is seriously wrong, even though once again there is no proof just from the figures.   (Comments made thus far suggest my original presentation of the figures was not clear, so this section has since been modified to clarify the point)

Arsenal made 14.9 tackles and are adjudged to have committed 9.8 fouls per game giving an average of 1.52 tackles per foul.  As a result they got 52 yellow cards in the season

Manchester City made 12.4 tackles per game and were adjudged to have committed 9.1 fouls per game thus 1.32 tackles per foul thus seeming to be a dirtier team than Arsenal.   And yet they only got 44 yellow cards in the season.  It seems a little strange.

Of course, that is possible – maybe it is the case that when Arsenal commit a foul they really do it big time, and are so much more worthy of a yellow than Manchester City.  But it is interesting that the difference in the number of fouls that Manchester City players commit and the number Arsenal  commit is so small…


Team Fouls pg Yellow per game Fouls per Yellow
1. Manchester City 9.1 1.16 7.84
4. Arsenal 9.8 1.37 7.15


So we can see that when it comes to the fouls themselves and what happens then, referees are more keen to hand out yellow cards to Arsenal players than to Manchester City players.

Of course one can still argue that Arsenal fouls are much worse than Manchester City fouls, as those figures suggest, but I really do find that hard to believe, having watched a lot of football last season.  Rather like those Leicester City figures we found a few years ago, which started our interest in tackles, fouls and yellow cards, this just doesn’t look right.

11 Replies to “How Manchester City manage their defence in a way others can’t.”

  1. just curious – regarding the bit where you said “Manchester City can commit 10.69 fouls before getting a yellow card. Arsenal can commit 7.15 fouls before getting a yellow card.”

    the 10.69 figure comes from the Tackles per yellow column – the figure from the correct column is 7.84

    a mistake on your part or did I miss something

  2. Thanks John – the figures are all done with a calculator and me sitting at the computer. I may well have made an error although I do try and check everything. As soon as I get a moment I’ll check again


  3. So, it’s City cheating again then?
    I prefer the notion that City beat Arsenal three times last season and won the league comfortably.

  4. No there is no accusation of City cheating in the article. The key point that is raised as has oft been raised before is that to overcome the problems we find with referees there should be enough referees so that each team only sees each ref twice, once at home and once away. Not quite sure how you got to the notion of cheating by Manchester City from that.

  5. Don’t you think that possession may have a serious effect on fouls committed? It’s very rare for a foul or yellow card to be awarded against the team in possession.

    Minutes out of possession per foul committed: City 3.44 Arsenal 3.70 (Based on the season’s possession stats: City 65.2% Arsenal 59.7%)

    Next: oh actually City are dirtier than Arsenal…

    Fine margins of course.
    Not fine margins: Arsenal 1-3 City; City 4-1 Arsenal

  6. you have obviously carried out a great deal of research but the one key factor you don’t account for is the skill of the players.
    a clumsy tackle gets booked. a minor infringment doesn’t. it’s that simple .

  7. Mike that of course is true, but having watched a lot of football and read a lot of reports I really don’t see that as the difference between the two clubs. You may well do of course and there is no objective view of clumsiness, but if Arsenal were that clumsy surely they would be more that 0.7 more fouls than Man City a game against them.

  8. Rick minutes out of possession is indeed an interesting figure, and yes it is not one that I have introduced before. Thanks for the tip and I’ll start looking at that.

  9. It’s clear & obvious that referees interpret actions differently within the rules and guidelines of the game, which savi coaches have been exploiting for decades. As a means of gaining any advantage I’d think or remiss of any coach that hasn’t taken this into account as much as anything to do with opposition players & tactics. PGMOL are just making this easier to achieve by their restricted game allotment.

  10. Precisely the point Ukesox. Some commenters may think they sound clever but missing the cogent point of the article merely indicates dim wit or bias toward City. What reason could the PIGMOB have for assigning one ref to a club six times? Let me guess. He lives next door and it’s convenient for his commute? Or it’s more convenient for the betting crowd?

  11. I guess it all becomes clear when you live in a country or in a place where all men are born equal , but some are just more equal than others !
    I guess in most places the referees are from other parts of the country . Imagine how stupid it would be if the referees came from the same place as some teams !

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