Message from the referee: clearly heard and understood – no reds today

by Tony Attwood

By giving yellow cards rather than red cards to two nasty fouls in the early part of the game last night referee Craig Pawson was giving all the players on the pitch notice that such fouls were within the remits of yellow cards and did not deserve a red.  Or at least we should say that he gave notice that Liverpool players could commit that level of foul and not get a red – at least up to a point.

And that notice of intent is invariably more important than the punishment of the actual offence since it shows players what they can get away with and how the game is going to be refereed.  After the first yellow, Liverpool players duly took note.

To understand exactly how this process works we need to take in one basic level of statistics.  If we take a few referees from the Premier League rosta we will see something quite remarkable within the statistics.  Here are four referees’ figures this season: Craig Pawson who did last night’s game, plus three others.

These three were not chosen because of their statistics but because they are the first three referees listed in the Premier League’s statistics pages on referees.

In each case we can see the number of matches they have controlled and the number of red and yellow cards they have administered.   All of that data is on the Premier League’s site.

What I have added is the penultimate column the red and yellow cards per game, and in the last column the reverse – the number of games the referee has to take before finally giving a red card.

Craig Pawson

Per game Games per red
Matches 159
Red cards 26 0.16 6.25
Yellow cards 544 3.42

Stewart Atwell

Per game Games per red
Matches 117
Red cards 16 0.14 7.14
Yellow cards 418 3.57


Martin Atkinson

Per game Games per red
Matches 413
Red cards 63 0.15 6.66
Yellow cards 1,369 3.34


Michael Oliver

Per game Games per red
Matches 268
Red cards 35 0.13 7.69
Yellow cards 850 3.17

Now what you might notice is that across all four referees the “per game” figures are incredibly similar.  None of these referees could be particularly noted as excessively lenient or harsh – they are all there in the same range.

Sadly, I don’t have time to run the figures for the whole set of referees, but four out of the eleven referees who have taken two or three Premier League games this season seems a fair sample to me.

In short, the referees are refereeing the games pretty much to a standard, handing out three, occasionally four cards per game.

Undoubtedly players, who are living and breathing football every day, know this, as do their managers, and so know just how many fouls they can get away with before they are in danger of a red card.  They also know how many games a referee typically oversees before giving anyone a red card.  The answer is six or seven, occasionally eight.

So by pounding in with incredibly nasty tackles in a referee’s second or third game of the season the players know that they are fairly safe.  A yellow, yes, but not a red.  Not yet.

But there is a secondary factor.  By grabbing those early nasty tackles for themselves, the Liverpool players knew perfectly well that the referee takes on a heightened awareness for any retaliation.  Yes he has let the two Liverpool players get away with really nasty fouls.  But everyone knows that retaliation always gets harsher penalties, so Liverpool have cleverly got the referee to show what he will let go, while not allowing Arsenal to take advantage of what we might call a fairly leisurely approach to fouling by the referee.

It is a clever, but also very cynical approach, borne out of an awareness of the statistical similarities between referees.

And one wonders, how can referees get figures that are so similar over time?  After all it is not as if all teams play the same way, nor that the referees themselves are measuring out the number of fouls they have called.  Is it?

Of course not every game follows these “rules” – some are a lot more “rumbustious” than this and occasionally punishments rise to meet the level of fouling.   But here, Liverpool outwitted Arsenal by getting those really nasty fouls in early, and so picking up the traditional yellows.  Anything Arsenal did later would be “retaliation” and would have risked a red.

The fact that referees only give out a red every six or seven games means that players really can get away with a lot in terms of normal everyday fouling, and if they get in first, they effectively stop the opposition from using the same tactic, for fear of that dismissal for retaliation.

I’d much sooner see Arsenal win games without resorting to fouls such as those delivered by Liverpool players in this match, but being able to pull that off, with these refereeing tactics and standards, is going to be hard.

This is not to say the referees are doing this on purpose.  It is quite possible that this is how refereeing has evolved (although the stats do look so suspiciously similar I rather doubt it).  But if it is not on purpose then it does look as if Liverpool are playing the game of using up the referee’s leniency early on, leaving the opposition unable to do the same for fear that ultimately the red would come out.


5 Replies to “Message from the referee: clearly heard and understood – no reds today”

  1. I think it was much more simple than that. If somebody like Xhaka (or possibly any Arsenal player) had done what Mane did in the third minute they would have been off. It’s who you are, not what you do.

  2. Let’s not beat about the bush, Pawson was a disgrace last night, his bias (only he will know if it was deliberate or not) was there for all too see. Liverpool were undoubtedly treated very leniently by him, from the not given foul on Bellerin in the first couple of minutes right up to the end of the game.
    Apart from the deliberate and dangerous elbow/arm in the face of Tierney for which Sane was not, according to the laws, properly punished I counted five other fouls by Liverpool which were not called by Pawson. Two of them were by Fabhino, one on Willian and the other on Auba. Both were ‘not seen’ by Pawson and both should have been yellow cards. The one on Auba was identical to the foul a minute later committed by Bellerin for which a yellow card was issued and the one on Willian was dangerous and out of control and borderline red.
    I do not recall a single one by Arsenal which was not spotted by the tunnel vision referee.
    Pawson is a biased cheat.

  3. its hard not to consider what would have happened the other way round. the commentators would have been saying he has to go

  4. There is no ‘counting’ as in poker going on. There is the select speciality of selective vision and corrupt VAR officiating. VAR should have looked at the Mane fist to Tierney’s face for a probable red and asked Pawson to view it on the pitch side screen.

    I have for many years claimed that the PGMOL are a bunch of corrupt racist two faced money grabbing select individuals and challenge them to sue me for saying it. They take a knee and immediately revert to type. Black Lives Matter does not mean that Black players must not be red carded. It means that racism or bigotry are wrong in any walk of life.

    Pawson called a throw in from Bellerin a foul when clearly it was not and ignored Bellerin’s comment ‘I’ve been doing that all my life’. The commentators also ignored the incident which transitioned the game into Liverpools favour.

  5. Pawson’s “refereeing” agenda started to show itself in the first minute after Mane’s foul on Bellerin. The arm in Tierney’s face was a definite red card, but Pawson wouldn’t give it. It’s strange that VAR didn’t get involved (or did it)?

    Ceballos got a yellow card for an identical foul (his first) to Mane’s first minute transgression. Pawson must have watched the video of Game 50.

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