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August 2021
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How Arsenal could use the referees to reach the PL’s top 4

By Tony Attwood

Remember Everton?  They got Carlo Ancelotti on 21 December 2019 on a four and a half year deal.  One day after Arsenal got Arteta.  Ancelotti had managed Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, PSG, Chelsea, Milan and Juventus.  Arteta had managed no one.

This season Ancelotti made a flying start:

Date Match Result Score Competition
13 Sep 2020 Tottenham Hotspur v Everton W 0-1 Premier League
16 Sep 2020 Everton v Salford City W 3-0 League Cup
19 Sep 2020 Everton v West Bromwich Albion W 5-2 Premier League
23 Sep 2020 Fleetwood Town v Everton W 2-5 League Cup
26 Sep 2020 Crystal Palace v Everton W 1-2 Premier League
30 Sep 2020 Everton v West Ham United W 4-1 League Cup
3 Oct 2020 Everton v Brighton and Hove Albion W 4-2 Premier League

You can’t get better than that and not surprisingly on 4 October they were three points clear at the top of the league.

Then they won one game and drawn two in the next seven and now they are ninth just four points above Arsenal thanks to that flying start.  In the form table for the past seven Premier League games, Everton are fourth-bottom, with only West Brom, Arsenal and Sheffield United below them.

So why did Everton get it so wrong, and how come they are sinking like Arsenal?

Unlike Arteta, Carlo Ancelotti has won loads of stuff playing with the best teams in the world.  And yet like Arteta his club has sunk after a bright start (you may remember we won the FA Cup and Community Shield at the start of the season).

I think that the issue that Ancelotti has is much the same as Arteta.  Neither of them have realised exactly how the referees play the game.  Ancelotti because when he first came to England he went to Chelsea, and because Arteta was working under a manager at Manchester City.

If I say that neither team is known for having referees turn upon them, we may expect howls of derisive laughter from those who disbelieve it, but I think there might be something in that, because Ancelotti has entered the fray this season as if expecting everything in terms of refereeing to be fair.

He clearly instructed his side to tackle, tackle, tackle – they have put in 64% more tackles than Liverpool (218 by Everton but only 133 by Liverpool).  And they have been tackling fairly – or at least that is how the referees see it.  Just 119 fouls – virtually the same as Manchester City.

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But they are having to commit far fewer fouls to get a yellow card.  They get one every 7.44 tackles.  Chelsea can get in four more fouls before each yellow card.  Liverpool a whooping great five more fouls before the yellow is brandished.

Yet here is the strangest thing.  Look at the figures of Arsenal, Everton and Manchester City, the three clubs who we might think are lower where we perhaps would have predicted.   They are committing between 7.00 and 8.36 fouls per yellow card.

On the other hand, the top three this season are committing between just under 11 and just under 12.5 fouls per yellow card.

Club Goals Fouls per yellow Lge pos
Arsenal 10 7.00 15
Chelsea 25 11.42 3
Everton 20 7.44 9
Liverpool 26 12.44 2
Manchester City 17 8.36 7
Tottenham Hots 23 10.92 1

Of course you might well consider that the figure “fouls committed per yellow card against the club” is an artificial model base.  Maybe you are right.   But as a person who uses statistics at work, I can say that if we were looking at the performance of anything to do with our business, while comparing ourselves with rivals, and we saw three firms not doing so well  were under performing three who were doing very well, we’d look around to see why.

Now the answer could come back – “it’s bloody obvious, the three clubs that are lower than expected simply are not scoring the goals.”   And that is ok, except you would then ask why are they not scoring goals?  And although there could be reasons in relation to the poverty of the ability of players, one of those reasons would be the number of yellow cards players are got.

Quite simply when you see your team mates picking up yellow cards more rapidly than those of other teams, you play more cautiously.  The ball gets through to the forwards less quickly because the defenders become more and more uncertain of which tackles and fouls they can get away with and which they can’t.

“Fouls per yellow” is one of the metrics that referees can influence without getting noticed.  It is also one of those metrics which means players are encouraged to try their luck.  If they are committing fouls but not getting a yellow card, they commit more fouls.  If they are getting yellow cards more often, they hold back on the fouls.

If you were in charge of Arsenal and you believed the referees were unbiased you’d probably be telling the defenders to dig in more and take more risks with tackles.

If on the other hand you believed that the referees were not even handed in these matters you’d probably hold back, wondering where you could buy better tacklers from.

So how could Arsenal use these stats to get to the top four? Politely ask the referees why their fouls as 60%+ worse than Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea.  Because without that information I think we are utterly stuffed.

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