How clubs manipulate referees through their tactics

by Tony Attwood

When I started the articles this season that compared tackles, fouls, yellow cards and penalties between the clubs I wasn’t sure what I was going to find.  And it has taken a while to work out what is going on, but I think we’re getting there, and I think it is weird.

The fact is that many teams have adopted a “style of play” which it appears referees come to expect, and then adjust to.  Through  this process referees adjust to how they referee each club.

The realisation that this is what is going on came from the understanding that when a partisan crowd is present referees act differently towards the home team as compared with the away team.  That fact is now well established through clear evidence shown through a comparison of games with and without crowds.

Now it seems we can go further, as in these examples…


What do Southampton and Leeds United have in common? 

They both tackle a lot.  They each have made 64% more tackles than Arsenal.

But curiously both Southampton and Leeds have to commit many more tackles than other clubs before they get called out by the referee for a foul.  How do they manage that?

What is the difference between Liverpool and virtually every other club? 

While most most teams need to commit just six or seven tackles to bring a yellow card, Liverpool won’t get a yellow card on average until they have committed over ten such tackles.  That is well more than twice the number than Wolverhampton (for example) have to commit.

What is the different between Leicester and virtually every other team? 

They get a penalty every 1.7 games.  Better still they have only conceded one penalty this season.

In fact Leicester have been granted 10 penalties this season out of 67 awarded while the average number of penalties among  the 19 other teams is three. It suggests that by the end of the season they will have an all time record.

Combine this with the fact that Leicester can commit 1.72 tackles per foul given against them (a figure only exceed by Leeds) and it shows they have evolved their own way of playing, and the referees are happy with it.

In fact, if we look at the top six clubs in the league.  Each of these clubs has sought to exploit one element of the game to their advantage – with the referees happy to go along with it…

  • Liverpool: extraordinary low number of yellow cards.
  • Manchester U: 40 more fouls than Arsenal but the same number of yellow cards.
  • Leicester: 10 penalties so far and heading for an all time record number of penalties in a season.
  • Tottenham: Allowed to commit 9.76 fouls per yellow card – over a third more than Arsenal.
  • Manchestrer City: By avoiding tackles they are avoiding yellow cards.  With them this seems to give the referees the impression that Man City don’t get yellows, so if they do fall behind they can tackle almost with impunity.
  • Southampton: working the Man City system in reverse – with 331 tackles (same as Leicester) they have over 120 tackles more this season than Arsenal.  Yet they get fewer yellow cards!

What in fact we have got is a league in which a number of teams have evolved their own unique style of play, which seems to give referees a feeling about the team, which the club is then allowed to exploit.  For example, the feeling is Liverpool don’t commit nasty fouls, so they don’t get yellow cards.

Indeed we have seen this before – with the fact of home advantage when there is a crowd present.  That advantage disappeared when crowds were banned.  And research (discussed here at great length in previous articles) has shown just how much referees were influenced by the crowds.

It is a complex picture, and one that is likely to be decried by sneering, and suggestions that one is seeking an excuse.  But the simple fact is that virtually all the teams that are doing well, are doing it by taking one of the attributes in this chart to an extreme level.  I’ve highlighted a few of them in red.

Club Tackles Fouls Tackles per foul Yellow cards Fouls per yellow Penalties for Penalties against Lge pos
Arsenal 201 160 1.26 26 6.15 3 1 11
Aston Villa 191 173 1.10 27 6.51 4 2 8
Brighton and H 279 207 1.35 24 8.63 6 7 17
Burnley 206 170 1.21 21 8.10 0 3 16
Chelsea 249 208 1.20 24 8.67 5 3 9
Crystal Palace 280 190 1.43 24 7.91 2 4 14
Everton 284 166 1.71 28 5.93 2 4 7
Fulham 229 195 1.17 31 6.29 5 5 18
Leeds United 331 165 2.01 24 6.88 2 6 12
Leicester City 288 167 1.72 35 4.77 10 1 3
Liverpool 222 169 1.31 16 10.56 5 6 1
Manchester City 184 154 1.19 22 7.00 3 5 5
Manchester U 244 205 1.19 26 7.88 6 4 2
Newcastle U 214 165 1.30 29 5.69 4 2 15
Sheffield United 283 218 1.30 31 7.03 3 1 20
Southampton 331 205 1.61 25 8.2 2 2 6
Tottenham Hots 265 205 1.29 21 9.76 3 4 4
West Bromwich 259 181 1.43 22 8.22 0 4 19
West Ham Uni 250 178 1.40 19 9.37 0 4 10
Wolverhampton 261 208 1.25 25 4.32 2 6 13

There is also another pattern that has emerged here and that is fouls against a team.  It is not a factor that I’ve been including in this chart week by week, but I’ll look at it in the next article, and the results are interesting.

But let me conclude this part is a general point.  What the successful clubs are doing is not breaking the rules, but instead giving referees a distorted view of the game, by taking an element of the game to excess.

2 Replies to “How clubs manipulate referees through their tactics”

  1. How much has the use of VAR had in the table you have shown , it’s supposed to have no influence in yellow cards but can turn a yellow into a red by asking the referee to look at the so called incident on the pitch side monitor to more often than not change his decision .
    Have we ever seen a red card rescinded on the pitch by VAR , I don’t think so , VAR backs the referee decision but can always influence him to change it .
    All teams know what they can and can’t do with referees , even when I played we had a referee who wouldn’t tolerate swearing if he heard a swear word you were booked , he would warn you about this before kick off

  2. What we get from stats is the foul that was given. Remember there is selective vision that sees only what they want you to include in stats. If you officiate seperately you will find
    the most shocking stats ever.

    The game is not based on stats but on bias that this corrupt system allows.

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