Referee tactics and why Arsenal are in the bottom half of the table

By Tony Attwood

In this series I have looked at how we have discovered the level of influence that crowds can have on referees, thanks to the LSE research, and then considered from there how clubs have responded to that knowledge.

This is the concluding article.   Here is a list of the articles so far

How clubs manipulate referees through their tactics

Proving unconscious bias by referees is rife in the Premier League: penalties

Revealed: How clubs have evolved their “referee handling” tactics with such success

How the impression refs have of certain clubs influences how they are treated

How clubs developed the fourth type of match fixing in the Premier League

How some clubs manipulate referees and journalists to their own advantage

Now in this final piece we look at some specific examples of what is going on.

What do Southampton and Leeds United have in common? 

They both tackle a lot.  By half way through the 2020/1 season they had each 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 given they are tackling all the time?

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 by half way through the season they had only conceded one penalty.

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 number of penalties.  (We were even able to see exactly how they were doing it, through a clever trick of Vardy in suddenly changing direction while in the penalty area).

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 – or possibly (unforgivably) unaware of it.

In fact, if we look at the top six clubs in the league at the moment I write this, we see 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 still get fewer yellow cards!

And there is another factor that we have not measured which relates to league position – fouls against a team.  (League positions will of course have changed by the time you read this, but figures were measured of course on a specific date).

Fouls against position League position Team Fouls Fouls per game
For Agst For Agst
1 8 Aston Villa 173 252 11.53 16.80
2 4 Tottenham 205 218 12.81 13.63
3 3 Leicester 167 215 9.82 12.65
4 6 Southampton 205 213 12.06 12.53

This table shows the four most fouled clubs in the league measured per game.  All are in the top eight in the table.   I would suggest  that these clubs are letting themselves be fouled, or are deliberately appealing for fouls to get more free kicks.

The numbers are very different from Sheffield United at the foot of the table that have a figure of 7.71 fouls against per game.

Put all this together and it seems fairly clear that many teams are finding a tactic or tactics which doesn’t have much to do with playing by the spirit of the rules, but which has a lot to do with gaining an advantage.

To take Tottenham for example, they are being allowed to commit 9.76 fouls before they get a yellow card – over a third more than Arsenal.  So how are they doing this?  They are being fouled more than any other team in each game, except Aston Villa.

But what difference does this make?  I would suggest that as the referee sees just how many times they are being fouled, the referee becomes just that little bit more willing to punish the opposition.  More appeals, more falling over, more fouls, more cards, more disruption to the opposition.

In fact what I have realised since starting to run these figures each week, what we are seeing is a set of cynical tactics by many clubs, aimed at gaining small (occasionally large) benefits through referee decisions.

Leicester’s penalty level is the most obvious and the one most likely to be picked up by referees – as the Leicester tackling was last season.  Just look at Liverpool’s figures: 16 yellow cards but a mid range number of tackles.  That surely is as a result of the realisation half way through last season that Leicester were getting away with the tackling equivalent of murder.

Indeed we might compare Liverpool and Leicester

Club Tackles Fouls Tackles per foul Yellow cards Fouls per yellow Penalties for Lge pos
Leicester 288 167 1.72 35 4.77 10 3
Liverpool 222 169 1.31 16 10.56 5 1

Leicester following last season’s antics have reigned in their tackling, but with referees now aware of what they did last season, they are getting two and a quarter times as many yellow cards at Liverpool while committing fewer tackles!  But they have compensated for this by now focusing on penalties; a very clever ploy.

Liverpool have nurtured the vision that although they foul, those fouls are not worthy of yellow cards…. because they are Liverpool.  The contrast between the two teams in terms of the number of fouls each needs to commit to get a yellow could not be greater.  And do remember our central statistic is fouls per yellow card – not fouls.  Just answering these stats by saying “Arsenal are dirty” is to misunderstand the whole issue.

This understand of referees, I think, is what Arsenal is missing, through the recent mass sackings and redundancies.  The new team at Arsenal are probably unaware of the way the PGMO works, and so Mr Arteta, like Mr Emery before him, is not looking at this sort of statistic.  Mr Wenger however, learned about the PGMO very early on when he was charged with assaulting a referee (a charge utterly withdrawn on appeal but which cost him £10,000 in legal fees).  That, I believe, made him start watching PGMO referees, and adjusting our game accordingly.

Can we do anything about this?

Obviously Untold can write about it, but of course we know that fans of other clubs and some Arsenal fans, will ignore the evidence and just sneer, saying we are looking for excuses.

But I think we are suffering badly because of the total change of top personnel twice in the past three years.  I doubt that Mr Arteta had any involvement at Man City with analysing referees – they seem to have had that art off to perfection for years.  He probably never even knew it was going on.  After all, no club would ever broadcast the fact that they have a ref-watching department.

Now with all of Mr Wenger’s people long since departed I get the feeling the Arsenal management team are just completely bemused by how they get so many cards per tackle, and I suspect they have no one at the club who is given the job of monitoring the referees.  That probably more than anything else is why we are currently in the bottom half of the table.

2 Replies to “Referee tactics and why Arsenal are in the bottom half of the table”

  1. Interesting article. As far as Spurs are concerned, it’s very noticeable that whenever Son or Kane lose possession in or near the opponents penalty area, they always fall to the ground – and it was my wife who spotted this sometime ago! On a more general point about PGMO, which is based in Leeds def the control of the incompetent Mike Riley, the man always bullied by people like Ferguson and his ilk. There has not been a referee from the south east since Graham Poll retired in 2007, and he was from Hertfordshire. London and the Home Counties accounts for in excess of 30% of England’s population, so you’d think that 30% of referees come through London and Home Counties associations. But the last London based referee was David Ellery’ who retired in 2003. In fact, what we have is a premier league overseen by a bevy of referees almost exclusively from three areas – Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire. Also, with 32 ties scheduled for round 3 of the FA Cup, it’s an opportunity for up and coming referees to take charge of matches, but true to form, of the 32 referees, there is again not a single London based referee, with the nearest being one referee from Wext Sussex. Consequently, I strongly believe that the referee issues can be laid squarely at the door of Riley, and the fools running the Premier League who consider it appropriate to give this useless man so much power.

  2. I’ll second that, John…..although I’m not sure Riley was bullied by Fergie. He was, in my view, more than willing to give MU all the help he could!

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