Behold: The dirtiest teams in the PL last season; and the one that were fouled the most

By Tony Attwood

There is a general perception that teams that do well, foul the least.  But as Evelyn Waugh might have said, that is true “Up to a point” – meaning that actually isn’t really true.  Some of the teams that did rather well last season, achieved their success in part at least by fouling rather a lot.

It is generally assumed that teams at the bottom of the league foul a lot because their defenders are not that good, but the reality isn’t as simple as that.  The top two fouling teams did get relegated (Fulham and Sheffield United), but the next four were Manchester United, Tottenham Hots, Aston Villa and Chelsea.

Here are the most fouling teams

Position Team Total fouls by team Fouls per game
1 Fulham 484 12.74
2 Sheffield United 459 12.08
3 Manchester United 452 11.89
4 Tottenham Hots 439 11.55
5 Aston Villa 439 11.55
6 Chelsea 433 11.39

So the most fouling teams can be near the top or near the bottom of the league – fouling isn’t directly related to the success being had on the pitch.

The lowest fouling teams – are defined here as the teams that committed under 400 fouls in league matches last season.

As you will expect, if you have been reading Untold through the summer, and seeing just how extensively Arsenal reduced their tackling and thus their fouling, Arsenal were the cleanest team in the league last season.

Club Total fouls by team Fouls per game by team
Arsenal 345 9.08
Manchester City 361 9.5
West Ham United 374 9.84
Burnley 384 10.11
Everton 386 10.16
Newcastle United 388 10.21
Liverpool 396 10.42

So cutting fouling down doesn’t take a club up the league – although, Arsenal changed from being a high fouling team to a low fouling team in the first  third of last season.  During the transition period up to Christmas they were 15th in the league.   In the remaining two thirds they were the second best team in the league.

That suggests that if they can keep up the low fouling approach they will be helped in regaining that “not a trophy” top four spot.

Now lets look at this the other way around.  Which teams were the most fouled against.

Team Fouls
Aston Villa 567
Tottenham Hots 494
Leicester City 440
Southampton 438
Crystal Palace 438
Leeds United 432
Newcastle United 432
West Bromwich Albion 430
Arsenal 421
Manchester United 411
Everton 409
Wolverhampton Wanderers 404
Burnley 403
Manchester City 389
Fulham 387
Chelsea 377
Brighton and Hove Albion 376
West Ham United 367
Liverpool 355
Sheffield United 304

There seems to be no rhyme or reason here.  Why would Aston Villa be the most fouled against team in the league?  We can understand that Sheffield United are fouled the least, they were such a poor team last season they hardly launched any attacks so no defenders needed to get near them.

But why do players lay off Liverpool and not foul them while launching into Aston Villa wholesale?  Put it another way, Aston Villa were fouled 87% more than Sheffield United, and 60% more than Liverpool.

What is missing here is any sort of pattern.   Clubs do not foul Liverpool very much and Manchester City only a modest amount but foul Aston Villa an extraordinary amount and Tottenham Hotspur a lot.  Why?

Every team plays all the others twice, so there ought to be some balance, but here isn’t.  Logic can explain Sheffield United being at the foot of the table.

There doesn’t seem to be a relationship between the clubs’ positions in the “fouls against” chart either in terms of points nor in terms of goals conceded.

And to sum it all up, why on earth would clubs need to be fouling Aston Villa that much?  Aston Villa had the sixth highest number of shots in the league, so one can’t say they were a huge threat beyond everyone else which made the opposition close them down.  And they scored the same number of goals as Arsenal.

Since there is nothing that can be proven with the figures (at least nothing I can see) one can only start considering other factors – such as the action of the referees.  Do the referees tend to give more tackles against Aston Villa as fouls than they give for other teams?  And if so why?

The only starting point I have on this are the curious figures from Leicester City the season before last, in which they were committing many, many more tackles that everyone else.

In fact this takes us right back to the very first set of analyses we did on this whole tackles, fouls and yellows issue, published in the article “How a club can commit the most fouls, but get the fewest yellow cards”on 6 February 2020.

It was at that point we realised that Leicester City tackled the most, but were 16th in the fouls league and only one team had fewer yellow cards that they did (Liverpool).

Our conclusion was that Leicester were tackling with impunity and for one reason or another referees were going along with this.  And then immediately after our article the numbers collapsed – referees started treating them like normal clubs, the fouls given against them shot up, and they fell down the league table.   (Arguments from their fans that this decline was due to a player injury were easily dealt with – the dates of their decline matched our article, but not the injury.)

The conclusion then was that Leicester were getting special treatment, and once we had pointed this out, it stopped (or maybe it was just a coincidence).  No one could find any other explanation.

So I am now putting forward the hypothesis that for one reason or another referees feel that certain clubs are hard done by in tackling, and so give in to player claims for a free kick more readily than they do with other clubs. 

I am not suggesting any bribery is taking place, just that referees, closeted together in the PGMO and regularly refereeing the same club over and over, tend to feel Villa are kicked about, just as they used to feel that Leicester’s tackling, although off the chart compared to other clubs, was all completely fair and above board.

I shall look forward to alternative explanations with interest – and next season’s figures.

The great refereeing scandal

10 Replies to “Behold: The dirtiest teams in the PL last season; and the one that were fouled the most”

  1. Perhaps Villa and Spurs players ‘win’ more fouls?

    Certainly Grealish and Kane have reputations as players that look for fouls as part of their game.

    Or more directly put, they are divers.

  2. One factor might obviously be to do with who is adjudged to have been fouled the most. I decided to look.

    Last season, the third most fouled player was Adama Traore (86). The second most fouled player was Zaha just two ahead on 88. But way ahead with 25% more than Zaha was Grealish who was, apparently, fouled 110 times. When you add to this the fact that Grealish played around 20% fewer minutes than either Zaha or Traore this then begins to look extraordinary.

    I wondered if the reason could be that Grealish dribbled the ball more than other players. This was not the case and in fact Traore dribbled some 64% more times per game than Grealish.

    Yes I now Grealish is good in fact I think he’s very good but is he that much better than others that he is fouled more often? I don’t think so. There is, of course, another possibility but it would be pure conjecture to suggest that maybe he’s just very good at fooling referees by simulating being fouled and possibly his team mates learned this skill by watching him every day in training. I’m not saying that’s the case but it’s certainly one option worthy of consideration.

    At the end of the day it just raises more questions about the competency and consistency of our beloved PGMOL.

  3. Given the reluctance, some might say downright refusal, of refs to blow for blatant fouls on Arsenal players our ‘fouled against’ figure of 421 is probably way too low.
    If we were to be given all the fouls against us we deserve our figure would surely rival Aston Villa.
    At risk of being accused of paranoia I would point to the evidence obtained from the Untold ref reviews undertaken a couple of years ago which I suggest would bear this theory out.

  4. Mike I would go along with you. But the debate about refs is two sided – those who look at the evidence, and those who claim we are just saying all this because we are Arsenal supporters.

  5. Mikey, by no means for the first time I am deeply indebted to you. Although also kicking myself (no longer literally because my knee doesn’t bend that much any more) for not seeing it. I wrote a series about how Vardy, once the tackling ploy was revealed, would take the ball in the penalty area and then suddenly turn with the ball away from the goal, get knocked by a defender there to block him from turning that way, and grab a penalty.
    Vardy got 8 penalties that way – not the most in one season (that was nine) but Vardy got almost every one of them in the opening ten games, before the ploy was exposed.
    I am not saying that Untold exposes these tricks and then causes a difference, but maybe we do help a little bit. Which is why we’ve spent so much time on stats this summer.

  6. Your last line sums up the reality.

    Until the PGMOL is disbanded and a transparent group of officials are appointed the EPL will be a farce!!

  7. Hi everyone, reading the comments above , one point in the comparison between grealish, zaha and traore with grealish being fouled the most, the point is that grealish amongst the three is the biggest threat to opposition goal, so maybe, along-with the Harry kane like tactics of looking for a foul, there is a small percentage increase in fouls against them because they are very good and teams dont want to take a chance and want to quash every opportunity for a key pass/shot on goal.
    Secondly, the debate about arsenal being the referees’ least liked team goes back to when i started loving arsenal, during 2001-02 season and onwards, where we were absolutely smashed off the park at times between 2000-2013 -15 where we were lucky in my view to only get two horrific injuries, eduardo da silva and aaron ramsey, we’l let the jack wilshere kicking, the reyes kicking and other absurd tackling pass and focus on major bone injuries that could have ended careers, well eduardo’s career was shaken because of it and ramsey had missed a year and a half…. So im looking forward to the new season now where arsenal have consciously under arteta cut down on tackles, which is the only way we can have a fair game, numerous times our midfielders/defenders get yellow carded in the first 20 mins of a game , that totally effects the dynamics of the game….

    But i love the work untold has done, and im sure some people in power in the FA and PGMO would be looking at these numbers being put up for public review.

    Great work , Cheers

  8. Tony

    Just looking at the stats you rely on is only part of the issue. You also need to factor in the number of fouls committed where the referee acknowledges the foul and signals advantage without factoring in these numbers you can’t arrive at any meaningful conclusions or should I say conclusions that can be validated

    I read an article some years ago that refs play advantage around 4 times in a normal 90 minutes but these confirmed infringements don’t feature in the recorded numbers. If that contention is right then
    there are at least another 1500 unrecorded infringements. Many of these infringements, it was said were against teams in the attacking third where there was either an overload of players or the defence was pressed

  9. Mike I would always agree that the data I use is often incomplete – my general point overall is that there are a number of issues that give me pause for thought, and it is interesting, in my view, that these issues are normally not taken up elsewhere.

    Overall I am not trying to prove conclusively that something is wrong, but rather to say, “this really looks rather odd” and suggest that if everything is fine and above board, then why not publish all the details? Why leave it to someone like me to have to work out the data, and raise questions?

  10. Mike T , I was about to post the same comment about the played on disruption foul ,take a one -two situation where the player that is baulked off the ball having laid it off then cannot get the return but the recipient is left with the ball but nowhere to go but as he has the ball … Play on.

    Man City and Chelsea are masters of this throughout their teams , especially Fernandinho and Rudiger .

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