This season each Arsenal foul is earning a much stiffer response from refs

By Tony Attwood

Discussing the treatment of clubs by referees is made quite difficult by the fact that anyone who tries to claim their club is poorly treated by referees is simply told that this is just an excuse. 

Our 160 game analysis went a long way to resolve that debate by presenting video evidence, but the belief continues.  And indeed this problem is exacerbated at the moment as any attempt to ask why results are poor is taken by some to be “an excuse” rather than “a reason,” and so proper debate ends before it has hardly begun.

To try and overcome this, last season we made an attempt to compare the number of fouls and yellow cards that were given against clubs, taking into account the number of tackles made (tackles being the prime cause of fouls being called and yellows being given).

Here are the figures per game last season for tackles fouls and yellow cards – we published data on all the PL clubs which you can find in our key data tables page but for now I’m trying to keep it simple. 

Last season: Figures are per game.

Club Tackles Fouls Yellows
Arsenal 12 11 1.23
Liverpool 13.8 8.71 1.05
Manchester U 14.5 11.89 1.68
Tottenham 16.7 11.5 1.39

This season: Figures are per game.

Club Tackles Fouls Yellows
Arsenal 12.67 8.33 1.67
Liverpool 15.33 11 0.33
Manchester Utd 11 10 2.66
Tottenham H. 17.3 8.67 3.00

Arsenal’s tackling level is much the same – just 0.67 tackles more per game than last season, and rather pleasingly the number of fouls committed has gone down by nearly three a game.  But something has changed because…

Each foul by Arsenal is now earning a much greater punishment than last season.   

Now we must recall that last season, referees who handed out lots of cards were given Arsenal much more often than referees who handed out fewer or no cards.

Liverpool on the other hand, is tackling more, fouling a lot more, but getting far fewer yellows!  The explanation we think, is that referees see Liverpool as a fair non-fouling team and so they always get the benefit of the doubt.

Another team that embraced this research is Manchester United who have this season followed Arsenal’s approach last year, and dramatically cut their tackling level.  14.5 tackles per game last season, down to 11 per game this season.  Their fouls have come down as well.

But like Arsenal the chances of getting a yellow card for a foul has gone right up!!!

Tottenham are tackling a little less, being penalised for fouls quite a lot less but now getting over twice as many yellow cards!


For the last two seasons, Liverpool were way below other clubs for yellow cards, and we evolved the notion that referees get into habitual views of club performances which may be distanced from reality.  So where there is an issue of whether a tackle was worth a yellow or not, if it is Liverpool committing the tackle, then because Liverpool has a reputation for not being a dirty team, the referee gives Liverpool the benefit, and doesn’t give out a yellow card.

This then multiplies on itself.  The figures for Liverpool endlessly show them getting fewer yellow cards than other clubs, and so each time there is a 50/50 decision as to whether a foul is worthy of a yellow or not, the referees thinks not: it is Liverpool, they are not a dirty team.  

The reverse happens with teams that are considered more dirty.  Thus it was that a year ago, Arteta decided to reduce Arsenal’s tackling dramatically in order to, well, tackle, the bias of the referees.  Arsenal had got themselves seen as a dirty side and so every 50/50 tackle which might or might not be worth a yellow still got a yellow.

Last season, Arsenal reduced their yellow cards by 45% – the highest reduction in the league in a season in which the majority of clubs reduced their yellow card level.

Now from what I have seen, Mr Arteta has determined to continue with this policy, but of course he has also decided to recruit a significant number of new players who also have to get used to the system

Already we can see oddities.  While Man U commit 1.1 tackles per foul, Wolverhampton can commit 2.5.  While Tottenham commit 5.8 tackles to get a yellow card, Liverpool can commit a whopping 46!!  

So, we have the situation in which clubs are fouling less and getting more yellow cards, except Liverpool who foul more and more and more and get fewer yellow cards.

Sadly the media will never touch this issue in a million years and those who believe that Arsenal should keep changing its manager every 18 months until we hit lucky, won’t like it either. 

And of course maybe it is just a blip after three games.  We shall see.  As with last year, we’ll follow the numbers through the season.


7 Replies to “This season each Arsenal foul is earning a much stiffer response from refs”

  1. Far too small a sample to be statistically relevant at this point. We’ve played quite possibly the two best teams in Europe during our first three matches…we’re far more likely to pick up yellows in those contests, as our opponents will have more possession and they’ll create more danger with it.

  2. With the greatest respect the only statistics that matter are 3 defeats, no goals, no points. What are the team going to do to resolve this?

  3. That is where I completely disagree with you M Hunt. To know what to do about the three defeats one has to understand the underlying cause – it is not as simple as “we weren’t good enough”.

  4. I believe that it is a little bit early to know what is going on. Considering we were playing Chelsea and City, games in which we did nothave the ball very often, I’m not too surprised. Add to that the unexisting 50/50 issue and the new guys on the block not yet upto date and the total disruption due to covid, this may be the reason of the outlier. But definitely. this statistic is worth watching.

    I’d suggest to try to add the % of ball possession for each game into the table as I believe it has some importance.

  5. Ball possession could be a factor, but why did Man City enjoy such a high percentage? 11 players (plus officials) vs. 10 may have had a part in this.

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