How the media miss the key issue of the day by using just one book for all their stats

by Tony Attwood

If you are a regular reader you will know that we have been pondering the issue of the relationship in the Premier League between tackles, fouls and yellow cards for a couple of years now.

It started when we first analysed data and found that Leicester committed more tackles than any other club but got very low numbers of fouls given against them and almost the lowest number of yellow cards (only Liverpool getting fewer).

That seemed odd, and so we published an article which turned out to be the first in quite a long series of investigations.

By the second piece (“Stats show something very odd going on”) we showed clear evidence to the effect that the number of tackles, fouls and yellow cards are related, except in the case of Leicester City and to a lesser degree Liverpool.  

It was all highly relevant to Arsenal because we got the highest number of yellow cards in the Premier League 2019/20, but then in the following season managed to cut that number almost in half.

But no one in the media noticed.

Now the Guardian has done a review of the book “A numbers game”  saying, “Before any Premier League is broadcast live, a statistician will compile a 25,000-word document detailing every eventuality”.

But that whole 1400+ word article doesn’t contain a single mention of tackles, fouls or yellow cards.

The website The Football Mine proclaims that the man behind much of the stats used in the media is Richard Foster whom the site calls a “respected author, broadcaster, historian, journalist.”

Further, “He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports News and talkSPORT.”  

So it seems the reason that none of the media will take up the issue of tackles, fouls and yellow cards, and how the relationship between them varies dramatically from club to club, is because Richard Foster mention it.   Despite Martin Tyler of Sky Sports saying, “Attention to detail was one of the first lessons I was taught when I started out in television many moons ago. Richard Foster has a rare gift in that respect.”

Paul Hawksbee, of the infamous talkSPORT, says that the book and/or its author (I am not sure which) is The fount of all knowledge.”  Which it clearly isn’t.

But Richard Foster appears to be the source of data for a lot of writers and broadcasters, and he has decided not to touch the complex issue of the relationship between tackles, fouls and yellows.

As a result the issue doesn’t exist for the media.

Indeed nor does the issue of why certain referees get to oversee games of specific teams so often, nor why there is a curious relationship between the number of yellow cards given to Arsenal players, and the referees they saw most, last season.

This is not just an Arsenal thing.  Let’s consider also Leicester City.  In 2020/1 Leicester reduced the number of tackles they put in by 61 during the course of the season compared with 2019/20.  That’s an 8% drop.

The number of fouls they committed in those two seasons were virtually identical (418 and 416).   But their yellow card total went up by 49%!!!  And all the while Arsenal were cutting their yellow cards by 45%

Team Tackles 2019/0 Tackles 2020/1 +/- Fouls 2019/0 Fouls 2020/1 +/- Yellow 2019/0 Yellow 2020/1 +/-
Arsenal 584 456 -22% 421 345 -18% 86 47 -45%
Leicester 742 681 -8% 418 416 0% 41 61 +49%

Now of course we don’t know if Richard Foster is deliberately avoiding these figures to protect the referees, or simply isn’t very good with numbers, or has been told to “lay off the referees’ decision making” or simply didn’t notice what was going on.

But at least we are a step nearer to unravelling why the media absolutely won’t touch the issue that seems to be central to the real world of Premier League football.  It is because they all rely on one man to do their stats, and he didn’t notice!

And so they all missed the fact that Tottenham increased the number of fouls they committed between 2019/20 and 2020/21 by 4% and yet, as a result, their yellow card rate came down by 35%!

Or the fact that Chelsea increased their number of fouls across those years by 12% and their yellow card total came down by 17%.   These numbers might be right and there might be a simple explanation throughout, but with the great god of statistics that seemingly all the media refer to and use as a source, refusing even to mention the subject, there really must be a suspicion also that someone, somewhere, is saying “don’t mention the refs”.

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