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The yellow card count this season is truly weird. So what’s going on with the refs?

By Tony Attwood

I don’t think I have ever seen an analysis of yellow cards year by year, and so I’ve just undertaken one using the Premier League’s own list of who gets carded.

Now research students at university are always told not to gather data just to see what it looks like.  No, you gather data to prove or disprove a point.  And my point was that Arsenal had proven that it was possible to cut the cards received, by analysing referee behaviour, and that it is therefore likely that a) other clubs would now copy this and b) referees, having seen what Arsenal were doing, would start laying into the club by upping the number of cards.

Because we are just part way through the 2021/2 season with everyone having played 11 games (29% of their total number of league games) I not only recorded the number of yellow cards so far, but also (in the second column with the * throughout) multiplied up, to see how many yellows they will get by the end of the season if they carry on at the current rate.

At the foot of the table I have noted the highest number of yellow cards for one club, and then the lowest number of cards.  Where one of the selected clubs has had either the highest or lowest number for that season their number is in bold.  All totals are for yellow cards only.

Club 2021/22 2021/2 E* 2020/21 2019/20 2018/19 2017/18 2016/17
Arsenal 17 58* 47 86 72 57 68
Chelsea 12 41* 50 60 49 42 72
Liverpool 12 41* 40 38 38 44 54
Man C 18 62* 46 60 44 59 71
Man U 25 86* 64 73 73 64 78
Tottenham 21 72* 53 82 56 50 62
Most 30 103* 73 86 77 73 84
Least 12 41* 40 38 38 42 52
Gap 18 62* 33 48 39 31 16

2021/2E* – this figure is an estimate of the number of yellow cards that each club will get by the end of this season, based on the number of cards after 11 games.

What the table tells us – overall

The gap between the most penalised and the least penalised club jumped up in 2017/18 but has stayed roughly in the same position ever since… until now.  If the current trends continue for the rest of this season one club could reach an all time record 103 yellow cards.  The club getting the least yellow cards will however have a normal number for the least cards – 41 (compared to a range of 38 to 42 in the last four years).  So the explosion in card giving is just at the top end of the table – which itself is very odd.

What the table tells us – the clubs

Arsenal have shown how it is possible to make a major change to the number of cards a club gets in a season, dropping from 86 in 2019/20 down to 47 the following season.

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Chelsea are currently heading for a very low number of yellows this year, having worked their way down slowly, season by season.

Liverpool, year after year, record the lowest number of yellow cards.  No matter how they change their defence, referees are just reluctant to hand Liverpool players cards.  It is possibly the ultimate self-perpetuating myth – Liverpool players are not dirty, so if a tackle goes in, Liverpool always gets the benefit of the doubt.

Manchester City jump around in terms of yellow cards, ranging from 44 in one season to 71.

Manchester United do tend toward the upper end of the yellow card range, and it is a measure of the problems they are in this season that at current levels of activity they will get the highest number of yellow cards of the big six.

Tottenham, perhaps because of their constant change of management jump here and there without any discernible pattern.

So what is driving this season’s escalation in yellow cards?

The answer to that is fairly simple, for there is a group of clubs charging away at the top of the yellow card table for this season, picking up cards like theys are going be in short supply and they need to get in quick…

Pos Club Cards now Cards est end of season
1. Newcastle United 30 103
2. Brighton and Hove Albion 29 100
3. Burnley 26 90
4. Aston Villa 25 86
5. Manchester United 25 86
6. Leeds United 24 83
7. Watford 24 83

The nearest we have seen to this, during this century, is Sunderland who got 94 in 2014/15 and Derby County with 93 in 1999/2000.  Few other clubs have even come close.

The curious hidden detail.

So it looks like we are heading for an all-time record season in terms of yellow cards – and that might be because of new instructions to referees on what a yellow card offence constitutes.  Which would be ok, were it not for the fact that Liverpool and Chelsea are both estimated to end up with 41 cards.

Liverpool in doing this will maintain their long term level of yellow cards, while Chelsea is estimated to get ten fewer cards in a season when everyone else’s card rate is going up and up.

The three big questions therefore are:

  • How on earth do Liverpool manage to get so few yellow cards season after season?
  • How on earth are Chelsea reducing their number of cards, when everyone else’s total is going through the roof.
  • Why won’t any of the media tackle this issue?

5 comments to The yellow card count this season is truly weird. So what’s going on with the refs?

  • David Moore

    Take the recent Watford game.
    Arsenal committed 6 fouls, Watford 19.
    Both teams received 4 yellow cards each (although 2 for Watford combined to = 1 Red)
    In my view just doesn’t make sense.

  • Tim Hogan

    Jurgen Klopp’s “Heavy Metal Football”, while exciting to watch, is, as far as I am concerned, a very physical style of football and this makes Liverpool’s yellow card count over the period in question even more remarkable. How do they manage it?

  • mick shelley

    The way things are going it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the same number for the amount of fouls and amount of yellow cards. All Riley has to do is pick the right man for the job. He could take his pick from Dean, Friend, Oliver, Pawson and any of the other brown nose refs he has at his disposal. Any of them would be only to willing to oblige their master.

  • mike in atlanta

    Mick you leave Martin “slip him a fiver” Atkinson and Jon “crooked penny” Moss off that list at your own peril. And if Mike “benjamin button” Dean is 53 years old i’ll eat any hat i can find.

  • Mikey

    The gap in 2016/17 was 26 not 16 but I don’t think that detracts from your overall hypothesis.

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