by Tony Attwood
In theory, referees don’t influence matches at all – it is the players’ actions that determine what decisions a referee has to make.
But in effect referees do have to decide which tackle is a foul and which foul is worth a yellow card, and this is where big differences can be seen.
And indeed the argument has been put forward several times that referees are influencing who wins and who loses in two ways. First because in the minds of the referees, certain clubs are “not dirty” and so any tackle that might or might not be given against a team as foul goes in favour of the “not dirty” team.
As a result of this, the prophecy is fulfilled, the not-dirty team is called out for fewer fouls, and enhances its reputation as a not dirty team! The same applies to yellow cards: was that tackle worthy of a yellow? Yes because team X is a “dirty team” (just look at the number of fouls given against them) but team Z is not (very few fouls given against them).
To try and resolve how many of the decisions are truly the referee reacting to events and how many are based on the perception of a team as clean or dirty we can look at how much difference there is between the teams in the current top six.
In league terms the differences are not huge. Chelsea at the top have won eight and lost one, Arsenal in fifth have won six and lost three. Just two games different out of 11 puts Chelsea top and Arsenal fifth.
So how does this relate to our three standard measures of tackles, fouls and yellow cards?
The number of tackles recorded by each club is very similar. Manchester United have undertaken the fewest tackles in the current top six at 12.63 a game. Chelsea and West Ham are at the top of the tackling tree with at 16 tackles a game.
So in the group of the current top six clubs, the difference in tackles is three or four per game between the least tackling and the most tackling – or one more tackle per 25 minutes. It really is a small difference.
And because the tackle is by far the most common reason for the referee giving a foul, as a result of this similarity between the number of tackles per club, the number of fouls per club is very similar. 8.90 for West Ham per game, 10.54 for Manchester United. So round about one or two fouls more or less a game. Hardly anything in it.
And yet when we look at these same six teams and look at the issue where the referee has to make a real decision – whether or not to raise a yellow card – the difference between the ways the clubs are treated is enormous. Chelsea (the team with the most tackles) and Liverpool have 12 cards each and West Ham 13. At the other extreme Manchester United who put in the smallest number of tackles have 25 yellow cards!
As a result of this bizarre variance, the number of tackles each club can put in before getting a yellow varies enormously. Here is the current tackle to yellow card ratio.
- Manchester United: 5.56 tackles per yellow card
- Manchester City: 8.00 tackles per yellow card
- Arsenal: 9.47 tackles per yellow card
- Liverpool: 12.33 tackles per yellow card
- West Ham United: 13.54 tackles per yellow card
- Chelsea: 14.67 tackles per yellow card
This means that when Manchester United put in a tackle it is almost three times as likely to pick up a yellow card as when a Chelsea player puts in a tackle.
To come back to my earlier point, one can argue that Manchester United players are simply cloggers whose tackles deserve punishment whereas Chelsea defenders have perfected the art of the perfect tackle.
Maybe, although it is interesting that media reports never point this out, and you might have thought that with such a huge difference even a journalist would have noticed and mentioned it.
Just consider the figures…
Chelsea have committed 112 fouls and have got 12 yellow cards. Man U have committed just four fouls more and got 25 yellow cards. That is so bizarre you would expect every journalist covering a game involving either of those clubs to comment: either about how dirty Man U are, or how biased the refs are, but not a word is heard.
Which is probably the most telling factor. The media will never comment on refereeing decisions – and here we can see why – because the refereeing decisions mean that it takes 5.56 tackles for a Man U player to get a yellow card, means that it takes 14.67 tackles for a Chelsea player to get a yellow card.
And that is bonkers.
Arsenal under Arteta, as we know, have approached the problem itself and last season cut their tackling dramatically so that their yellow card rate was cut in half. We are now less vulnerable to what perhaps I should call the whims of the referees. Man U, perhaps being used to getting things their own way during the Ferguson years, have yet to grasp how the system they used in the past now works against them.
As to why it works this way – that maybe is for another article – but that it works in a very odd way cannot be disputed.
PS: You might notice that generally in an Untold article there will be a link or two to the publication from which we have taken the data we analyse. There are no such links this time – because the media won’t ever mention it. However here are three out of many earlier articles from Untold…
- How tackling is changing in the PL and how it is affecting clubs’ positions in the league
- How clubs manipulate referees through their tactics
- Revealed: How clubs have evolved their “referee handling” tactics with such success
- Arsenal v the team that will present a giant toothbrush to our captain
- Arsenal squad for Europa League game
- The abuse of female footballers is appalling, but there is a wider context
- Why Arsenal v Glimt might be tougher than the game against Tottenham
- Is the team that passes the most, the team that gets the best results?