The more clubs tackle, the more they get away with it. The stats.

By Tony Attwood

We have for many years been showing that clubs are each treated very differently when it comes to the relationship between tackles and fouls.

But it also turns out that the number of fouls called varies from one referee to another.

Below is a list of referees that oversaw three or more Arsenal games last season, showing the number of fouls called per game.   As we can see at once the number of fouls called per game against Arsenal, varies incredibly between seven fouls a game and 13.33 fouls per game.  Put bluntly Tierney gives out fouls against Arsenal twice as often as Moss.

It also turns out that two of the three referees who give out the most fouls per game against Arsenal were the two who oversaw the most Arsenal games!

The third most punishing referee in terms of handing out fouls against Arsenal was one of six referees who oversaw three Arsenal games

Referee AFC games Fouls pg by AFC Excess or leniency EXTRA FOULS
Paul Tierney 3 13.33 +3.7 11.10
Martin Atkinson 3 8.33 -1.27
Michael Oliver 5 10.60 +1.00 5.00
Craig Pawson 4 12.50 +2.90 11.60
Andre Marriner 3 8.00 -1.60
Mike Dean 3 9.33 -0.27
Jonathan Moss 3 7.00 -2.60
Anthony Taylor 3 8.33 -1.27
Total / Average 38  

Now as we know Arsenal has sought to overcome this referee bias by reducing the number of tackles they commit per game, and thus reducing the number of chances the referee has to award fouls.

The range of tackles allowed before a foul was given in the Premier League last season, was enormous.  Leicester could commit 1.94 tackles per foul while Arsenal could only get away with 1.48 tackles per foul.

This of course encourages Leicester to tackle more than almost any other team, because they get away with more tackles without a foul being given, than any other team.

Team Tackles per game Tackles/game pos Fouls per game Tackles per foul Tackle/ foul pos
Leicester City 18.2 3 9.4 1.94 1
Everton 18.6 2 9.7 1.92 2
Wolverhampton Wand 17.7 4 9.6 1.84 3
Norwich City 16.2 11 9.4 1.72 4
Brighton and HA 17.6 5 10.3 1.71 5
Newcastle United 17.3 6 10.3 1.68 6=
Leeds United 20.7 1 12.3 1.68 6=
West Ham United 14.1 19 8.5 1.66 8
Brentford 16 12 9.8 1.63 9
Aston Villa 16.7 8 10.6 1.58 10
Manchester City 13.1 20 8.4 1.56 11
Tottenham Ho 15.7 14 10.2 1.54 12
Crystal Palace 16.7 7 10.9 1.53 13
Liverpool 14.6 17 9.6 1.52 14
Chelsea 16.3 9 10.8 1.51 15
Burnley 15.5 15 10.4 1.49 16
Southampton 15.8 13 10.6 1.49 17
Manchester U 15.4 16 10.4 1.48 18=
Arsenal 14.2 18 9.6 1.48 18=
Watford 16.2 10 11.6 1.40 20

As a result of the way referees treat clubs, clubs change their approaches.  Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton commit the most tackles per game, and occupy the top spots for the number of tackles they can get away with before a foul is committed.

Put another way, six of the top seven tackling clubs last season are in the top six positions for the number of tackles they can get away with per foul.

Now you could argue that this is because they have the best tacklers in the business.  But are we really saying that Leicester, Everton, Wolverhampton, Norwich, Brighton, Newcastle and Leeds had between them bought up the best tacklers in the English game?  It does seem unlikely.

There is however another explanation.   Simply that referees are more lenient per tackle on clubs that tackle a lot.  Thus clubs like Arsenal, which tackle far fewer times than, for example, Leeds United get penalised more per tackle.

Put another way, the Leeds tackles are flying in so regularly that the referees feel they can’t blow the whistle for each one, so they let them get away with more.  Arsenal tackles happen less often, so when one goes even marginally wrong the referee feels the need to blow against Arsenal, just to even things up a little.  But in fact as a result, they pile on the advantage to the high tackling teams.

In this way Leicester have built up their reputation of being a clean side and so get away with many more tackles before a foul is called.

Of course the reverse can be argued, saying that Arsenal are a dirty team and so get away with far fewer tackles per foul.

But that does mean we are saying Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea are all dirtier teams than Leeds, and having watched all of those teams last season, I’d say that is not the case.

It seems much more likely to me that the more a team tackles, the more lenient the referee becomes.  That is why Leicester tackle the most but can get away with more tackles per foul than any other club.

So we have two factors:

First, some referees penalise fouls far more than others – and if a club gets one of those referees a lot, their results will suffer.

Second, clubs that tackle a lot, get away with many more fouls than clubs that tackle less often.

It’s a funny ol’ game.

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