The disciplinary records of players and teams are frequently referred to because of their direct consequences on player suspensions which add dramatic narrative for the sports media. It is also not unusual as a football fan to focus on the referee when you’re at a game, especially when things are not going smoothly, because it is easy to feel that your team is being persecuted by the official, with more fouls being given against your team than the opponents. Fouls against, in summary, hold our interest because they can hold psychological connotations and indicators about commitment, conspiracy, control, and attitude; in short, they are dramatic.
But what of fouls for? There are two ways of interpreting a large number of fouls that a team have attracted: either your team is genuinely the focus of more aggressive tactics from the opposition, or your team is good at conning the referee into giving free kicks. I conducted this analysis because I was curious to see whether any teams where being favoured by the officials and/or victimised by the opposition.
All data presented here is up to and including 3rd January for 2015/2016 league games.
Most fouls drawn: who is being awarded the most fouls?
Chelsea have been awarded the most fouls this season, at an average of 13.95 per game. It seems that referees, who former manager Jose Mourinho has labelled as ‘f**king weak’ and ‘afraid’ this season because he left the club, have actually favoured Chelsea this season by deeming them to have been fouled more than any of the other 91 league clubs. There are several possible explanations for this, including that teams are pressing them harder because of the perceived threat of the reigning champions and thus committing more fouls, although none of the other teams in the top 10 above have a similar status in their leagues. Some would arguably point to the chicanery of striker Diego Costa for getting opposition players booked, or the possession-based game they sometimes play inviting fouls, particularly if passes are slightly off and the defenders sense and opportunity to intercept. Whatever the reason, it seems that Mr. Mourinho’s assessment of the situation was fuelled by perceptions other than the reality of what was happening on the pitch, where Chelsea are awarded more fouls than they themselves commit (279 vs. 226 so far this season).
Of the other teams in the top 10, six are in the Championship, indicating that there are more fouls in the division, which is true as evidenced by the table below, which shows the average number of fouls awarded to the teams in each division.
The presence of Sheffield Wednesday in this list of teams with most fouls awarded in favour is notable because they also top the list of most fouls conceded per game (13.56), indicating that games involving the Hillsborough club must be resembling battlegrounds, particularly away from home where the club feature three times in the top 30 most fouls conceded by away teams (in visits to Middlesbrough, Leeds and Brentford). Bolton also feature in the top 10 of both lists.
The most fouls drawn in a single match this season was by Crewe, who were award 26 fouls in their home game against Oldham at the end of November, which contributed to them sneaking into the top 10 list above. Crewe are also notable for having conceded the fewest fouls per game this season (7.96), but despite this they certainly played their part in the aforementioned match, conceding 15 fouls to make it the dirtiest game of the season to date with a total of 41 fouls.
Fewest fouls drawn: who is being awarded the fewest fouls?
In contrast to Chelsea receiving numerous free-kicks a game, Norwich are receiving little from the referees, at a rate of almost one fewer foul per game than the next on the list. The team, back in the Premier League after a season away, have seemingly held their own on the pitch so far despite receiving only 7.60 fouls per game in their favour, and as few as four per game in seven of their games to date.
AFC Wimbledon are 4th in the list of teams to have received the fewest foul decisions from referees per game, and notably they also appear 9th in the list of teams to have committed the most fouls. This does somewhat draw a picture of a dirty, aggressive team. However, as someone who saw Adebayo Akinfenwa up close during his two spells at Northampton, I would have no trouble believing that AFC Wimbledon’s foul count is artificially high as a result of referees reading defenders bouncing off his significant stature as an infringement.
The fewest fouls drawn in a single game was attributed to Barnsley, in their home game against the aforementioned squeaky-clean Crewe in October 2015.
Home and Away
Many fans believe that referees are intimated by home fans and will thus give more fouls in their favour. Data from this season appear to prove that conspiracy theory true; there have been 12,311 fouls drawn from the home teams this season compared to 11,377 drawn from the away teams, a difference of 0.88 extra per game. 63 of the 92 league clubs have received more fouls at home than away, whereas only 27 can claim the reverse; Tottenham and West Ham complete the 92 with an equal measure of home and away fouls per game. The chart below visualises this data; the dashed line down the centre indicates parity between home and away fouls, but the majority of clubs are clearly in the ‘home’ area for fouls drawn.
The logic behind this is that home teams have more possession, and thus more chance to attract fouls from the opposition.
In conclusion, it can be determined that your team is more likely to be awarded fouls when playing at home. There are some stand-out clubs in this analysis, namely:
- Chelsea, who have been the beneficiaries of more fouls than any other team
- Norwich, who are getting very little from referees, and have been involved in one of the two cleanest games of the season to date with just eight fouls in the 1-2 home defeat to Leicester. (The other was Yeovil 2-4 Morecombe)
- Wigan, who most noticeably buck the trend by receiving 12.15 fouls per away game but only 9.82 at home
- AFC Wimbledon, who are receiving little but conceding a lot of fouls
- Crewe, who are receiving a lot but conceding fewer than any other team.
- Sheffield Wednesday, whose games have an atmosphere of carnage as the club are receiving a lot of fouls but have also committed the most.