Revealed: Which Top 4 Premier League Club Is In The Pocket Of Referees

Every season you hear the same statements being thrown about: “Manchester United get all the cards,” “The referees are in Sir Alex’s pocket” and so on. So I’ve taken a look at a breakdown of how cards were given and received by Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion.

I chose these teams as they’re the last three champions of the league, because Arsenal fans would probably kill me for not including them in this breakdown and West Brom being the team that finished 10th last season and representing the mid-table sides. I’ve gone through the last 48 games, one by one, to deliver this breakdown and make it as accurate as possible.

So let’s start with the breakdown of cards that have been given to opponents of the teams that I’ve previously mentioned.

Arsenal 104 8 5 112 41 38 2.3
Chelsea 82 3 2 85 41 28 1.77
Manchester United 72 10 4 82 41 25 1.7
Manchester City 74 2 2 76 37 21 1.58
West Brom 60 4 4 64 36 16 1.33

SRC: Straight Red Card TC: Total Cards G1C: Games with at least one card MCG: Multiple Card Games CPG: Cards per Game

As you can see just by the total number of cards given, Arsenal have by far and away the most cards given to opponents, while Chelsea and United are in a close battle for second followed by City in fourth and West Brom a very distant fifth.

But why does Arsenal get so many cards, particularly yellow cards, given to their opponents? For the amount of time that Arsene Wenger spends talking ill of the referees, it can’t be that he has any sort of influence over the officials. As you may have heard on the EPL Talk Podcast, Kris Heneage made a very good point in stating that Arsenal are a side with many technical players. In a league where strength and speed are at the forefront, technical players tend to be on the receiving end of their fair share of fouls.

Just looking at a team like West Brom, who don’t necessarily have the same amount of purely technical players in the team, you can see the drop off in total cards. The other thing one might notice when looking at this table is that Manchester United’s opponents have received 10 red cards. Even though it isn’t very far from Arsenal’s total red card tally, it’s miles ahead of the other three teams in the table. To average it out, Manchester United have played nearly 1/5 of their games against 10 men or less. That is a HUGE advantage when you take into account a team of United’s quality and perceived advantage going into a game against any full squad. Then to look at a team like Manchester City, who themselves have a fair number of technical players, to be as far away as they are from the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and United, is almost mind boggling.

Now let’s take a look at the amount of cards these teams have accumulated themselves over the last season and a quarter.

West Brom 63 2 1 65 31 18 1.35
Manchester City 61 6 2 67 36 18 1.4
Manchester United 69 1 1 70 37 22 1.46
Arsenal 73 5 1 78 36 26 1.63
Chelsea 88 6 4 94 40 30 1.96

SRC: Straight Red Card TC: Total Cards G1C: Games with at least one card MCG: Multiple Card Games CPG: Cards per Game

Again, we see a team that is given considerably more cards than their rivals, a slight battle for second and then a bit of a drop off towards bottom. Chelsea leading the pack can be attributed to a few things. Style of play comes into question and discipline is also a major question when a team isn’t far from getting 100 cards in just over a season. It should be noted though that of Chelsea’s six red cards, four of them have come in two games (United this season, QPR last season).

Manchester City also has a staggering amount of red cards. While many people will point to them having players like noted hothead Mario Balotelli and Kung Fu Nigel De Jong in the squad, that’s still a very high percentage of red cards that are given to City given their total number of cards overall. One also has to ask the question of how Manchester United have only received one red card in the last 48 games (the one red going to “No Foul” Johnny Evans vs. City last season). But when it comes to disparities, Arsenal’s 34 card drop off from fouls given to their opponents to fouls they commit is quite tremendous. Especially when you figure Chelsea have received nine more cards than their opponents have been given, United have a 12 card drop off, City have a 9 card drop off and West Brom have been given one more card than their opponents have gotten against them.

So what can we learn from these numbers? Is there really a fix in for United given the staggering amount of red cards their opponents have been given and the paltry amount they’ve received? Or are United just a well disciplined side that just so happens to be on the receiving end of brute force tactics? How is it that Arsenal’s opponents have received so many cards (an average of just over 2 per game) yet they still struggle to get results in the league? Why are officials so trigger happy with the red cards when it comes to City and Chelsea?

There are any number of narratives that can be taken when you actually see the breakdown of how cards are given and received. Ultimately each card that is given is subjective to the official who has given it. Style of play, certain players, a manager’s relationship with officials, all of that is taken into account on top of the actual foul itself. These are all things that can be factored into an official’s thinking when it comes to giving cards, whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not. So take from this what you will. As a Blues fan, I obviously feel hard done by the refs (four reds in two games will do that to a man) but as it is with statistics, everyone has their own views and takes when the numbers are presented to them.

21 thoughts on “Revealed: Which Top 4 Premier League Club Is In The Pocket Of Referees”

  1. I think the ire at Man U is that in important games (against other top 4, rivalry, etc) they manage to garner at least one red card for their opponent. I’d like to see a breakdown of that.

    1. Hi Anymouse,

      I did take a look at that. They haven’t all played each other yet this season so it’s just based on last season’s numbers. Every team got their opponent to get 1 red card last season in the 6 games they had against each other. So United didn’t really hold an edge in that category. But United did have the most total cards in games between those 4. the Total card breakdown was:

      United: 19
      City: 18
      Arsenal: 16
      Chelsea: 12

  2. Interesting but you need to go further. Games against your rivals (you need to include Spurs and Liverpool) and crucially penalties awarded. Its the penalties that draws most ire from fans.

  3. Good work. The opponent card statistics are certainly most telling as these don’t allow argument relating to the physical play of the selected clubs. I would be interested in additional data:

    1. Minutes into the game average for each card. A yellow card given early is indicative of a referee choosing to dictate early control. It also hampers the level a recipient is able to perform at for a more prolonged duration.

    2. Minutes into the game for each straight red. A straight red after 20 minutes is a death sentence, while a red in the 83rd is survivable. I have always found it hard to reconcile this as a straight red is just as bad an act whether it occurs early or late, while the punishment is very different

  4. it’s all relative to the game, opponent, time and relevance of card given and not forgetting those ‘earned cards’ so = non-relevant article

  5. (the one red going to “No Foul” Johnny Evans vs. City last season) Evans was last man and trying to swap shirts with Balotelli whilst the game is in progress. The only punishment there is red card, justified! However look at another ‘derby’ game from last season. Kompany got the ball Nani went over the top and continued running (no dive for once) result, Kompany receives a red card, after Rooney had a word with the ref, for what?

    I think you must be a red fan. You need to do a tad more research.

    1. I can say for certain i’m not a United fan. The reason I did not go into specifics is because at that point if I do it for one then I have to do it for every single card that was given. Maybe with a bigger budget that can be done. The reason I pointed out Evans was because United only had one red card.

  6. Man United played more minutes against depleted sides than ALL of their opponents last season. This season they have already had 5 opponents sent off, more than any other side. They also top the penalties awarded charts with 4 in the first 10 league games. Over the last decade they have also conceded the least penalties while being awarded the most (between all ever present sides). This means that just like last season United’s opponents are more likely to be sent off when playing United than in other games, they are also less likely to be awarded a legitimate penalty and are much more likely to concede one to United whether it’s fair or not. Afterwards the pundits and commentators will justify and downplay these unfair decisions while questioning and scrutinizing the far rarer occasions these advantages fall for other sides. It’s just smoke and mirrors for the biased money driven media to look after their biggest cash cow. It doesn’t register that fair minded fans are getting sick of the double standards and all the effort that goes into the cover up. United’s CEO David Gill should NOT be on the board of the FA on the grounds of an obvious conflict of interest, but who really cares? We are that used to it it is a joke.

    1. Biased language aside, there seem to be a few points you’re ignoring:

      a) When you’re better than your opponents, you tend to determine where the game will be played. United spend more time in the opponent’s box than their opponents.

      b) Conversely, if the play is regularly in the attacking third, you don’t give your opponent a chance to get into your box, and therefore have fewer fouling opportunities.

      c) Fouls in and around the box tend to draw more cards, especially red cards (DOGSO)

      So, if you want to play a slower, more methodical game that keeps possession, Arsenal can still get their fouls, they just won’t always be in dangerous areas. If you play a fast transition game that eats up mistakes and stretches your opponent (United) you will get fouls from behind (great YC opportunity), second yellows, and red cards (DOGSO)

      *club chairmen have been on teh board of the FA for a long time, including Arsenal’s David Dein, and former Manchester City chairman David Bernstein was on the board of teh FA when Wayne Rooney was suspended for swearing, missing a certain FA Cup SF final vs…. Man city.

      You show me your conspiracy theories, I’ll show you mine.


      1. Biased language? Quote me fool.

        a) Last season City scored more and conceded less than every other Premier league team. However United topped the penalty charts that year with 11 nearly 30% more than any of their closest rivals including eventual champions City.

        b) City had the best defence in the league last season.

        c)Fouls in and around the box are statistically more likely to be given for United than those for Manchester City.

        Do you actually understand what a conflict of Interest is? Bernstein has nothing to do with Manchester City for several years. Gill is your ACTING CEO. Catch up.

  7. This analysis is woefully incomplete. A number of things need to be addressed, not just cards. And it needs to be for the entire league.

    1) Cards
    2) Penalties Awarded For / Against
    3) Extra-time given when leading / tied / losing (I think this is typically the biggest difference)

    Then the final problem with such an analysis is that almost each one needs to be looked at in context of the game. Both in the sense of were the calls obvious and was there frustration boiling due to one-sided refereeing. Just looking at the numbers is inadequate.

  8. This article is totally irrelevant because you didn’t point out the fact that some red cards given to MAN U’s opponent are not worth it and that’s what matters most, not the number of cards. This article is irrelevant.

      1. Your racism and xenophobia is revolting and belongs nowhere near this discussion, or any discussion for that matter. If you disagree, it is the lazy and irresponsible to resort to insults and stereotypes. Try to be a better human and engage in civil dialogue.

    1. Ignore that fool Frill, he is covering up for the corruption that is the disease of English football. United have had five opponents sent off already and we are only 10 games into the league. Who else has had this kind of advantage?

  9. As a armchair fan because I am 70+ and dont live in England but manage to watch most EPL games. The one conclusion I have come to is Man Utd certainly get cards against their opponents at convient time for them, now this may be a coincidence but I certainly dont see it that way.

  10. I can’t comment on all the other sides, but I will say as a United fan that I really don’t see the bias. I try to be objective and I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of fouls from United where we only got a yellow and I was breathing a sigh of relief because I knew the foul *maybe* merited a red. And likewise…..I can’t say that there are so many where I felt like the opponent got royally screwed.

    I remember each of those reds and the most tenuous was for Torres in the recent Chelsea-United game. I know there is one point of view that you don’t give a second yellow for that since Torres got breathed on by Evans. But the other view is the Torres is a moron for going down like that when he was on a yellow (clutching a part of his leg that wasn’t touched, trying to get Evans carded for a minor touch)…. That kinda thing is like thumbing your nose at the ref. He forced the refs hand and maybe the ref didn’t like that.

    Anyhow…..I will say that I’ve seen a LOT of stupid fouls against United where I think, “My god….it’s the 20th minute! Just let him have a shot at the goal, score/not score and play on with 11 men.”

    I also think that SAF does a nice job of taking people out who are on a yellow. That’s a benefit of having a larger side and some depth. Also, I think the guys are scared of making a stupid foul and getting screamed at by SAF. I mean, are Chelsea players equally afraid of RDM (who only barely kept his job after last season)?

    1. How many games do you get to? Do you watch everything live? Do you understand that the media has a financial interest in United winning?

      1. I don’t watch any in person because I’m in the US. I watch them live or DVR’d the same day if life prevents me from being in front of the TV live.

        I don’t buy that whole thing where the media’s obvious preference for big teams affects the refereeing. That’s just crap. How do you explain Liverpool’s decline? How do you explain Arsenal’s decline? Shouldn’t the referees be bailing them out because there are a TON of Liverpool fans who would love to see them doing better.

  11. Mike, you sound like a raving lunatic. Even if the stats hold out is anyone REALLY suggesting refs favor Man Utd ? Wny would that be ? They are the most hated as well as supported team in the world. How would someone, a disgruntled ex-ref for example, not have come out and said this ?

  12. Mike’s bang on the money. The rest of you are united fans or sympathisers.

    This article doesn’t cover the main bone of contention with fans, the decisions you don’t get against united. This isn’t something tangible that can be counted but this is the main reason they gain an unfair advantage.

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