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Are Premier League referees biased against Arsenal?

The answer won’t surprise you, but CIES Football Observatory did some number crunching that got me thinking.

Arsenal v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

To answer the question in the headline: almost certainly not. Referees are not biased against Arsenal. For starters, bias is such a vague, nebulous term, that you’d be spinning your wheels even before you got down to brass tacks. Second, statistically demonstrating referee bias would take data that I don’t have and number crunching that is well beyond my pay-grade. So my apologies for the clickbait. But the CIES Football Observatory’s Weekly Post about foul frequency did get my brain juices flowing.

Arsenal have committed the fewest fouls per 90 minutes of any club in a Big-5 league (England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy) in domestic competition this season. The Gunners are whistled for a foul every 10 minutes, 44 seconds of league play through 35 matches. That mark puts Arsenal fourth across all the leagues in Europe, with only three Russian clubs taking longer between fouls.

In the Premier League, Manchester City (10:15) are the only other club with more than 10 minutes played on average between fouls. West Ham (9:42), Everton (9:34), and Liverpool (9:31) round out the top five. Chelsea (8:25), Tottenham (8:20), Sheffield United (7:56), Manchester United (7:56), and Fulham (7:48) foul most frequently per CIES.

Because I’m a sick degenerate who is weirdly obsessed with refereeing diligent Arsenal blogger committed to bringing quality content to my readers, I did a bit more work. Based on Footstats data for fouls committed through 36 Premier League matches and yellow card numbers from the PL website, I discovered that Arsenal commit the sixth fewest fouls in the Premier League per yellow card — the Gunners have been cautioned every 7.13 fouls in the PL this season. Only Aston Villa (7.03), Leicester City (6.98), Sheffield United (6.49), Everton (6.4), and Newcastle (6.15) have been cautioned more frequently on a per foul basis. Chelsea (9.23), Brighton (9.44), and Liverpool (9.97) have been cautioned the least frequently on a per foul basis.

Not all fouls are created equal, number of fouls called has no connection to the severity of each individual foul, and often referees will issue cautions for game management reasons rather than for the seriousness of the foul. Without additional data and number-crunching about things like pitch position, match time, score, etc. and comparisons across referees and seasons my napkin math is not enough on it’s own to firmly conclude Arsenal have been hard done by. But having the fewest fouls against with the sixth most frequent yellows assessed does pique my interest, and it confirms my gut-feeling that referees have been quick to the pocket against Arsenal this year.

Again, that’s not to say there is anything nefarious going on, nor does it indicate any sort of bias against the Gunners. It’s just interesting. Also interesting: that Chelsea are among the most frequent fouling teams in the Premier League but the most infrequently cautioned. Make of the foul and card data what you will.

Note: I’ve not included the CIES data in that chart because it was based on 34/35 matches. It can be found here.