Foul behaviour


The Premiership is the most valuable and most watched football league in the world.  It is the third largest sports league in the world, second only to the NFL and MLB and generating twice as much revenue as the next biggest football league (the Bundesliga).

So naturally people have asked why Premiership clubs don’t do substantially better in European competitions than they do.  Answers have included inflated wages, defensive failings, poor recruitment, technical shortcomings, tactical naivete, and complacency.

What do the performance statistics say? Well on many stats the Premier League isn’t notably different to it’s continental counterparts.  But here’s one very strong and persistent difference: fouls.

Fouls per match in elite European leagues
NB Fouls are for both teams in the match

This chart shows the trajectory of fouls per match (where I had the data) since 2000.  Since 2005, the trajectory in continental Europe has fallen year on year, flattening out somewhat since 2010, and the four big countries have kept in lock-step with each other. But the Premiership has followed a completely different path. This seems to confirm the unique status of this league.

More evidence of a difference  comes from players who have played in both environments. Using data from 2006 to 2014 I looked at 337 cases where players had moved between a Premiership club and a continental club (in either direction) and compared their statistics in both leagues.  The results were striking; the same players won and conceded substantially fewer fouls when they played in the Premiership. {nerd alert p <. 0001}

Fouls Won/90 on the Continent and in the Premiership

Fouls Conceded/90 on the Continent and in the Premiership

But here’s the thing.

I’ve gone back to the first chart and added the fouls trajectory for the Championship.

Fouls per match in elite European leagues and Championship

The fascinating finding here is that the trajectories for the Premiership and Championship are virtually indistinguishable.  So any explanation for the difference between the European and  Premiership trajectories can’t be limited to attributes of the Premiership alone, like bigger wages or foreign talent.

So there is clearly something different about the way we play football in England. Maybe English referees are more concerned to keep the game flowing, and less concerned to protect players than their cousins on the continent.  And maybe this is a factor in some of the unsuccessful transfers from abroad.