Last Saturday, when Tottenham played Arsenal, Sours* committed 17 fouls. I didn’t think anything of it because it was a derby and Arsenal gave as well as they got, committing 15 fouls in return. But in retrospect, when I look at which players received the most fouls that match it turns out it was Xhaka (3) and Torreira (2).

Then in the Man U v. Arsenal match there was another weird stat, Matteo Guendouzi was fouled 6 times. United weren’t especially aggressive, they only committed 13 fouls (which is just 1 more than Arsenal’s season average) but it was as clear as Fellaini pulling his hair that they targeted Guendouzi for special treatment. 

I reported at the time how it is unusual for a player like Guendouzi to receive so many fouls: he’s a center mid for one and he’s also not a big dribbler. In that same article I wrote that Torreira is one of the most-fouled players in Europe and that again, that’s super weird because normally we see players like Hazard, Zaha, or Luis Suarez drawing in the most fouls. That is to say, slippery forwards who like to have a dribble. It’s very rare to have a CM in the top 10 of most fouled players and Torreira is the only DM in the top 10 (total was-fouled) this year.

How rare is it? I have also gone through every Premier League team and listed the top 3 most-fouled players who have more than 10 appearances (n=60). Of the 60 players I studied, 43 are forwards/attacking mids, 2 are LBs, 2 are CBs, and 13 are central mids or defensive mids. 

The data indicates to me that there are certain teams/players who play in midfield who are the target for opposition fouls. Southampton’s Hojbjerg and Lemina, Mark Noble of West Ham, Paul Pogba on Man U, Liverpool’s Wijnaldum, Mendy from Leicester, Billing from Huddersfield, Gueye from Everton, Brighton’s Bissouma, Bournemouth’s Lerma, and Arsenal’s top three are all CMs: Torreira, Xhaka, Guendouzi. 

I don’t think that there’s just one reason for this. Some CMs are feisty and get involved in a lot of duels with their opponents (like Torreira, Lemina, Gueye, and Mark Noble). Some players have a lot of the ball and are naturally going to be the target of pressing (Xhaka, Hojbjerg, Wijnaldum). Some players are much more “dribbly” and naturally draw fouls (Pogba, Bissouma, Billing). And some players are just young and inexperienced – they may be holding on to the ball too long or finding themselves in bad positions. 

What does all this mean? I don’t have an answer. With Arsenal I suspect that teams are testing us. Last season teams would often pressure Arsenal into turnovers in the midfield. Many supporters observed that Arsenal “just can’t pass” as our players would turn the ball over, sometimes left on the ground in the process. 

I’ve long believed that referees had it out for Arsene Wenger, that they disliked him personally. The reason I started keeping stats was because I believed that Arsenal were getting an unfair number of cards per foul and that opposition teams were getting away with more fouls. I could never prove that (though that is where I discovered Mike Dean’s record) and if someone could prove systematic maltreatment for Arsenal I think they would have done so by now. 

But there is some evidence that referees are suddenly calling more fouls for Arsenal. Over the last three seasons Arsenal’s fouls called per game dropped. This season it suddenly spiked up from 9.9 to 12.1. Also Dean awarded his first Arsenal penalty in the last several years. That’s not a statistical analysis, I know. I’m not perfect. 

And I guess this post is going to leave you without a conclusion, other than to say that the pattern of fouls Arsenal are receiving is strange. 

One last data point: Huddersfield are not a dirty team and they don’t have a pattern of overfouling against top opponents. This was a deliberate tactic used just against Arsenal. And they almost exclusively fouled Torreira and Xhaka, those two were fouled 11 times (of the total 20 fouls committed). 7 for Torreira and 4 for Xhaka. 


*The o and the p are right next to each other on the keyboard


  1. Thanks for the great post again! Good thoughts and remarks, thry surely help people to undestand and think more about the game, tactics and specific details.

    My note for dmc pressing is that if there would be stat showing dmc passing directions when opening play, it used to be sideways and transitions and build-up tended to be slow. Ramsey received applauds for great passing record under aw era at cm, but passes were mostly backwards/sideways. Nowdays there appears to be more passing options and preplanned directions available, we’ve excelled in playing out directly with swift movements that are unpredictable, opposite to AW era. One of AW’s biggest flaws, that I never will undestand, was to give up Vieira type of b-to-b dmc. As long as there was determinated player with duch attributes we succeeded, when transitioning to “weak in battles” mc’s losses especially in big games came evident, and simultaneously too attacking minded tactics let us down.

    This season Xhaka still reminds me of a bit too slow/clumsy dmc profile, but guendouzi/torreira appear like players whom can take us far in terms of movement, determination and ability to transform and open up quickly with proper options upfront.

  2. The feeling I got from the first half was that Huddersfield had watched the ManU game, observed that ‘Arsenal don’t like it up ’em’ was back in play as a tactic, and decided to test this out. It seems that they were right. We’ll see if this continues in the next game too.

    By the way, that Lacazette goal ruled out for offside was such a terrible piece of refereeing, especially in light of the fact that last year Pgmol, in the cold light of day, declared that because Lovren had tried to cut out a pass and touched it, an offside Kane was in fact, onside. So even if you don’t rule it a back pass or second phase of play, by their own definition, Lacazette could not have been offside.

  3. It was pretty obvious that Huddersfield had learnt some lessons frm the United match. The fouling was systematically atrgetted at certain players. I think a remedy might be to start stronger for Arsenal. If we get an early goal (and dont allow them get right back into it like we did against united), it changes the dynamics of the game immediately. It wont stop the fouling but it certainly distracts the opposition from focussing soley on stoping Artsenal.

  4. Agree with the posters who commented about Huddersfield taking a blue print from the United game. I think Torreira especially was targeted in this game and I fear this is going to be a recurring theme because it worked quite well. We never got into a good rhythm and I think it also, at least partially, led to a couple of occasions where our players were trying to draw fouls which apparently we aren’t very good at. In the end it’s all about taking your chances though and had we done that in the first half we would have put them through the sword and effectively shown other teams that kicking us isn’t a good tactic. Instead we struggled and perhaps left ourselves open to similar treatment in the future. Some of the blame must also lie with the ref who spent the first 30 minutes giving Huddersfield a good “talking to” instead of immediately putting an end to the rotational fouling.

  5. Stats NEVER tell the real story in football. This is not baseball or cricket. Stats mean nothing you have to judge every tackle and situation by its own context. Why so many foals to Arsenal midfielders? BECAUSE those players had the ball a lot they are influential and trying to create if your doing anything effective as the opposition YOU HAVE TO target the players that are going to create a problem. that does not mean set out to foal them intentionally. BUT it does mean press them disrupt their play put them under pressure. Most foals are failed attempts to win the ball or intercept a pass or halt the progress of the opposition. Game situations lead to foals based on the tactics of both teams. If you play out of the back with short passing through midfield your midfielders are going to face opposition and tackles and that will lead to foals. Players are trying to win the ball anticipate passing lanes and they go in attempting win the ball they may be late the attacking player can also anticipate the tackle and move the ball but fail to move out of the way of the challenge. these result in foals. Now if your a more direct quickly going from back to front and most of your possession is by your forward players they will be the most foaled players. Arsenal’s tactics are to play out of the back on the ground through midfield then to patiently mover the ball trying to create chances through the defense . in doing this their midfielders are on the ball a lot they are the players breaking up the opposition play AND the players kicking off the Arsenal attacks. it is not surprising at all they are also the most foaled players. (sometimes they are actually foaled directly after breaking up the oppositions attack by the player that just lost possession in a poor attempt to quickly win the ball back. By your analysis one might think your ONLY experience in football is watching it.

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