Referees – the guys that bear the brunt of ire from unhappy fans and Jose Mourinho. They are generally the default targets of people’s anger every time a perceived wrong decision is given. They are almost certainly the default reason for Mourinho’s teams not turning up at times. This season has already seen its fair share of controversies around referees’ decisions. But this season is also different for referees for several reasons.
First, referees are also superstars now. The cash-rich Chinese Super League is not stopping at poaching fading or sidelined players from Europe. In December, it was rumoured that Mark Clattenburg, one of the better referees in the Premier League, was offered a contract by the Chinese league. The experienced official went public saying that if an actual offer did materialise he would consider it as a career move.
Second, more technology is coming and it may help the referees or make them completely dependent on it (when did we last see a runout being given in Cricket by on-field umpires?). But the referees’ lives are changing. FIFA is planning to use video assistant referees for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the FA wants to be prepared by using them in the club games. The England FA is mulling the use of the technology from next season’s FA Cup Third Round. The FA Chief Executive Martin Glenn said a few days back that it is a question of “when and not if” the technology will be used in England.
Third, perhaps the smallest change but the most interesting for fans like us who like to study the game – WhoScored has started giving out detailed referee statistics. This indeed increases the power of the light we can shine on referees’ performances and might even give real data points to Mourinho in his next rant about referees. But for today, we will just look at some of the aggregated data across the current season and the four seasons before it in the Premier League to answer some basic questions.
Who Are the Busiest Refs in the Game?
Before Howard Webb retired from the game, he was the busiest referee in the Premier League officiating in 0.79 games every game week in 2012-13 and 0.82 games per game week in 2013-14. This amounts to 30 appearances in 2012-13 and 31 in 2013-14. In the subsequent three seasons, including the current one, different referees have been the busiest ones, with Martin Atkinson officiating in 31 matches in 2014-15 (0.82 per game week), Mike Dean taking charge of 33 games in 2015-16 (0.87 per game week) and Michael Oliver having refereed in 23 matches so far (0.86 per game week).
There are many factors that go into the choice of referee for every match but perhaps the ability to maintain equanimity and ensuring a flowing and an entertaining game, might also be the reason for some referees to be selected for more games than the others.
Who Are the Red Card Happy Refs?
One thing we see is that those refs who are likely to issue a red card more easily are not very likely to be those who are entrusted with many games. Out of all refs who refereed more than 10 games in each season, Mark Clattenburg was the most trigger-happy ref in 2012-13, issuing a red card at the rate of 0.29 per game. He was replaced by Phil Dowd in 2013-14 with 0.26 red cards per game. Chris Foy upstaged Dowd to become the most likely to give a red card in 2014-15. For the last season and the current one, the most trigger-happy ref has been Mike Dean. Only Dean in 2015-16 is the ref with maximum number of games and the highest red-card rate.
Are More Tackles Now Being Given as Fouls?
While we could go into the details by each referee, I felt that the aggregate numbers themselves tell us something here. It could be due to the increased strictness in cases such as shirt-pulling but we find that more tackles are being given as fouls in the current season than in the four seasons before this one.
This season, among those referees who have officiated in ten or more matches, Mike Jones has given a foul 0.78 times per tackle in the game, i.e. he has a probability of 78% of declaring a tackle as a foul. Kevin Friend has a probability of 75%. Both of them are much higher than the highest probabilities for any of the referees over the last four seasons, indicating again that referees are not giving as much leeway to actions such as shirt-pulling this season, as they used to earlier.
Much more detailed analyses can be conducted with this new source of data but a few things become clear even from this cursory glance at the data. If a ref is known to interrupt and disrupt games with red cards and higher fouls per tackle probabilities, he is not very likely to be the ref with the most games in that season. That, and it also seems that refs in general have become stricter this season. But perhaps even then, Mourinho will find a way to pick a problem with the refs.