On TTT we focus a fair bit on referees – and in particular the issue of penalties, as it’s the biggest decision referees often make: almost an 80% chance of a goal (and even a red card, unless it involves conceding a penalty, does not almost guarantee a goal, especially later in a game).
Referees are human, and fallible, and most of them might be really nice people. It’s a tough job. But as professionals paid way more than the average Joe they have an outsized influence on the game of football. VAR was implemented to help, but uniquely in England at least, they seemed to use it to complicate matters – and it has become a way to engender cronyism, where two matey blokes justify one another’s mistakes. That seemed to change this season, but following the handball farces (and they were farces in the early weeks of the season) it seems to have gone back to the bad old ways of VAR last season. This weekend, despite a clear foul on Mo Salah in the box, there was no obvious VAR review.
One main issue we’ve noted is that, since 2013/14, when Liverpool were dubbed “penaltypool” after they won a crazy number of penalties (with a British manager and with most of the penalties won by British players), refs seem hellbent on experiencing sudden blindness when there’s a clear Liverpool penalty, in order to show some kind of strength.
Speaking personally, and for most people on this site, there are quite a lot of referees we think are not up to scratch, and therefore are just largely incompetent (in some cases, too old and unable to keep up with play), and perhaps eager to be seen as standing up to the Kop (in the days when there were thousands of fans in it, and based on the 1970s myth of the Kop “winning” penalties). But only one seems to have a vendetta that can be explained both anecdotally and with data.
Goals change games, and penalties usually equal goals. Before getting onto the execrable Martin Atkinson specifically (earning a basic salary of £200,000 a year) – who denied the Reds an absolutely stonewall penalty when 1-0 down at Villa Park (just as he has in previous games) – it’s worth a quick recap of some in-depth penalty studies we’ve done, just to show how referee’s biases play a role; just as ours play a role; but we are trying to weed them out in how we study the data – which is why data is important. And I focus on penalty data, and have been for several years now.
Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking talks about how surgeons kept accidentally killing people during routine operations, and every time it was “just one of those things”. After all, these things happen. But anyone who told the surgeon they were making a mistake was shamed into silence. So it was only when the ‘big’ data was gathered that the pattern was clear; it was just one of those things that happened to occur far too often. And while data can’t tell us everything, it is what often counters the apparently intuitive; because often the truth is counterintuitive. (And on biases, court judges have been shown to be far less lenient when they are hungry or tired, by a massive margin. And that’s without a reason to hate the person they are sentencing or finding guilty.)
And this is not a reaction written to deny Aston Villa what was in the end a thoroughly deserved victory. Of course, unlike a lot of reactionaries, my eyes told me what the data did: the game was relatively even in most respects (with Villa about 0.4 xG ahead until the final stages) until it went 6-2 and Liverpool players slumped and Villa ran through on goal a few more times; but the example of a clear-cut and potential game-changing penalty, at 1-0 down as the Reds piled on pressure, not being given to Liverpool brought the point home yet again. And the ref was the same old culprit.
Also, while we are trying to make articles on this site free on only very rare occasions (other than Free Fortnight, a quarterly two-week reduction in paywalled articles), this qualifies for general consumption as we feel it’s in the public interest.
First, a quick example of referees’ biases, whether conscious or not.
On the site we studied all 600+ Premier League penalties between 2012 and 2019, and found that referees penalise foreign defenders at a ludicrously unfair rate, which is statistically significant; while they also favour British strikers in penalty decisions, albeit by a less significant margin. (These quantities are all based on a percentage of overall minutes played.)
A small cluster of British players win an unusually large chunk of the Premier League penalties; but of course, most of the best attacking players in the league are not British (or British born/raised, and for the definition we used British Isles, to include Ireland, as it’s all part of the same vague football culture).
Jamie Vardy just has to feel the slightest tug or tap and he goes down (see all three of Leicester’s penalties at Manchester City, two of which involved him but the other was identical), just like Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Wilfried Zaha (who also played for England at youth and full international level).
In many cases these are still penalties – even a slight slowing of a super-fast striker in the box takes away the split-second advantage his pace and anticipation gives him, and if that impediment is achieved by using an arm on a shoulder or around the waist or by grabbing shirts or shorts that has no place in the game. This is a universal rule – some physical contact can happen if players are running parallel (a bit of shoulder to shoulder), but once arms are used to drag or pull someone back, it’s a penalty.
Unless, of course, your name is Mo Salah….
(Contrast the outcry when Salah did get one of these a couple of seasons ago against Newcastle, when bursting into the box, when the defender grabbed his shoulder to pull him back, and how Jamie Vardy, twice, and James Madison, were all “entitled to go down” according to commentators in Leicester’s recent 5-2 win over Manchester City. “Soft, but a penalty” seemed to be the claim each time; with Salah, it’s “He goes to ground too easily” or even “he throws himself to the ground” or “he dives”, as if he’s the only one expected to stay on his feet. None of the Leicester players had to fall over when fouled, but they fell over to prove the contact – not least because staying on your feet just allows the ref to ignore it and allows the defender to win the ball. I have no problem with that, just with the way it’s applied to some players, and usually British players, while overseas players are seen to do so in an underhand way.)
There are about five or six top British born/raised international strikers. And there must be at least 25 comparable foreign talents. Yet the Brits win more in relation to minutes played than the foreign attacking players (and for this ‘attacking’ bracket I also include attacking midfielders and even some full-backs who act as wingers). It’s not a massive difference in terms of British players winning more penalties based on minutes played, but factor in the overall quality gap between British and foreign attackers it should be huge; after all, the Premier League has some of the best attackers from over 50 different countries, and Britain, plus Ireland, is just five countries, albeit even then, being an England international in particular seems to curry favour (note: this term predates colonialism!).
So we feel that there is an unconscious bias by referees against foreign players, albeit we haven’t factored race or skin colour into this, as while it may prove enlightening, that’s far too complicated for us to designate; we can look at someone’s place of birth or the country they represent, but we cannot decide their race.
So we are basing the definition on “foreign-ness”, nothing else. See Graeme Souness putting Erik Lamela’s sneaky elbow into Anthony Martial’s jaw, and then falling theatrically when a soft retaliation came in, down to “Latin” football cultures on Sky at the weekend, explaining that he had played and managed in Latin countries and this was how they are; and while this generally used to be true, British players now appear as likely to go down, and dive (we had Michael Owen do that!), and feign injury, as anyone else – and credit Martial, also a foreign player, for not resorting to such cheap tactics. But the referees still seem to have a foreign distrust, perhaps especially referees who are my age, i.e. nearly 50 (and therefore should be nowhere near a football pitch), and probably haven’t studied the data. Some appear too arrogant to even consider it.
Obviously, we feel this is a big issue with Liverpool right now, with so many foreign attackers (and historically, Liverpool do on average win more penalties in seasons when they’ve had more British attackers, based on the data nearly two-decades of data, from 2002-2020. Liverpool penalties per season seems to neatly track up and down in line with number of attacking British minutes played).
We feel it’s particularly obvious at Anfield, and even more obvious at the Kop end (where a Liverpool penalty has become a super-rare event). New biases often arise to counter myths or historical biases; people intuitively think Liverpool get too many Kop-end penalties (but counterintuitively, the opposite is true), so the reverse bias is applied to compound the initial error.
Liverpool have had the best front three in the world for 2-3 years according to many neutrals, two of whom are as quick and skilful as anyone; yet they rarely win penalties. Now, we’ve been over all this before, but I thought it all bore repeating before now moving on to Martin Atkinson.
So, we don’t think referees hate Liverpool.
And, we don’t think there is some mass conspiracy.
But we do have grave concerns about Martin Atkinson.
While it possibly started beforehand, we can almost precisely pinpoint the very day that Atkinson became almost pathologically averse to giving big decisions in Liverpool’s favour.
Atkinson wasn’t exactly generous to Liverpool in his early career, but in the decade until 2015, he did at least give the Reds some penalties: five in his first 44 games to be precise, which is still well below the average you would expect for Liverpool between 2005 and 2015, when the Reds finished with over 80 points on three occasions, reached two Champions League finals (and two more semi-finals) and were very strong – if not title winners – in two-thirds of those seasons. For half of that time the Reds were well established within the Big Four, who finished in the top four every season. (And even the worst seasons, after 2009, were finishes between 6th-8th, with Kenny Dalglish rescuing the half-season spent in bottom half of the table under Roy Hodgson.)
One penalty every nine games (or an average of four penalties per season, pro rata) is what most lower mid-table might expect – teams that finished between 13th and 17th in the previous five seasons averaged 4.2 penalties per season – but just above what relegated sides might expect.
The Gerrard Issue, And When Atkinson Went Rogue
Steven Gerrard had such a problem with Atkinson that he outed him in his autobiography.
This was in … 2015.
Basically, the book came out in late September 2015, just before Jürgen Klopp was appointed. So unless Atkinson hates Klopp too (and this is a possibility for different reasons), something radically changed with how Atkinson refereed Liverpool. “I can’t stand him,” Gerrard noted in September 2015, in one of several criticisms of Atkinson in his book.
Since that point, Atkinson, who is surely not some bitter old man, has been as generous to Liverpool as the average school bully is to the skinny kid with a lisp, buck teeth, milk-bottle glasses and an incontinence problem.
While Gerrard only released the book after leaving Liverpool, he remains Liverpool’s biggest living icon, on a par with only Kenny Dalglish. Martin Atkinson could not go to the MLS or the Scottish Premiership to exact revenge on the legendary no.8, after all, but he does seem to have gone from treating Liverpool shabbily to treating Liverpool appallingly.
Now, I don’t want to see referees persecuted, attacked, abused online or made to feel unsafe. This is about his suitability to do his job; or rather, his failings in doing that job. This is about a man paid a basic salary of £200,000 a year.
The data suggests that Martin Atkinson should not be allowed to referee Liverpool games because it looks pretty undeniable that he has an agenda; or, at the very least, a strong unconscious bias. And not only that, the moment when Atkinson turned more vehemently against Liverpool can be offered as an obvious motive.
And this article is just about penalties; and therefore ignores the blatant foul on Divock Origi that allowed Manchester United to score last season at Old Trafford, or ruling Roberto Firmino’s armpit offside at Villa Park (of all places) when working as the VAR. Most egregiously, he then correctly sent off Alisson at home to Brighton in November 2019, for a handball outside the box to deny a near-certain goal, but then allowed Brighton to take the resulting free-kick before the substitute keeper, Adrian, had arranged his wall, which was a bit shitty of him, but apparently not illegal. However, as former high-profile refs (indeed, the former head of the referee’s association) pointed out, his huge error was in letting Brighton take the free-kick with one of their players in the Liverpool wall, which had recently been outlawed. Again, due to his seniority, it seems, Atkinson got away with the gaffe, and Liverpool just about held on to the win despite the free-kick ending up in the net. How can a referee escape censure for a goal-costing mistake where he didn’t even know or apply the laws?
One other example from more recent memory was the 1-1 draw with Leicester that derailed Liverpool’s 2018/19 title charge (the game on the icy pitch), when he not only failed to send off Harry Maguire just before half-time with a last-man chance-denying foul, but didn’t give Naby Keita a penalty when he was absolutely totalled in the box. (If that was Vardy, he would have given two penalties.)
There were other terrible decisions by Atkinson against Liverpool that had fans in a lather, but we all get into a lather about referees, and sometimes we make a fool of ourselves in doing so. It’s an emotional business, and I sometimes go over the top in the heat of the moment. However, rarely can you find statistical evidence for some kind of overarching unfairness in their decision-making – and again, this is without things like the three aforementioned goals from last season either denied Liverpool or incorrectly awarded to the opposition.
These things will never even themselves out perfectly evenly, but there should be no glaring anomalies, especially over longer periods of time. And here we’re talking about more than five full years.
While Atkinson has screwed Liverpool over in those other ways, penalties are the easiest to inspect (and are more common than red cards). And while each individual penalty may come with a whole host of variables, and range from “never a penalty” to “stonewall”, 600+ penalties should even out the kinks on biases against foreign players.
And in terms of Atkinson, five years of data refereeing Liverpool should be enough to suggest something fishy is going on, even if it’s that he purposefully covers his breakfast with rancid garum on matchday.
Now, a month or so ago we did a feature on the 10-or-so clear penalties Liverpool were denied last season when winning the league (there were more than 10 possibilities, but 10-or-so seemed clear); running the piece precisely because those poor decisions did not cost the Reds the title. So it wasn’t sour grapes. We won the league but we knew it could cost us if it continued.
Two of the clearest examples of penalties Liverpool should have had were with Atkinson as ref. He only refereed Klopp’s men four times, but denied Liverpool two stonewall penalties, allowed the opposition to score after a blatant foul (Old Trafford), and allowed a goal to be scored from an illegally-taken free-kick (Brighton). That’s before getting on to his VAR duties!
Of the two stonewall penalties, one was Gary Cahill blocking a goal-bound shot with his arms unnaturally outstretched to make himself bigger, and another was Virgil van Dijk being wrestled to the ground in the box. So last season, if you include his VAR work, he cost Liverpool goals on multiple occasions. This was just in 2019/20, and therefore doesn’t include the scything takeout of Mo Salah at the weekend, nor instances in seasons from 2015-19.
It’s not like Liverpool just randomly don’t have clear penalty situations when Atkinson is ref. Yes, some games have no penalty claims. But 23 games? And to see just six in 67 games overall?
Atkinson’s Average vs Atkinson and Liverpool
To put the old average of nine games it took for Atkinson to award a penalty to Liverpool (i.e. the time when he was at least a bit fairer, from 2005-2015) into context, Atkinson gives a penalty, on average across his career, once every four games as a referee.
However, when refereeing Liverpool since September 2015, he has now awarded just one to the Reds in his last TWENTY THREE games – all since Gerrard’s book came out. This would extrapolate to less than two penalties a season (and you can probably justifiably extrapolate from a sample of well over half a season into a full season, with some confidence – after all, we are not extrapolating from just four or five games), and even relegated clubs can expect more than fewer than two penalties per season.
Since 2015, Liverpool have averaged a league position of 3.8 (or should that be 3.8th?!). Since 2015, teams that average a top-four finish average seven penalties per season, although several clubs have won between 10-14.
(Alas, Liverpool in that five-year period average below seven, which is another problem: despite being constantly top four on average, the Reds average just five penalties per season, which also happened to be their figure last season; Leicester took just three games to match that tally this season. Also, Liverpool are the only major club to average fewer penalties at home than away, and the number they get away is “par”. The number they get at home is disturbingly low.)
Ergo, if a referee does 23 of your games whilst you are a very strong side – including two seasons when you are posting two of the four best-ever English points tallies in the +130-year history of league football, with crazy attacking football – you should expect at least 3-4 penalties in that time; to get just one is very strange indeed. And while 23 isn’t a massive sample size, it’s enough to spot patterns.
Not least as Atkinson was already treating the Reds harshly, and he’s now reffed the club 67 times. That’s basically two full seasons of Martin Atkinson, heaven forbid. And Leicester, this season, took just three games to get within one single penalty of the number Atkinson has awarded Liverpool in those “two seasons” of 67 games.
Three to four penalties to the Reds in Atkinson’s games since late 2015 would makes sense, as Liverpool often have two-thirds of the shots and touches in the box in a game, and two-thirds of possession is not uncommon too. They’ll likely have two-thirds of the corners – a logical source of penalties, where fouls and handballs are more likely to occur.
And while better teams have no divine right to gain more penalties, it is undeniable that over a period of five years they should get more, because of all these factors. After all, they boss almost all of the attacking metrics. And the averages based on league positions says so.
By contrast, the bottom three teams in the five Premier League seasons between 2015-2020 averaged three penalties per season, and this is the lowest average for any part of the league; from mid-table downwards, teams can expect fewer and fewer penalties the further down they finish.
This, again, is logical – poor teams can expect fewer penalties, as they spend most of the time in their own half, and probably don’t have great attacking players. But it means that if Martin Atkinson did Liverpool for the whole season he would give them fewer penalties than any of the three relegated sides can expect each season.
When I asked Andrew ‘Beez’ Beasley to check Atkinson’s figures (because in the 600+ penalty study I oversaw I didn’t focus on referees – just the clubs, the players who won the penalties and conceded the penalties, and the numbers of handballs), his data showed what seems a clear statistical bias against Liverpool by a referee about to enter his sixth decade on this planet.
Now, the last 23 games Atkinson has reffed for Liverpool do include 11 Big Six fixtures. So you can cut him a bit of slack there, as the Reds won’t have been as dominant as in the other 12 games against weaker opposition; although in his career he has awarded more penalties to Big Six rivals in those games than to Liverpool. In the last five seasons he has awarded Liverpool no penalties in Big Six fixtures, with his only spot-kick coming at Cardiff, when Sadio Mané was absolutely wiped out by the keeper to such a degree that even Pep Guardiola would have had to give it as a penalty.
Okay, so maybe Atkinson just doesn’t like giving penalties to anyone? Well, that’s not true.
While Atkinson is not one of the more rabid penalty-awarders, he is exactly bang average on this metric – below the King Spot-Pointer (Mike Dean, obviously, with one gloriously signalled like a maniac every three games) but Atkinson, in awarding one every four games overall, is still well ahead of those who give penalties only once every five games (Craig Pawson, Andre Marriner, Stuart Attwell).
As I said, a ref awarding a penalty every four games is the average, so that’s Atkinson.
And while this could all just be random, it feels that, as Gerrard hinted at, Atkinson has an agenda against the club, or at the very least, some kind of dislike for the Reds; one that would logically have been inflamed by Gerrard making those very claims. Indeed, if Atkinson was as petty as Gerrard seemed to imply, then it’s precisely the reaction you’d expect. A good humoured fellow would laugh it off. A lower-ranking official might be humbled into some self-examination, or asked by his superiors to take a look at his performance.
Indeed, the coincidence of Gerrard publicly slating Atkinson and Atkinson’s treatment of Gerrard’s beloved Liverpool (even after Gerrard left) is startling. It’s staggering, even.
So, what about Michael Oliver, I asked Beez, given that Oliver seems to be regarded as the best of the bunch? Can we find a pattern there?
Oliver – who averages a penalty to all clubs every 3.4 games, so a bit more frequently than the average but not in Mike Dean territory – gives Liverpool penalties at a healthy “expected” rate. This includes being one of only a couple of refs to award Liverpool a Kop-end penalty during the Jürgen Klopp era, and the only one to do so on two separate occasions; but he also gives penalties against Liverpool at a healthy and expected rate.
(Incidentally, Jon Moss, who was VAR at the weekend and ignored the chopping down of Salah, has given the joint-most Kop-end penalties in the past three years: and all of his were to Spurs. In one of those penalties in 2017, the out-of-breath rotund ref asked the fourth official, in the days before VAR, “what did the video show”, as if that was in any way legal and not some kind of breach of protocol. Nothing was done, of course.)
My guess was that, based on the league positions, goal difference, domination of games, and so on, Liverpool should be getting penalties in roughly a 2:1 ratio to those they concede. Beez confirmed that Oliver fits this pattern almost perfectly. (11-4 in Liverpool’s favour in the Premier League, 11-5 all competitions.)
In his entire Liverpool duties (dating back to 2005), Atkinson has awarded Liverpool just six penalties in all competitions, and a whopping nine against. This does not fit with a normal unbiased approach. It does not fit with logic or fairness.
And the one penalty to Liverpool every nine games switched to one-in-twenty three with the publication of Gerrard’s book.
Gerrard generally avoids putting the literary boot into too many people – although it soon becomes clear Martin Atkinson and Stuart Pearce top the list of those he dislikes most. The referee was in charge of Gerrard’s most infamous club games – The Slip against Chelsea as well as The Stamp, when he rightly sent off Gerrard for stamping on Manchester United’s Ander Herrera just 38 seconds after the Liverpool captain stepped on to the pitch.
Atkinson riles him even more than Pearce, who chose Scott Parker ahead of Gerrard as captain in his only match as England’s caretaker manager. Pearce decided to break the news to Gerrard in a hotel toilet just outside Watford.
But Atkinson keeps popping up throughout the book. After he has stamped on Herrera, Gerrard writes of Atkinson, “I didn’t like the look of his face” as the ref marches towards him – before reaching a definitive decision towards the end of the book. Just before the last match in which Atkinson will referee him, Gerrard says bluntly, “I can’t stand him.”
While this particular anecdote may suggest that Atkinson was in the right and Gerrard in the wrong (and Gerrard did indeed deserve to see red), its publication could go to explain why Atkinson is now being as unfair to Liverpool as he’s allowed to get away with.
And as the most senior referee, it seems that he can do whatever he wants. I said before the season that I hoped he would retire, as he is a hazard to the Reds, but already he has turned a winnable game (Villa away, when it could have gone to 1-1 – a 90% chance with Salah on penalty duties – had he awarded the blatant spot-kick) into a heavy defeat, even if he wasn’t to blame for the things the Reds got wrong (nor the utterly freakish situation of three saveable shots being massively deflected into the corners and out of reach of any keeper, let alone one who is not outstanding; a 1,000-1 chance, I’d guess, at having three average shots turn into unsavable shots in the same game.)
Goals change games. And penalties equal goals 80% of the time, and more than that if you have an above average penalty taker (Liverpool have two: Salah and James Milner).
Any other league would have struck Atkinson off by now, with the average age of referees in countries like Germany about ten years younger. Here, there’s a cabal who run their own fiefdom with the equally obnoxious Mike Riley in charge. Of course, Riley is one of the only other refs to give more penalties against Liverpool than for Liverpool, at a rate of almost twice as many to the opposition. Most other refs, including Mancunian Anthony Taylor, give Liverpool roughly twice as many penalties as they give against Liverpool (in keeping with the balance of play), while plenty give the same number for and against.
(Note: I thought Taylor was harsh on Liverpool, based on my instincts, but this is an example where instincts are wrong; the data suggests he is fair to Liverpool, overall, even if he had a mare in the 2-1 defeat at City in early 2019. Taylor seems to shy away from sending players off against Liverpool, but overall his figures look balanced and in keeping with logical expectations. He does give a lot of penalties against Liverpool, but the number he gives for Liverpool tracks with an expected balance. Jonathan Moss, however, who was Atkinson’s VAR, has sent off three times as many Liverpool players as he has their opponents – 1:3 – and also awarded more penalties to the opposition than to Liverpool, at 3:4. But he has only done 19 games for the Reds.)
And yet while neutrals and fans of other clubs think their clubs should be getting more penalties, the data, and the logic, suggests the best teams should be earning more. Mike Riley worked against Liverpool, and Martin Atkinson should come with a health warning. My advice, with Riley as the referee’s head honcho, would be to bet on Liverpool dropping points whenever Atkinson is ref, as whether he consciously means to or not, he ends up acting like a 12th opponent and thus increases the difficulty in winning games.