A Preliminary Peek at the Big TTT Premier League Officiating Study 2015-2021

A Preliminary Peek at the Big TTT Premier League Officiating Study 2015-2021
March 16, 2021 Paul Tomkins


It’s clear that, this season at least (especially up until the midway point, when things were crazy), Liverpool have been stiffed by the officials. To be a top side that has conceded eight penalties when winning only six, and to have so many goals chalked off, is bad luck, at the very least.

At various times between 1992 and 2015, Liverpool won a lot of penalties, but usually when the manager was British and the players were British. Since the “team” became less British, the penalties dried up.

Last night the Reds perhaps got lucky, in that Alisson collided with the Nelson Semedo for what could have been a penalty (it was “seen them given” rather than stonewall), but it was no worse than dozens of incidents ignored by officials on Liverpool players. We have the video to prove it – every incident for and against Liverpool this season, which we are currently trying to edit down to below an hour – and it should come with an x-rated warning.

What started out as a look into why Liverpool seem to get fewer big decisions from referees than other successful clubs in recent years has continued to grow into a Premier League-wide analysis of English refereeing to a fairly microscopic degree of detail. The more questions we felt we’d answered, the more new questions arose, to test the various hypotheses.

I had already written a detailed article about the issues plaguing Liverpool (based mainly on the crazy first half of this season, but also dating back further), and the issues I saw with how officiating works in this country, but before publishing it I wanted to drill down into more data, to make sure I’m not criticising referees whose longer-term records are actually consistent with fairness.

The parameters of what we (and by “we” I mean the various people at TTT helping out) are studying have widened, as we try to find all different metrics to attempt to discover why some referees frequently give certain teams big decisions, and not other teams.

(Man City were unhappy with Jon Moss recently, but between 2012 and 2014 he refereed them six times, awarding them eight penalties and sending off two opposition players, and only giving one major decision against City, for a balance of +9, which appears to be the most generous run of games I can find from any referee towards any team. That doesn’t mean the decisions weren’t merited, of course, in games they mostly won by big margins; but the pattern looks worthy of further investigation. Since that run he has not been so generous.)

We can also see the different styles of refereeing, based on how many fouls it takes for them to book players, how often they send players off, how often they award a penalty, and which teams they seem to greatly “prefer” and greatly “harm”. I chose to look at five other clubs – Leicester, Chelsea, Man United, Man City and Spurs (as the main title challengers in the Jürgen Klopp era; sorry to Arsenal fans) – as “controls”, and those five clubs are all refereed in a very different way to Liverpool.

All this means more data to check, and analyse, and then double-check. Each time I think I’m ready to publish, I want to find more data to make sure there aren’t other explanations.

Throughout the study, some worrying patterns are emerging with regard to how few xP (“expected penalties”!) Liverpool get, when measured against the overall averages of other similar-level teams; albeit over the course of the study (2015-2021), only Manchester City scored higher than Liverpool on the major metrics.

So, we have different versions of the data. We have weighted decisions against xG; but also based on the number of spot-kicks awarded per 1,000 penalty-box touches at both ends. We have looked at the age and location of all the referees.

I am once again digging into the data as to where all the players who win and concede the penalties hail from, especially relating to how overseas players are treated: something we did on TTT in 2019, going back to 2012 (and which showed a clear anti-foreign bias at both ends across 600+ penalties), but for this we’re focussing on the Jürgen Klopp era of 2015-2021.

Again, the pattern doesn’t look good for overseas players, but the data isn’t quite complete.

I am also trying to see if being English is an advantage over being Welsh, Scottish or Irish, given that the referees are all English. The anti-foreigner bias seems pretty clear, but is there an English preference? I’d also like to see how England internationals get treated compared to players of a similar standard who are from overseas.

There also appear to be clear biases against Liverpool from referees based on where they hail from, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect.

There are also some referees I thought were unhelpful towards Liverpool because of a big-game decision they either got wrong or simply bottled (and which I fixated on), but overall I have found some of these refs seem to have fairly neutral figures for the club: the give and the punish at expected rates. One such example is Anthony Taylor, from Manchester, who refused to send off Vincent Kompany in what became an early title decider in 2019. However, Taylor’s data suggests he gives big decisions for and against Liverpool at a fair rate, whereas other referees (such as Martin Atkinson) give Liverpool absolutely nothing.

(Obviously we can’t easily measure all the decisions that were not given, and Atkinson is the master of avoidant refereeing with Liverpool.)

So I want to be fair to them, if they are fair to Liverpool (or are just fair referees in general). For instance, a few weeks ago I noted on TTT that Craig Pawson appears to be fair towards Liverpool in terms of the balance of his decisions – not generous, but not harmful either.

That’s all I can ask for, even if no team will ever get an exact “deserved” distribution, as life doesn’t work like that. There will always be some disparity. You have no right to win a set, specific number of penalties, but there are some enormous holes in Liverpool’s long-term data where big decisions should be.

Over a six-year period, with mostly the same bunch of referees, the data is “big” enough to show some real trends.

There are also a couple of referees I always felt were pretty fair and perhaps even generous to Liverpool, but alas, while the figures also suggest this, the data overall suggests they are in a tiny minority.

In the study we looked at 17 different referees, who each refereed Liverpool, City, United, Chelsea, Spurs and Leicester at least four times from 2015 onwards, and most of these refs have officiated clubs much more frequently than that. Most of the most punitive refs for any of the six clubs I covered turned out to be least generous to Liverpool, and we need to try and figure out why.

As such, I am also working with a TTT subscriber who is a Harvard/Oxford alum currently leading a development team at one of the world’s biggest companies (and who has an interest in this kind of thing), and he is finding all kinds of aberrations in Liverpool’s numbers.

But we have also found that certain other clubs have what seem unfair decision totals, and we will highlight those too.

However, Liverpool appear the hardest hit in almost all metrics.

Apart from one: yellow cards received.

When it comes to yellow cards, Liverpool seem leniently handled, albeit unlike in the past, there aren’t any particularly crazy or dangerous tacklers in Klopp’s team (although Thiago looks like he could destroy the stats singlehandedly this season with his late sliding trips). There are no hard-men in this team, though. No tackling monsters.

And what’s also weird is that opposition teams also don’t get booked very much at all against Liverpool, as if referees simply go on strike – they just don’t give many decisions either way, even against the more physical teams who look to foul Liverpool, which is something I know a lot of fans feel when teams try to rough up this very unaggressive Liverpool side. (The Reds do press aggressively, but don’t tackle aggressively.)

The data also suggests that Liverpool should have had more red cards, but only by the same number that their opponents should have been punished, too.

This “avoidant” refereeing is very common in Liverpool games, and is in stark contrast to all the other clubs analysed.

The real issue is that, based on various metrics Liverpool have conceded six more penalties in the league since Klopp arrived than expected, and won 15 fewer.

(We want to triple-check this, having already double-checked it.)

So, one additional “unexpected” penalty per season conceded, and over two per season that should have been given.

But it gets interesting when looking at the refs who are responsible for that weird data. Because it’s mostly concentrated around a small clutch of referees.

And so, after all that preamble, I’ll share some of the preliminary findings below for subscribers only, then we will publish the full study for free within the next month or so (hopefully sooner) when it’s completed and fully double-checked, and ready to stand up to any widespread scrutiny.

It’s also a chance to allow TTT subscribers to review the findings and, with some academics and data analysts in our midst, see if we got anything wrong. Ultimately, I don’t want to try and prove Liverpool are unfairly treated if that’s not what the data actually says.

There’s also the issue of what a team can rightfully “expect” anyway.

But I have based “expected penalties” (and “expected decisions”) on the averages of the six aforementioned clubs, who overall do far more attacking than defending. Indeed, Liverpool do more attacking and less defending than the average of the other five clubs.

Anyway, onto the preliminary results….

The preliminary results are for subscribers only.