Premier League red card rate is lowest in Europe – has the top flight gone soft?

The Weekend Dossier

More than half the clubs in the Premier League are foreign-owned and two-thirds of the players are from overseas, but one element of the drama remains resolutely English: the referees.

What difference does that make? It affects the very nature of the game we watch. This season there have been 38 red cards in the Premier League from 327 matches, which equates to a red card shown every 8.6 matches. In the other four major European leagues red cards are much more prevalent, in some cases massively so. In Spain a tarjeta roja is shown every 2.6 matches.

How can this be? The 17 laws are the same whatever the translation. Maybe our players are simply better behaved and more disciplined than those overseas. That is the view of the referees' organisation, PGMOL. This season the total of red cards is shaping up to be the lowest since 1996-97, when 44 were awarded. In the intervening 16 seasons there have always been at least 50 reds, with a high of 76 seven seasons ago.

The main cause, argues PGMOL, is fewer dismissals for a second yellow card. Players, aware of the need to keep 11 on the pitch in such an intensely competitive league are being much more careful. The statistics bear this interpretation out. This season only 10 players have been dismissed for two bookings, just over a quarter of the total. As recently as three years ago 60 per cent of dismissals (41) were for two cautions.

A key reason for this, said Mike Riley, PGMOL general manager, in a statement to The Independent, is better liaison between players, managers and officials. "The Select Group refs go in to clubs twice a season; it used to be once but this season we introduced a second one where referees take a training session and they have time away from the pitch to talk with the players about law and decision making. There's the pre-season managers' meeting, the exchange of team sheet between the officials, captains and managers before every match. We also have quarterly meetings with the PFA and the LMA [League Managers' Association], so there's constant dialogue going on. It's not a coincidence that things are improving."

During the visits, players and managers are warned about impending crackdowns on aspects of foul play and shown DVDs illustrating the difference between a foul which is penalised with just a free-kick, and ones that warrant a red or yellow card. A similar DVD is being compiled for next season on simulation (diving).

The manner in which referees are assessed has also changed. No longer is there an ex-ref in the stand watching the whistler's every move. Now there is a match delegate – a former player or manager – who has a wider-ranging brief. As well as marking the officials' performance he talks to them about their handling of the match. "They play a key role in trying to get referees to think like players," said Riley. The assessor's judgement is weighed alongside that of a PGMOL evaluator, who analyses the referee's performance a few days later, with the aid of Pro-Zone and a match DVD. The aim is greater consistency, and, through better communication, fewer offences. One result is that dissent is down, with bookings halved in four years.

However, there is another possible cause for the lack of dismissals in England. It may be our referees are more lenient than those overseas with cards of either hue. Last Sunday, Howard Webb could easily have shown three straight red cards in the Tyne-Wear derby while Chris Foy did not even caution Sergio Aguero for his two-footed stamp on David Luiz. On Tuesday, Darron Gibson, had Neil Swarbrick been consistent, would have received a second yellow card for his second body-check of Theo Walcott – having been cautioned the first time he did it. There are countless other examples of leniency.

Old pros may moan that the game has "gone soft" but the English game is more physical than most in Europe.

Pete Jenson, The Independent's man in Spain, watched the Arsenal-Everton match on television. "At one point the co-commentator said, 'Every foul is a card now'. I thought, 'You're joking, that's Spain.' Players are always getting sent off here for two fouls." Sixty-three per cent of the 121 red cards in Spain this year have been for two yellow cards. Jenson added: "I think it is cultural. Even if you are playing six-a-side here, if you go into a tackle the reaction is, 'What are you doing? What do you think this is?' Football here is almost a non-contact sport."

This is changing, in part due to the influence of televised English football and the cross-pollination of protagonists. The Fifa referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz officiates in a more English style. He is popular with Jose Mourinho, whose Real Madrid team are one of La Liga's more physical, but not with Barcelona.

England's tolerant approach means there are fewer fouls than in other major European countries, with the result that the game flows better, which is one reason for the Premier League's global appeal. However, it does mean players are more vulnerable to injury. Luiz was asked at Wembley if he had stud marks from Aguero's challenge. "I get stud marks every game," he said.

The robust nature of English football may also affect player development. Look at youth football on any park – the old-fashioned British virtues of "getting stuck in" are still promoted by parents and, often, coaches. In addition, referees allow considerable physical contact, so players quickly realise dwelling on the ball carries a physical risk. That is not an environment in which technical skills flourish. It is easier for foreign players to adapt, in adulthood, to a more physical game than it is for British players to adjust, in adulthood, to a more technical one.

That players can adapt their physicality is evident from the way English teams alter their approach in Europe. There has been one red card every 10 matches in the Champions League and Europa League this season. English clubs have suffered two red cards in 66 matches. One was Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen for the denial of a goalscoring opportunity against Basel, the other Manchester United's Nani, and his dismissal for a high foot against Real Madrid was widely contested here. There have been seven red cards for Spanish players in 62 matches and 10 in 38 matches for Russian clubs.

A personal view is that football should bring in a sin bin. To lose a player for the rest of the match for two challenges like Gibson's seems an excessive penalty, but players such as Walcott do need protection. The Premier League has floated the idea, via the Football Association, to IFAB, the game's law-making body, so far without success. It works in both rugby codes, grass and ice hockey, so why not football?

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