Do the best sides get favours from referees?

In a week when City seemed to bottle their title tilt and Ferguson cranked up the mind games, people in and around the game looked for a reason (other than that Utd are the best team in the league) why Sir Alex once again sits atop the Premier League as we race towards the season’s end.  The question raised by interested parties was do referees favour Utd and in a broader sense the BIG sides?  And as a consequence is that why Man Utd have sneaked ahead of City and does that mean City aren’t a ‘big’ side?

As a youngster I used to bemoan the favours referees seemed to reward Rangers, reducing any small chance Aberdeen had of challenging them.  Later I would become one of the Utd haters and found myself wondering why they always got late goals and penalties.  Rangers and Man Utd won a lot in my formative years and not because they got lots of penalties but because they were the best teams with the best players and managers.

However, in light of the coverage this week I thought I’d do a bit of research whilst keeping in mind scientific analysis of football is not always very accurate – football is more than statistics.  I approached this with the expectation of finding that the teams near the top (in general) get more penalties than those at the bottom.  I expected this not because of any refereeing favours but because they will probably spend more time in the opposition penalty area and therefore have more chance to win a penalty.

In general the statistics vaguely resemble my expectations but with a significant share of exceptions. Had the league table of penalties matched the league table proper over the last 5 years then City would have been champions twice with Chelsea and Man Utd picking up a title each.

Interestingly it would suggest than Man Utd will indeed take this year’s title from second placed City with Wigan and Blackburn claiming unexpected Champions League qualification.  Those in the bottom three places of the Penalty League contain many relegation candidates but with single appearances over five years for Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal (perhaps there is a North / South bias…).  It seems general penalty statistics roughly resemble the league, with the bigger teams tending to the top and the smaller tending to the bottom, but thankfully it isn’t as representative as the scaremongers would have it.

To look more closely at Man Utd in particular should put to bed the conspiracy theories.  In the last 5 seasons they have finished 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st and probably 1st.  In the Penalty League they have finished 1st, 13th, 7th, 9th and probably 1st, with more penalties for than against in each of the 5 seasons.  Clearly the referees haven’t won Utd all their titles as they avoided a few seasons of mid-table obscurity.

I think it is fair to conclude that our refs aren’t consciously biased and that teams with more (to steal a rugby term) territory will get more penalties.  And as we can’t possibly quantify the effect of 70 000 home supporters urging a human to point at a spot we will just have to accept their decisions, whether they are right or wrong (or would that be stealing too much from the rugby scene?).

Having said that, wouldn’t it be entertaining if Blackburn got a dodgy last gasp penalty to win tonight and throw the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons.  Afterall, “decisions even themselves out”, don’t they?

All statistics courtesy of

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