Only Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Swansea are committing more fouls this season than last in the Premier League – and teams using tactical fouling to stop counter-attacks are continuing to get away with it.
The role of a modern striker is not what it used to be. As well as being responsible for scoring and creating goals for the team, it’s becoming becoming increasingly popular for managers to ask their strikers to lead from the front in terms of defensive duties, harrying the defenders and giving away free-kicks if needed.
Often described as ‘tactical fouling’, the principle is that a foul committed by an attack-minded player higher up the pitch is likely to be less dangerous.
Another benefit is that it breaks up the play, allowing for the rest of the team to get back into shape. It can disrupt an opposition’s momentum, not letting them build up steam and can help silence an atmospheric crowd.
Tactical fouling is often utilised especially by teams who like to press the opposition high and try to win the ball back quickly, such as Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool have done in recent years.
With so many players committed up the pitch, it’s vital to not let the opposition out. The ideal is that the ball is won back quickly, but the back-up plan is for a foul to be conceded.
This tactic is highlighted by the fact that, of the top ten players who have committed the most fouls in the Premier League so far this season, four are strikers – including the top two.
They may be judged by fans mainly on the goals they score, but the work these strikers are doing in preventing attacks from building will undoubtedly not have gone unnoticed by their managers.
Stopping attacks in this way is not something an attacking player can get away with only once, either, as referees are usually more lenient when it comes to these offences.
In fact, the four attacking players in the list (Calvert-Lewin, Jordan Ayew, Glenn Murray and Jay Rodriguez) have received only seven yellow cards combined for their joint 102 fouls.
Staggeringly, Ayew is yet to receive a single caution for his 28 fouls so far this campaign.
The list of players most fouled, meanwhile, is, as expected, dominated by attack-minded players. An ability to draw fouls in the final third is another hugely important attribute in the modern game.
Not only does it present an opportunity to send tall players forward for a set-piece, a team can defend deep and in great numbers if they have an attacking player adept at winning free-kicks. If they can get the ball to that player after winning it back, he can get them back up the pitch and allow them time to regroup, all while the clock ticks down.
Watford’s Brazilian winger Richarlison leads the way on this front, having been fouled 46 times so far. Dele Alli is second, the Englishman being fouled on 44 occasions.
For comparison, Wilfred Zaha ended last season as the most fouled with 121.
Looking at it from a team perspective, Everton are giving away most fouls having conceded 198 so far this season. Sam Allardyce can rest assured his players won’t be afraid to put a foot in as they look to re-establish themselves at the right end of the league.
Bournemouth, meanwhile, are at the opposite end of the scale having committed just 122 offences. It may sound counter-intuitive, but not every manager would be happy to see their team at the bottom of the list; it seems to be a trait of Eddie Howe’s team, however, as they also ended last season with the least (368).
With regards to the most fouled, most teams sit around the average 150-mark.
There are two obvious anomalies, though: West Ham and Brighton. The Hammers have been fouled an incredible 211 times, while Brighton are at the opposite spectrum, being fouled considerably less than everyone else with just 107.
Chris Hughton fumed about a penalty not being awarded in their recent draw against Stoke, citing several injustices against his team over the last few months – perhaps he has a point?
Interestingly, comparing these totals with last season shows that only four teams (Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Swansea) have increased the number of fouls they’re committing. Several are on course for significant decreases if they continue at the current rate.
The league as a whole has displayed a 9% decrease in the number of fouls being awarded on average per week (2016-17 – 228, 2017-18 – 209), but while defensive players may be feeling under pressure not to concede free-kicks and risk cards, attacking players continue to sleep soundly.
By Dan Clark