Manchester United are favoured by referees right? Err, no actually. Not at all.Posted: February 27, 2011
It is perhaps one of football’s most popular myths that Manchester United get help from referees, in the form of anything from the rub of the green to outright corruption. Not only will it be referenced several times throughout the season by rival fans, it has actually entered the mainstream media, with phrases like “you don’t get them at Old Trafford”, “if that was down the other end it was a pen” and “Fergie time” entering the common parlance of footballing punditry. But does it have any basis, either today, or historically, or both? The statistics would suggest neither.
This season, topping the league by four points after 27 games, through to the last 16 in Europe and the last eight in the FA Cup, Manchester United have been awarded 5 penalties in total – at Old Trafford against Liverpool in the FA Cup, at Old Trafford against Arsenal and West Ham in the Premier League and away at Fulham and Rangers in the Premier League and Champions League respectively. Three out of the five penalties were converted, meaning just 3.8% (3/80) of United’s goals have come from penalties this season. Of these penalties, just one, Dimitar Berbatov’s against Liverpool can be said to have been a dubious award.
Of United’s rivals, Arsenal have received a staggering 14 penalties, several dubious thanks mainly to the antics of Chamakh, almost three times as many as United. 10 of these were converted, meaning 11.8% (10/85) of Arsenal’s goals have come from penalty kicks. Chelsea have been awarded 9, converting 7, for a percentage of 9.5% (7/74). Manchester City have a very similar record to the Blues, having received 9 penalties and converting 7 for a percentage of 9.6% (7/75). Liverpool meanwhile have been awarded 8 penalties, converting 6 for a percentage of 11.8% (6/51).
To summarise the penalty statistics of 2010-11:
- Arsenal – awarded 14, converted 11, 11.8% of goals have been penalties
- Liverpool – awarded 8, converted 6, 11.8% of goals have been penalties
- Manchester City – awarded 9, converted 7, 9.6% of goals have been penalties
- Chelsea – awarded 9, converted 7, 9.5% of goals have been penalties
- Manchester United – awarded 5, converted 3, 3.8% of goals have been penalties
As you can see, the statistics are fairly staggering, especially to those propogating that United are the most favoured by referees. Arsenal have been awarded almost three times as many penalties as United, with the rest a little less than twice as many. Even more interestingly, using penalties converted as a percentage of goals scored – useful as it determines both how helpful penalty awards have been and allowing more leeway for more attacking teams possibly receiving more penalties – penalties have accounted for much significantly less of the goals Manchester United have scored in comparison to their rivals. Rounding off, penalties have accounted for 12%, 12%, 10% and 10% of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea goals, but just 4% of Manchester United’s.
“Fine”, you say. “So United are having a bad year with penalties. But I’ve heard and seen them given enough penalties over the years to know that they’ve been favoured in this department.” Do the statistics back this up?
As of the turn of the year, the following were the figures for the top 10 teams in terms of converted penalty kicks in the Premier League since 2003, when such statistics started being kept:
- Liverpool – 36
- Arsenal – 35
- Chelsea – 29
- Aston Villa – 27
- Fulham – 24
- Tottenham – 23
- Manchester United – 23
- Blackburn – 22
- Man City – 22
- Everton – 21
As you can see, despite generally being the most attacking team in the league, Manchester United have scored significantly less penalties than their three main rivals of this period – Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. They’ve even scored less than Aston Villa, Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur. Penalties accounted for 5.1% of United’s total goals, with the equivalent figures for Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea being 9.1%, 7.5% and 6.6%.
United conceded 13 penalties in this period – broadly similar to Arsenal’s 17, Liverpool’s 15 and Chelsea’s 12. Penalties accounted for 7.2% of goals conceded by United, in comparison to 7.4% for Liverpool and 8.1% each for Chelsea and Arsenal.
If we compare the percentage of penalties as a total of goals scored and conceded, United (5.1% scored, 7.2% conceded, -2.1%) come out worse than Liverpool (9.1% scored, 7.4% conceded, +1.7%), Arsenal (7.5% scored, 8.1% conceded, -0.6%) and Chelsea (6.6% scored, 8.1% conceded, -1.5%).
In fact, of the four major teams, only Liverpool have benefitted from penalties since 2003, ironic considering they have been most vociferous in their complaints against United. I have also stumbled across statistics for these two clubs alone since 1999, which show that Liverpool have been awarded 53 penalties to United’s 46.
Since the Premier League began, Manchester United have been awarded 88 penalties – just 4.7 per season. They have converted 66, meaning just 4.7% (66/1415) of United’s goals since 1992 in the league have come from penalties. Comparing this 4.7% to this year’s figures of Arsenal (11.8%), Liverpool (11.8%), City (9.6%) and Chelsea (9.5%), we can conclude that Manchester United have benefitted very little from penalties since the inception of the Premier League, and certainly less than their rivals.
Now that the penalty myth regarding United has been disproven, I shall move onto general decision-making. This is harder to pinpoint, conveniently relying on strictly anecdotal evidence. However, we can discuss this in relation to the current season. I have heard several times that United are lucky to be top of the league because Gary Neville should have been sent off away to Stoke and West Brom, with a penalty that should have been rewarded as well in relation to the incident at West Brom.
Whilst this is true in terms of the West Brom case, what’s forgotten is that United should have had a penalty kick in that match as well, for a stonewall handball arising from a Fábio cross. Neville was regarded as lucky to stay on the pitch against Stoke as well, but what is forgotten in this instance is that his first yellow was incorrectly awarded, after he won the ball. The referee perhaps realised this given the severity of the United protests, and thus gave the benefit of the doubt for the second decision.
Of course, incidents like Lee Bowyer’s last-gasp equaliser against United, where four separate infringements occurred – two counts of climbing, a handball and an offside – are largely ignored and instantly forgotten.
Also forgotten are the incidents last season which it could certainly be argued cost United a record four-in-a-row – John Terry’s winner at Stamford Bridge where an offside Didier Drogba dragged Wes Brown to the ground allowing the ball to reach Terry, and Drogba’s winner at Old Trafford when he was about two yards offside.
I ask those crying corruption and conspiracy to show when refereeing decisions gave United as much towards winning a league than they gave towards losing it last season.
Refereeing decisions have also hurt United in the Champions League. Ferguson’s men were cruising through against Bayern last season until Rafael was booked twice for two challenges and sent off – the first foul occurring 2 seconds after a foul on Rafael went unnoticed. In 2003, a Paul Scholes goal was disallowed for offside when he was quite clearly onside, which would have put United two goals clear. Porto equalised in the last minute, going through on away goals and subsequently winning the competition.
In the Carling Cup last season, Manchester City were incorrectly awarded a penalty for a foul outside the box. Carlos Tévez scored it, but Manchester United went on to win the tie. So whilst City supporters still moan about the injury time awarded at Old Trafford in the league allowing Michael Owen to score the winner, the penalty incident in the Carling Cup has already been forgotten. Why? Because United didn’t allow it to affect them, forgot it, and got on with the job in hand – winning the tie. This in part explains why refereeing decisions involving United are only remembered when they don’t favour the opposition, United usually go on to win the game.
One of the most commonly used inferences that referees favour United comes in the form of ‘Fergie Time’, or seemingly larger amounts of injury time played when United are not winning. Proponents of this theory will mainly point to two instances – when 7 minutes of injury time were played against Sheffield United in 1993 during which United scored twice and won 2-1, and the aforementioned incident when United scored 88 seconds after the 4 minutes of injury time that was announced against Manchester City in 2009. Ignoring the fact that that’s two instances in 16 years, both amounts of injury time were perfectly correct. In the Sheffield United game, the referee had to be replaced after suffering an injury, with the treatment and subsequent replacement lasting about 5 minutes, this on top of the usual injuries and substitutions.
In the Manchester derby, whilst (a minimum of) 4 minutes was announced, Manchester City scored after the time was awarded, and their subsequent celebration and the introduction of Michael Carrick to the game meant that the time awarded was absolutely correct. I would suggest the same not to be correct about the 5 minutes West Brom received to find an equaliser in United’s 2-1 win at the Hawthorns this season.
Success breeds jealousy, and jealousy breeds irrationality. Any inference that United receive favourability from referees is incorrect. As I have shown, United receive significantly less benefits from penalties as their rivals, whilst the inevitable beneficial decisions are hyped and remembered whilst the inevitable disadvantageous decisions are forgotten in an instant. Them’s are the ways of a team at the top. Liverpool supporters of a certain age should remember similar mutterings about Kenny Dalglish’s conquerers, the El Classico will tell you a similar tale from Spain, as will Bayern in Germany and the Old Firm in Scotland.
As long as they’re muttering dark words of conspiracy about United, Alex Ferguson can be content he’s doing a fine job. As Wilde once said “the only thing worst than being talked about, is not being talked about.”