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Arsenal bottom of the fair play league – yes, really

Arsenal slid to the bottom of the fair play league this week, representing a remarkable turnaround for the winners of the Premier League’s fair play award for the last two years. So how has this happened?

This week, something rather unexpected happened. Arsenal went bottom of the fair play league. Cue shouts of ‘zut alors!’ and ‘qu’elle horreur’ from the corridors of the Emirates. Yes, you might think so, for a side who consistently remind us about fair play and complain about being kicked.

But these statistics should be considered in context. What hasn’t been reported, is that this is a simple fair play league of red and yellow cards. The official fair play league takes into account other factors, including respect towards officials, the opponent and positive play. Arsenal aren’t bottom of the official fair play league, but are simply bottom of the statistical pile for red and yellow cards. To what can we attribute this about turn?

Firstly, Arsenal have had a run of red cards, with three of their four this season for players new to the side and the Premier League. Two of the red cards this season given to Arsenal (Koscielny V Liverpool and Song V Sunderland) were as a result of soft yellow cards, the other two were fully deserved. The problem with this statistic is that it includes these two contentious red cards, which many neutrals observed as being rather harsh.

That said, there is no smoke without fire, and there has certainly been an increased physicality from Arsenal this season, epitomised by Jack Wilshere, who has been reckless with a few of his challenges this season. Not only sent off against Birmingham, but he was extremely late with a poor tackle that deserved a red card against Liverpool and against Shakhtar Donetsk too. Individual players can drag a team’s fair play down with them, and Wilshere seems to be on a personal mission to achieve this with Arsenal. But there is a wider point as well. After years of under-achievement, the club’s players seem to have finally decided to stop whining and trying to convince referees to clamp down on over the top challenges, and have decided to give a bit back themselves. You could see that in Cesc Fabregas against Wolves on Wednesday.

We should be careful not to read too much into statistics though, ironic given Arsene Wenger’s love for them. The main problem with the fair play table is that it is selective. Included in the fair play table’s statistics is one red card handed to Karl Henry for a tackle on Wigan’s Jordi Gomez. Not included is the tackle from Henry that broke Bobby Zamora’s leg. Also not included is the tackle that has forced Abou Diaby to sit out every match since sustaining an injury as the result of a late tackle on him by Paul Robinson when Arsenal and Bolton met a few months ago.

The fair play table is hampered, as it is a reflection of the select occasions when a referee has chosen to issue a yellow or red card, as well as the number of times referees have blown for free kicks. The fair play table doesn’t include Joey Barton’s punch into the stomach of Morten Gamst Pederson the other night. Is any statistic claiming to represent the respective fair play of various teams reliable if it can exclude the unprovoked, off the ball punching of an opponent?

The statistics show that the part of Arsenal that has been missing is back – the part that is willing to stick their feet in where it hurts and counter the physical tactics used against them. But the conclusion isn’t that Arsenal aren’t the dirtiest team in the league, as the fair play table would indicate, but that we don’t have a reliable measure of who is dirty and who is not. There are lies, damn lies and the fair play table.

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