Is the EPL suffering from “reverse Shaq syndrome?”

One of my friends who reads the New York Times turned me on to an article called “Study Detects Height Bias in Foul Calls” written about some original research done by two Erasmus University Rotterdam professors. The article describes how these scientists found that in their own lives, say playing basketball, they often got away with fouls because they were smaller. Phillipp Lahm (defender for Bayern), they noticed, at a mere 5’7″ seemed to constantly get away with fouls as well and it got them wondering: given the fact that football has some of the most ambiguous foul calls in professional sports, and since FIFA bans video technology from assisting the referee, thus leaving the referees to “instinct” to make the call, what if they could find a correlation between height and fouls called?

They ran with the idea, did some research and published their findings in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (2010, 32, 3-22) under the title “How Embodied Cognitions Affect Judgments: Height-Related Attribution Bias in Football Foul Calls.”

First, they argue, using research that went before them, that “people’s mental representations of abstract concepts (such as dominance and power) are embodied in modal information about space and the body (such as height).” This is easy to see among Arsenal supporters who read this blog. Many of you have demanded time and again that Arsenal purchase “big, powerful” midfielders and defenders in order to compete with the rest of the “big, powerful” players in the English Premier League (EPL).

Often overlooked in this is how Arsenal’s smallest player (Andrei Arshavin at 5’6″) is also one of our most powerful players. His goal against Stoke where Andy Wilkinson (5’11″) tried to clatter him in the box is a perfect example of that; the little Russian just shrugged the bigger player off and coolly scored the goal. So, you can see that the perception is strong that little players aren’t powerful and that perception is usually emphatically followed with the statement “ESPECIALLY in the EPL.” After all, the English game prides itself on power, pace, strength, and size.

I won’t rehash the research that the professors did, except to say that basically they did three studies with pretty decent sized populations from Germany and they found that in ambiguous foul situations the smaller player, because of the perceptions noted earlier, got the benefit of the doubt in the call. Furthermore, and this is crucial, they also surmised that,

Since ambiguous fouls only represent a fraction of actual fouls in football, the present results thus imply that the effect size would be much higher when clear fouls, such as hitting, spitting, holding, or dangerous play, could be partialled out.

According to van Quaquebeke and Geissner, then, Smaller players get away with more dirty play. I remember that Shaquille O’Neal in his heyday used to get called for fouls just by turning to face the basket. He was so big that the act of simply turning around would inevitably create space for himself and yet the referees in the NBA saw it as a foul, time and again. So, in my experience I found that the findings of this research rang true.

And this sort of bears out for Arsenal: currently the smallest club in the EPL and sitting at the top of the Fair Play League. Seemingly, Arsenal get away with a lot, or do they?

Now, I don’t have to tell you I’m not a scientist and hopefully I don’t have to tell you that what I’m about to say is not a scientific study. What it is, is what we might call hypothesizing. What I’m about to suggest is not fact, but rather, something that an enterprising statistician with a lot more time on their hands than I currently have might want to take a look at. With that disclaimer out of the way…

If the researcher’s findings are right, then Arsenal’s smallest players ought to be getting the benefit of the calls and because we have one of the very smallest of small players in the league we might expect that he would get a massive boost in fouls called. But when I looked at Arshavin’s profile I noticed that in just 22 games he’s been called for 33 fouls and only gotten 23 fouls called for him. So I looked at Steven Pienaar and in 17 games he’s committed 29 and received 57.  That seems like a lot for those two players but I couldn’t really pin it down because they play offense and it’s really hard to compare wide offense players in the league since I don’t know that many on each team.

So, since I do know all the holding midfielders I thought I’d compare them and sure enough something turned up. Here’s the chart of players which I decided were holding midfielders for each of the teams in the EPL, some have more than one and in those cases I included both. I sorted the chart by fouls committed per game and sure enough, the tallest players (for the most part) commit more fouls per game than the smaller players.

Fouls committed per game

This matches the research above, refs are more likely to see tall players as the aggressor and thus more likely to call them for a foul. It’s not surprise that Marouane Fellaini, at 6’4″ tops the list with 65 fouls in just 22 games.

That said, wouldn’t it follow that if they foul more often and are more often seen as the aggressor that they would be more likely to get red and yellow cards? No, that was actually just the opposite; smaller players were given more yellow cards and more red cards per fouls committed than their taller counterparts.

Red cards and Yellow cards per foul committed, per game

Paul Scholes tops the list there, coming in at 5’7″ and getting 6 yellow cards and 2 red cards on just 22 fouls committed. Down the list, smaller players are more likely to get yellow cards for their fouls. Scott Parker commits one foul a game and gets a card for every 4th foul. How is that possible when it takes Fellaini over 10 fouls to get the same yellow card?

Of course some of this could be down to the fact that Paul Scholes is a mentalist. Same with Mascherano, who’s up at the top of the list as well. But my question is why?

Watching the Merseyside derby today, a lot of these players were on display. Fellaini committed two fouls which should have been straight red cards: first was the kick to the head of Dirk Kuyt and the second was the two-footed stamp on Kyrgiakos. To be fair, Martin Atkinson was having an absolute nightmare and probably should have sent off Masherano and Peinaar in the first half and in the one-off of this match it certainly seems that the bigger players were punished more than the smaller players.

Part of it could be reputation: Scholes, Mash, and Parker are well known for being hard tacklers. But where did they get that reputation? If all the little guys get yellow cards quicker than the big guys wouldn’t that create a reputation for these players? Is Scott Parker really more yellow worthy than Loric Cana? Fellaini’s a thug, why does it take him 3x as many fouls to get a yellow card than it does Paul Scholes? How is he able to go into a two-footed tackle like today’s and escape without even getting a card?

Obviously, I have simply asked a bunch of unanswerable questions but it does really strike me as odd that so many tall players are allowed to foul as much as they do and the little players are the ones who are more likely to get the yellow card. Just like Shaq in my example above, except in reverse.

Wenger: Arsenal “very, very close” to likeanewsigning

We have two types of buys: one where we get a player back from injury and one where we get a player from an external source.

Here’s the thing, I don’t like to be messed with.  I don’t enjoy it when the boss comes out and says that they were “very, very close” to a signing but for some mystery reason were unable to complete the deal. I don’t like it when he then follows that bombshell up with his patented winsome grin and refuses to tell us who the player was.And I especially don’t like it when they follow all that up with injury news that says half the team is crocked.

In yesterday’s pre-Chelsea Arsenal dot com exclusive interview, Arsene Wenger did just that. When questioned about how close they were to a signing, he looked into the camera, smiled, and said that they were very close, that they worked all day Monday trying to get this mystery player in, and that they just couldn’t.

Arsenal are seriously underestimating the average supporter’s anxiety over this issue. Me? I was fine with the fact that he didn’t sign anyone but I know a lot, A LOT, of supporters are not. It’s to our detriment as a club to simply dismiss that anxiety and tell them to “go support someone else” or worse, toy with us the way that Arsenal are doing in this interview.

And what really gets my goat is to follow that up with injury news. Who are these “likeanewsignings” that we’re getting back? Sol Campbell is back to full training, Eduardo and his very very tiny infinitesimal hamstring that won’t keep him out for more than a few minutes much less a few days  is crocked, Vela is out with an unspecified injury, Diaby is not in training and has a huge question mark over his head for Sunday, and Bendtner is back but… Wenger says it will be 1-2 more weeks before Bendtner is back to full strength.

Let me translate that for you:

  • We didn’t buy anyone
  • Though we were actively looking and had a target and even were in negotiations up until the close of the window
  • No, I won’t tell you who he was
  • Nope, not even the position we were looking at
  • I’m not laughing WITH you!
  • Oh and the center forward who is supposed to be the guy who will supposedly save the season from the center forward role is not 100%
  • He’s 2 weeks away from 100%

I don’t know why they published this interview; it’s even frustrating me, the wild-eyed-optimist. Either tell us who you were trying to sign and why the deal fell through or just drop it. It’s neither funny nor informative to fuck with the average supporter like this.

It also, apparently, bothers Andrei Arshavin who has become something of a quote machine for the British Press. Who knows what they actually asked him but he was kind enough to give the Daily Fail a headline stuffing quote:

Third place is where we stand today, and that is already a great success for Arsenal when you take into account the class of our eleven players. Of course, we try to win every match, but class is class.

If Arsenal want to become champions, how can they select Arshavin as centre forward? ‘I am 173cm and it suits me, but next to the big centre halves of United it is very difficult to fight for the ball, especially in the air.

It’s (his statements) from frustration (that Arsene didn’t sign anyone). Van Persie is injured and unlikely to play again this season. Eduardo is injured too, but he may be ready to face Chelsea. We are in a difficult situation when it comes to recruiting players.

I have no doubt that the Daily Fail chopped the interview and manipulated Arshavin to get the best bits out of him but Arshavin is never one to hold his tongue and I’m sure at least a bit of that frustration is real.

I suppose the positive to take from this is that Wenger, and the players, know that they needed a player, tried to get a player, but somehow failed. Hey, maybe the Sun is right and Arsenal tried to sign Mohamed Zidane?

Chelsea on Sunday

Arsene also talked about the need to bounce back from the hiding we took at the hands of Man U and it’s all the stuff you’d expect: we lacked sharpness, we need to get that back, the season’s not over, etc.

Interestingly, he mentioned that the ACN has had an effect on Alex Song and that he was not 100% against Man U last week. I’m surprised by this because I thought Song was one of the handful of players who really put in a shift against United.

Still, it’s great news because Song and Eboue have had a week of rest and should be fresh for the Chelsea game. An injection of fresh legs from the likes of Song and Eboue could provide just the boost to take Arsenal over the edge. At the very least Song will have his work cut out for him, shielding the back four from the likes of Drogba, so any edge there is wholly welcome.

Reportedly, Wenger canceled the team’s scheduled day off in mid-week and has been drilling them non-stop in preparation for the big clash on Sunday. Frankly, I’d rather he’d have canceled Clichy and Denilson’s day off last Sunday.

What to watch on Saturday?

For my American readers, the Merseyside Derby is on ESPN2 in High Def tomorrow morning. Kickoff is at 4:30am (PST) but if you’re like me, you’ll be up anyway!

The other match of interest is the Bolton v. Fulham match which could see the introduction of Jack Wilshere to the Bolton side. Owen Coyle bemoaned the fact that Jack couldn’t get on last weekend and seems very keen to get him some time this weekend. It would be interesting to see but unfortunately Setanta USA isn’t playing the game until 5:30pm (PST).

That’s it for now, see you later.