Man in the Middle: What to expect from Martin Atkinson in the Manchester derby

Two Premier League juggernauts clash tonight in the hotly anticipated Manchester derby.

Manchester City vs Manchester United always provides fireworks but there are some unique subplots this time around; there’s no love lost between respective managers Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, and separated by just one point and one place in the Premier League table, both clubs will know tonight’s game could have a massive bearing on who qualifies for next season’s Champions League tournament.

A local derby for fourth place might not quite be the same as batting it out for the Premier League title but nonetheless, there’s plenty on the line in Thursday night’s affair under the Etihad Stadium lights and it consequentially looks set to be a close-knit encounter – the kind of encounter that can be decided by a moment of brilliance, a horrendous mistake or a referee’s decision.

Martin Atkinson will be the man in the middle calling the shots this evening and although we’d never suggest any intentional bias on the part of a Premier League referee, although bigger clubs do tend to get the run of the green, his statistics so far this season make much more pleasant reading for Manchester United fans than their Citizens counterparts.

Fouls have become a notable feature of United’s defensive play this season, whether a conscious ploy or not, ranking second throughout the Premier League for fouls per match with 13.3, after Watford. City, meanwhile, produce the fourth fewest at 10.4.

So here’s where things start working in United’s favour; Atkinson ranks in the bottom half of the 19 referees to have featured in the Premier League this season for fouls per match, 21.83, fouls per tackle, 0.64 – United are sixth in the top flight’s tackle charts whereas City are 12th – and yellow cards per match, 3.43.

He clearly doesn’t have a problem with that approach from Jose Mourinho’s side either, issuing just three yellow cards during the two United matches he’s already resided over this season despite the Red Devils producing a whopping 23 fouls over both games. City, on the other hand, received four yellow cards from their two games Atkinson has refereed – even though they made just 13 fouls.

Perhaps most worryingly for tonight’s hosts, however, is Atkinson’s home-away bias so far this term. Of course, home teams are far more likely to win any given football match, but only 43.5% of the 23 Premier League fixtures he’s officiated this season have ended in home wins – the fifth-lowest ratio throughout the top flight. In contrast, he ranks in the top half for away wins and fifth for draws.

But if there’s one statistical saving grace for City, it’s that they’ve claimed a perfect record with Atkinson involved this season, beating both Sunderland and Arsenal. United, meanwhile, beat Sunderland but lost 4-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.