Ref in Focus: Martin Atkinson’s balanced style perfect for Liverpool v Arsenal goalfest

Liverpool vs Arsenal is one of the best fixtures on the Premier League calendar. While it may lack the bitter-rival subplots many other top six clashes will offer this season, this fixture has always been a virtual guarantor of goals. There’s been just one scoreless draw between the two sides in the Premier League since 1999 and their last three top flight meetings have produced a whopping 17 strikes.

With offensive talent and defensive frailties aplenty, Sunday’s instalment at Anfield looks set to maintain that trend. And the good news for the neutrals, but not so much Reds and Gunners fans with weak hearts, is that it will be officiated by one of the most balanced referees in the Premier League – Martin Atkinson.

The 46-year-old is by no means a top-class referee but his tempered approach suits Sunday’s game well. Neither Liverpool nor Arsenal are particularly foul-happy sides, ranking in the bottom five for fouls per match last season, and Atkinson isn’t one for being overzealous when it comes to blowing the whistle; from the 19 referees to feature in the top flight throughout 2016/17, he came 13th for fouls per match and fouls per tackle – suggesting he likes to let games flow as much as possible, but will make decisions when necessary.

Perhaps as a consequence, however, Atkinson does rank slightly higher in terms of cards awarded – the boost for Arsenal, in that regard, is that they’re just one of two clubs yet to receive a booking this season, while Liverpool have already incurred four yellows. Intriguingly, Atkinson has already issued a controversial red this term – sending off Hal Robson-Kanu last weekend for a supposed elbow against Burnley.

But in terms of results, Atkinson once again offers impressive balance. Last season, he was in the middle of the pack for home wins (48.1%), away wins (25.9%) and draws (25.9%), ranking between 11th and 6th on those fronts. Compared to some referees with much vaster swings for either the home or the away side, that suggests Atkinson’s decisions won’t have an intrinsic influence on the scoreline.

As the underdogs, however, that arguably works against Arsenal. Liverpool boast home advantage and enter Sunday’s contest in much higher confidence after ripping apart Hoffenheim in midweek; the Gunners could have really benefited from a referee more suiting of their situation and less suiting of Liverpool’s – last season, for example, over 50% of Jonathan Moss’ games ended in away wins.