Ref in Focus: Martin Atkinson’s lenient style plays directly into Chelsea’s hands

It often feels like we focus too much on referees in English football, but the margins are so fine in the Premier League their decisions inevitably make an impact – especially when it comes to high-profile games between two top-quality teams.

With that in mind, Martin Atkinson looks set to have a significant influence on arguably the biggest game of the 2017/18 Premier League season thus far when he officiates Chelsea vs Manchester City at Stamford Bridge in Saturday’s 5.30pm kickoff.

The statistics suggest Atkinson is one of the Premier League’s more lenient referees – or at the very least one of the more lenient referees allowed to officiate the big games. Indeed, he ranked in the bottom six from the 19 top flight referees last season for fouls per game, fouls per tackle and cards per game.

That inevitably benefits Chelsea more than City heading into their heavyweight encounter. Chelsea have committed far more fouls and made far more tackles than the visitors this term; they rank first and second respectively throughout the top flight, while City are third-bottom for fouls and rock-bottom for tackles, producing almost seven less challenges per match.

That will better accommodate Chelsea’s physical style, with less fouls awarded in general and less tackles judged as illegal. Furthermore, although they’re the home side this weekend, it’ll likely be the Blues doing the majority of the defending as City look to keep the ball – teams always make more challenges when they’re not dominating possession.

Perhaps the saving grace from City’s perspective, however, is that the majority of Atkinson’s matches last season didn’t end in home wins – although the margin is rather fine at just 2%. Considering the quality and resilience Chelsea have shown against high-quality opposition already this season, Pep Guardiola will surely see even a point as a good result for the Citizens.

One concern for both teams, however, is the referee’s notebook. Both teams have struggled with discipline problems this season, accumulating a whopping 24 yellow cards and five red cards between them, and for all of the leniency Atkinson has shown towards fouls and tackles, he’s somewhat more proactive when it comes to issuing red cards.

Atkinson ranked ninth for red cards last season and has already handed out one this campaign – controversially sending off Hal Robson-Kanu against Burnley for a high elbow.