Arsenal’s trip to Crystal Palace this evening looks set to be as nasty as it gets for Arsene Wenger’s side. Sam Allardyce boasts five wins and eight draws from 32 encounters with the Gunners gaffer – not bad going considering the vast gulf in quality between their teams during that time – and none of those 23 points have been gained by playing fancy football.
Indeed, Wenger and Allardyce are polar opposites in terms of philosophy, the latter juxtaposing a war-of-attrition mentality with the former’s devotion to flair in possession, and to make matters worse, only Watford and Manchester United have committed more fouls than Crystal Palace this season, showing how their physical and aggressive approach pre-dates Big Sam’s mid-season arrival.
That suggests a pretty tough evening for the man in the middle tonight, referee Michael Oliver. With Mike Clattenburg set to move onto pastures new at the end of the season, Oliver and the Premier League’s other top referees have come under real focus in recent weeks, still unclear who’ll replace Clatterburg as the top flight’s lead official.
Tonight’s match at Selhurst Park could go a long way to making or breaking Oliver in becoming that figurehead. It may not be the most high-profile affair but Oliver will have to find a balance that allows Arsenal to play and Palace to be physical in response, without unnecessarily impacting the chances of victory for either side.
Perhaps pleasingly for both teams, who rank fifth and sixth in the Premier League for tackles, Oliver gives the second fewest fouls per tackle of any referee in the division – coincidentally after Clattenburg. He also ranks in the bottom half of the 19 referees in question for fouls per game, yellow cards and red cards – which could play more to Palace’s style of play than Arsenal’s.
That being said, Oliver hasn’t brought much joy to either fan base this season. Palace have lost both games in which he’s refereed, whilst the Gunners have drawn one, lost one and won one from three.
But one thing seems pretty certain – a penalty. Oliver awards just shy of one penalty every two matches this term, including during Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with Bournemouth back in January. He awarded one during Manchester City’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool in March but not during Hull’s 4-2 romping over Middlesbrough last Wednesday so statistically speaking, tonight is likely to see another.