Martin Atkinson won’t be remembered as one of the greatest referees in Premier League history, but nor should he be labelled as one of the worst to regularly grace the English top flight. Indeed, Atkinson is a very middle-of-the-road character; relatively experienced compared to his contemporaries and a few dodgy decisions aside (what referee isn’t guilty of that?), largely reluctant to rock the boat.
That’s reflective in Atkinson’s returns from last season, ranking in the bottom half of the Premier League’s 19 referees for fouls per game, fouls per tackle, yellow cards per game and penalties per game – although some would argue, as Sir Alex Ferguson did back in 2011 after he failed to send off David Luiz, that only highlights Atkinson’s lack of strength and authority as an official.
“You hope you get a really strong referee in games like this. It was a major game for both clubs and you want a fair referee.
“You want a strong referee anyway and we didn’t get that. I don’t know why he’s got the game. I must say that when I saw who was refereeing it, I feared the worst.”
Atkinson will like to feel he’s developed a sterner presence since then, though, and rather ironically, it’s Liverpool who should be fearing the worst ahead of their Premier League clash this Saturday, which the 46-year-old will be in charge of. Atkinson famously sent off Steven Gerrard against United in 2015 just a matter of second after coming on from the bench and Liverpool haven’t actually won the last three Northwest derbies he’s officiated.
Furthermore, Atkinson’s more lenient style of refereeing should play into United’s hands – the assumption being that Jose Mourinho will set up his side to put in another attritional performance at Anfield, similar to last season, by using their power and physicality to frustrate the Reds’ vibrant attack before hitting back on the break. Tellingly enough of how much that could work in United’s favour, they rank nine places higher than the hosts in the foul charts this season – averaging over two more per match.
That being said, 48% of Atkinson’s matches last season did result in home victories, which is a significantly higher win-rate than Liverpool’s current one against Manchester United at Anfield in the Premier League – just 32%. That, however, provides a feint silver-lining from a set of refereeing statistics that, alongside the two sides’ differing form ahead of Saturday, largely point to a Red Devils win.