Ref in Focus: How Arsenal can use Michael Oliver’s disciplined style to their advantage

Appointing him to oversee the biggest fixture in the Premier League this weekend, Arsenal vs Manchester City, is a pretty strong indication of just how much PGMOL value Michael Oliver – arguably English football’s top official at this moment in time.

The 33-year-old certainly isn’t to be messed with; from the 21 referees to feature in the Premier League last season, he ranked in the top seven for fouls per game, fouls per tackle, penalties per game and red cards per game. Whereas some referees prefer to let the game flow as much as possible, Oliver is more than prepared to make his presence felt via the whistle.

In theory then, that should disadvantage Arsenal more than Manchester City this weekend. After all, City are the Premier League’s most free-flowing, offensive side, so it’s the Gunners who will need to do the majority of defending on Sunday – even if that isn’t seen as their most natural forte – and take their chances with robust, physical challenges.

But actually, if Arsenal gauge the situation correctly and aren’t too forceful when attempting to win the ball, there’s licence to exploit Oliver’s approach. Because City seek to tire out teams with their meticulous passing game, the longer the ball’s in play the more it suits their style¬† – tellingly, despite all their possession, Pep Guardiola’s side won the fourth-fewest fouls last season.

Michael Oliver's refereeing stats from 2017-18

Oliver though, awards fouls almost too willingly, while he’s actually more relaxed when it comes to bookings – ranking a comparatively low 11th for yellow cards per game throughout the Premier League’s referee cohort in 2017/18. So if Arsenal can make plenty of fouls that don’t oblige Olivier to get his notebook out, they should be able to disrupt City’s rhythm while giving themselves time to catch their breath.

And even if Arsenal do give away fouls in contentious areas, the statistics suggest there isn’t that much danger of City scoring. After all, City scored just one goal directly from a free kick last season, and a mere four from free kicks into the box – the same number as Southampton. So the likelihood of City scoring from free kicks Arsenal concede is actually not that great, especially if Arsenal have sharpened up on defending set pieces.

In worse news for Arsenal though, just 30% of the games Oliver officiated last season ended in home wins, a bias only worsened by Jonathan Moss excepting the two referees to oversee just a single top flight clash. In contrast, his 37% away win rate was the sixth highest, and his 33% draw rate was the seventh highest.

So, Arsenal fans, how do you fancy your chances this weekend? Let us know by commenting below…