On the surface, a referee who has shown Craig Pawson’s level of leniency this season should benefit the underdog in any given match. He’s averaged the 16th fewest fouls per game of the 18 referees to work in the top flight this season, suggesting a tendency to allow the kind of physical challenges that often blur the line of acceptability.
Upon facing a top team, the side expected to do the majority of defending should see that as a god-send; the licence to be physical and aggressive without the fear of giving free kicks away in dangerous areas or being reduced to ten men – although Pawson does rank considerably higher for yellow cards.
The real exception to that rule, however, is Manchester City. Only three Premier League sides have committed less fouls than Pep Guardiola’s runaway pace-setters this season and there’s a very good reason for that – which isn’t just the fact they’ve averaged 66.4% of the ball so far throughout 2017/18.
To put it simply, it benefits City infinitely more to keep the game flowing for as long as possible without niggling stoppages as their meticulous passing game slowly but surely grinds the opposition down, sapping the life out of their legs.
We saw a prime example of that on Wednesday night as the Citizens obliterated Swansea in a 4-0 demolition at the Liberty Stadium. Over the course of ninety minutes, there were just 18 fouls, seven corners and three offsides – so excepting throw-ins, there was one break in play every every 3.2 minutes. That’s a lot of pressure to soak up when you’re on the back foot, especially with City boasting such confidence, form and vibrancy going forward.
That’s certainly something for Tottenham to bear in mind when they travel to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, following news that Pawson has been appointed to officiate the 5.30pm kickoff. If Spurs are to have any chance of stopping a side currently amid a record-setting winning run, they must view every break in play as a chance to organise and catch their breath.
That could require a few Machiavellian dark arts too – holding lengthy discussions with the referee or slyly kicking the ball away to extend those disruptive breaks for as long as possible. Mauricio Pochettino’s sides have always been amongst the fittest in the Premier League, but even they will struggle to keep pace if City get their passing game up to full speed.
If there’s one positive Spurs can take into Saturday’s game though, it’s that only 46% of the matches Pawson has officiated this season have ended in home wins. That suggests he doesn’t have a tendency to side with home crowds, and also means 53% of his matches have resulted in at least a point for the visitors.
In the context of City’s current form, taking a point back to north London would be a huge result for the Lilywhites – and the rest of the Premier League’s title hopefuls.
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