Premier League time-wasting and dissent have both clearly long needed addressing. For years, players and managers have often been able to get away with tricks of the trade to run down the clock and eat up valuable playing time without punishment, while there was almost no policing of backchat. Unless you threw or kicked the ball away, or committed the immensely tame crime of clapping sarcastically in an official’s direction, you could complain however much you liked about a refereeing decision without caution.
But not any more.
Over the summer, new directives were brought in to crack down on two of the most prevalent scourges of the game. Time-wasting would be monitored with extra minutes added on at the end of each half and referees should dish out cards for any “clear and impactful actions” that waste time. Dissent, meanwhile, would be punished with cards much more readily, and whenever more than one player approached a referee, the official was instructed to book at least one of them.
For all the complaints from fans about the standard of Premier League refereeing that will never, ever go away, nobody can say they aren’t doing their jobs properly when it comes to these new sets of instructions. Cards for dissent and time-wasting have gone through the roof.
Over the whole of 2022-23 in the top flight of English football, there were 87 yellows dished out for dissent – or one card every 4.1 games. After not even two full rounds of fixtures in 2023-24, we have seen 18 cards for dissent already – a rate of one card every 0.95 games, which is more than four times as often as last season.
(It’s also worth noting here that this is just cards for players, and there have also already been six cards given to managers this season, a rate of one every 3.2 games, compared to 38 in the whole of 2022-23, a rate of one every 10 games.)
It’s a similar although not quite so extreme situation when it comes to cautions for time-wasting, with 92 given in 380 games in 2022-23 – a rate of one every 4.4 games. So far this season, we’ve seen 14 cards for time-wasting (not to mention all the extra minutes added on), which amounts to one card every 1.4 games – more than three times as often as 2023-24.
Some of the decisions to give out cards have suggested referees are going to be exceptionally strict this season – at least to begin with, anyway.
Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz was booked for dissent just six minutes into the 5-1 defeat to Newcastle United last weekend, after he complained about something in the build-up to Sandro Tonali’s opening goal. Whatever he said might well have been worthy of a yellow, but it is hard to imagine a card being given for dissent so early in a game last season.
In the 10 games already played in Matchday 2 this weekend, there were five more cards given for dissent just in the first halves of those matches, including Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, who continued to argue with referee Michael Oliver’s decision to book him and it seemed for a moment as if he was going to talk his way into a second yellow immediately after his first. The way the season’s officiating has started, a scenario in which a player is given a second yellow card for complaining about his first doesn’t seem at all unlikely.
There have also been decisions made for time-wasting offences that appear rather extreme. Five of the yellow cards given out so far in 2022-23 for time-wasting have come with the scores level, including Sheffield United forward William Osula’s 16th-minute caution against Crystal Palace for nudging the ball away after he had been caught offside, and a similar offence by Pascal Gross in the eighth minute of Brighton’s win at Wolves this weekend. Both games were still goalless at the time.
Newcastle’s Tonali, meanwhile, was booked for taking too long to walk off the pitch in second half injury-time, even though his side were 5-1 up against Villa with just a few minutes of the game left. Takehiro Tomiyasu was given a yellow card on Monday night for taking eight seconds to take a throw-in.
This isn’t to say there was anything necessarily wrong with any of the decisions – the referees have been instructed to officiate games in this way – but just that where common sense would prevail and a talking-to would have been deemed sufficient previously, now referees are going precisely by the book. Referees giving an apologetic face and shrug of the shoulders as if to say “it’s not me who makes the rules” as they give out a yellow card for time-wasting will become an increasingly common sight this season.
Of course, it is very early days – we are only 19 games into the new campaign – and it might be that referees don’t stick quite so steadfastly to the new guidelines for the entire season, but the early signs suggest we’re in for a card-heavy campaign.
So far in 2023-24, we are seeing an average of 4.7 yellow cards per game, which is by a distance the most of any Premier League campaign, the second most being the 3.7 seen in 1998-99 and 2016-17. This season’s rate is almost two full cards more per game than were being dished out in 2020-21, which saw 2.9 yellows per game.
This season, games are averaging 1.68 cards per game for either dissent or time-wasting, up from 0.47 per game last season. So, that’s 0.84 per team per game compared to 0.23 last season, meaning 0.61 more cards for dissent or time-wasting every game for every team. If this were to continue over the entire season, teams would pick up, on average, 23.1 more cards each. Chances are, most teams would then end up with more suspensions for players racking up five or 10 yellow cards.
More red cards are being given out for two bookable offences, too. So far in 2023-24, there have been four dismissals given to players for receiving two yellow cards – a rate of one every 4.8 games. Last season, just 13 such dismissals were dished out – a rate of one every 29 games.
It probably wasn’t the intention of the game’s lawmakers when they decided to bring in these new directives to see an increase in suspensions, but it is a likely consequence.
More frequent suspensions would be yet another advantage to teams with more resources. They are the teams best set up to contend with playing without important first-team players, after all.
There is also an argument that the best and most dominant teams are less likely to be in situations when they might feel they need to waste time. Should the worst teams really be expected not to slow games down if they are clinging on to a slender and invaluable lead?
Bigger teams might also face fewer situations in which they’ll be upset enough about a decision to argue with the referee, for instance if they are a few goals ahead. Is it a coincidence that Manchester City are the only team to have played two games so far in 2023-24 without having received a card for either dissent or time-wasting?
We might be getting a little ahead of ourselves and things could easily calm down before long. This topic was touched upon in our selection of knee-jerk reactions to the first round of fixtures and it may not have required this deeper level of analysis because the hope will presumably be players will eventually stop time-wasting or arguing with referees, and there’ll be no need for so many cards.
But don’t expect that to happen right away. It takes a long time for players to change their habits, especially when screaming at the ref or taking a long time to take a throw-in when you’re winning is so ingrained in the game.
Instead, there’s every chance the Premier League’s players will keep on breaking records for yellow cards.