This edition of The Goalpost was provoked by a stray comment on an Arsenal fan’s podcast. The concerned quip was about Granit Xhaka’s red card in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Burnley last month. And whether the player’s reputation for infraction was becoming something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Swiss midfielder does have a deplorable record of disciplinary sanction. He has picked up nine red cards since the 2014-15 Bundesliga season, and 47 yellows.
I was intrigued by this line of thinking. Were players really burdened by their disciplinary pasts? Did the baggage a player bring to the pitch somehow influence a referee’s decision making while the game went on and fouls were committed? And what would the statistics look like if this were the case? Also, how long before a player’s fouls began to give him a reputation?
So I opened Statbunker.com and began to drill through a treasure trove of historical disciplinary data. And immediately forgot all about my original questions.
One thing immediately jumps out at you. Granit Xhaka could turn into a statistical outlier. No one in Arsenal history has received two or more red cards so quickly in their Premier League (PL) careers. Xhaka has so far received one for every 737 minutes he has played on the pitch.
He is the first Arsenal player since Laurent Koscielny in the 2010 season to get sent off twice in a single PL season. The club has never had a player who has been sent off thrice—it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put money on Xhaka being the first. The season will get more frantic as it comes to a close and Arsenal are running out of midfielders who are fit.
How does Xhaka line up against the great rule-breakers of the PL era? The current reigning champions for lifetime PL reds are Duncan Ferguson, Patrick Vieira and Richard Dunne, each of whom reaped a rich harvest of eight cards. Ferguson, however, built his collection over a 12-year career largely at Everton. Vieira and Dunne also had long careers.
But one glance at their lifetime statistics exposes the sheer…err...brilliance of Xhaka’s achievements. Vieira amassed 12 reds across his club and international career, between joining Arsenal in 1996 and retiring at Manchester City in 2011, i.e. over 15 years. Xhaka has collected nine reds in his last three seasons. With the Swiss still only 24 years old, Xhaka could be well on his way to breaking all kinds of records when it comes to getting sent off.
But is the midfielder a victim of his own reputation?
From the statistics available online, you could draw two very different conclusions (I admit this is not very helpful). After a fairly law-abiding start to his career—over his first four years in Basel and Mönchengladbach, he collected just six yellow cards—it was in the 2013-14 season that Xhaka was sent off for the first time. Keep in mind that this is also the first time Xhaka played more than 20 games in a season for club or country. Over that season, he was booked 11 times and sent off once.
That season has proved to be something of a slippery slope. In the 2014-15 season, Xhaka was booked 15 times and sent off twice. Then, in the season after, his third at the proper senior level, Xhaka was sent off three times and booked for a yellow 11 times. Which brings us to this season. Xhaka currently stands at four yellows and three reds for club and country, with plenty of the season left to play.
As I said before, there are two things possibly at play here. On the one hand, Xhaka may simply be someone who bloomed into his aggressive fullness in the Bundesliga with playing time, and may stay that way pending intervention. Or this is a player who has had two bad seasons in Germany, discipline-wise, and is now paying the price for his reputation. There is one statistic that may indicate the latter: his astonishingly high red/yellow ratio this season in England.
Xhaka has earned two yellows and two reds in the PL so far. Both dismissals were straight red cards. Surely it is possible that referees are tempted to show the “bad boy” Swiss national a red when perhaps a yellow would suffice?
But then all this analysis is perhaps premature. Xhaka could well clean up his act and sail through the rest of the season without blemish. Or he could revert to form, kick lumps out of the opposition, fulfil the prophecy and become yet another headache for Arsene Wenger to unzip himself out of.