Who Are the Dirtiest Teams in the Premier League?

Footballer Making Late ChallengeFootball is a competitive sport. Everyone accepts that there will be tackles and challenges, some of which go beyond the level that they should. It is often amusing listening to pundits talking about tackles that ‘would have been fine’ in their day, as if that means anything when you consider the level of physicality that was deemed to be acceptable during the 1970s, 1980s and even into the 1990s. The game has moved on since then, however, and now tackles that might not even have been bookings are red card worthy.

Elsewhere on the site you can read about the practice of Booking Points and how many cards have been awarded in the Premier League in the most in recent seasons. That article will give you some sense of how often teams are awarded cards and booking points, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. Indeed, the very question of which is the ‘dirtiest’ team is a complicated one, given that what constitutes being ‘dirty’ will differ from one team to another. That being said, the only truly objective measure that we have is how many yellow and red cards a team has been shown during the season.

Quick Answer: Which Premier League Team has the Worst Discipline?

Between the 2016-17 and 2020-21 seasons in the Premier League, Sunderland had the highest number of Booking Points per season with 850, though this was just a single campaign in the top flight.

Watford had the most Booking Points in a single season with 935 in 2016-17. They have had the worst disciplinary record in the league for two out of the four seasons in the Premier League during this period, and were second overall on average with 832.5 points per season.

Liverpool have had by far the best record when it comes to Booking Points between 2016-17 and 2020-21. They had the best disciplinary record in each of the five seasons analysed, averaging just 450 points per season. This was 400 points better than the worst team (Sunderland) and 97.5 points better than the next best team (Swansea City).

Premier League Team Cards & Booking Points

Red and Yellow Cards Against Green BackgroundLooking at the number of yellow and red cards that a team has been shown over the course of a season isn’t a flawless system for identifying the teams that are the dirtiest in football. Even Manchester City’s most loyal and optimistic supporter would admit that Fernandinho used to regularly get away with fouls without picking up bookings during the Cityzens’ Premier League matches, for example. Equally, some players soon earn reputations with referees that mean that they’ll be given a booking or sent off for doing relatively little.

Add to that the fact that some players tend to be ignored by referees when they appeal for things, such as Mohamed Salah often being fouled by players but not awarded a free-kick, and you can see why it is that looking at bookings and sendings off is far from a perfect system in terms of identifying the dirtiest teams. There isn’t really any other metric by which we can assess these things, however. It is also worth noting that, over the course of a season, numerous variables will presumably even themselves out and begin to allow a narrative to be formed.

Here we will look at the Premier League over the course of five seasons, starting in 2016-2017 and working through to 2020-2021. We will explain how many yellow cards a club has been awarded each season, as well as how many red cards have been shown. This is obviously slightly complicated, on account of the fact that two yellows cards will result in a red card being shown, so we will show all the data along with the total Booking Points teams would have received that season. Yellow cards are worth 10 points, straight red cards are worth 25 points, with a second yellow (and so a red card) also worth 25 points.

There is obviously a large amount of information here, given that we’re looking at 20 teams across five seasons. We have broken it up into each individual season for that reason. We will start by looking at 2016-2017, putting the teams in descending order of Booking Points. The teams that appear in the table are slightly different each time, on account of the fact that some are relegated and some promoted.

2016-17 Premier League Cards and Booking Points

Team Booking Points Yellows Reds 2nd Yellows
Watford 935 84 5 3
West Ham 865 78 5 4
Sunderland 850 78 4 3
Manchester United 820 78 2 1
Manchester City 810 71 4 0
West Brom 800 80 0 0
Hull City 795 67 5 0
Middlesbrough 785 77 1 1
Crystal Palace 770 77 0 0
Everton 760 72 2 1
Arsenal 755 68 3 0
Leicester 745 72 1 0
Stoke 740 70 2 1
Chelsea 720 72 0 0
Burnley 690 65 2 1
Southampton 630 59 2 1
Tottenham 620 62 0 0
Bournemouth 575 52 3 2
Swansea 560 56 0 0
Liverpool 540 54 0 0

With 70 more Booking Points than the next team, it is fair to say that Watford were the dirtiest team in the 2016-2017 Premier League season. In contrast, Liverpool were the ‘fairest’ team, receiving no red cards and 395 fewer Booking Points than Watford over the course of the campaign.

2017-18 Premier League Cards and Booking Points

Team Booking Points Yellow Red 2nd Yellows
West Ham 770 73 2 1
West Brom 755 73 1 0
Crystal Palace 720 72 0 0
Watford 720 63 4 1
Huddersfield 675 62 3 2
Southampton 670 63 2 1
Manchester United 665 64 1 0
Burnley 650 65 0 0
Stoke 645 62 1 0
Arsenal 620 57 2 0
Manchester City 620 59 2 2
Leicester 605 52 5 4
Brighton 590 54 2 0
Bournemouth 565 55 1 1
Everton 565 51 3 2
Newcastle 560 52 2 1
Tottenham 540 50 2 1
Swansea 535 51 1 0
Chelsea 500 42 4 2
Liverpool 465 44 1 0

The first thing that jumps out from the table above is that there were significantly fewer yellow cards than in the previous campaign. West Ham United got 165 fewer Booking Points than Watford the season before. Liverpool were once again the ‘cleanest’ team, only receiving one red card and 44 yellows.

2018-19 Premier League Cards and Booking Points

Team Booking Points Yellow Red 2nd Yellows
Watford 860 77 4 1
Manchester United 810 73 4 2
Burnley 775 75 1 0
Southampton 765 71 3 2
Arsenal 760 72 2 1
Wolves 745 72 1 0
Fulham 710 68 2 2
Brighton 690 60 4 1
Cardiff 685 66 1 0
Leicester 665 57 5 3
Everton 640 55 4 1
Huddersfield 640 55 4 1
Bournemouth 625 60 1 0
Tottenham 625 56 3 1
Crystal Palace 620 58 2 1
Newcastle 620 57 2 0
West Ham 615 59 1 0
Chelsea 490 49 0 0
Manchester City 465 44 1 0
Liverpool 440 41 2 2

Watford once again find themselves at the top of the table in the sense of Booking Points, meaning that they’re very much coming out as the dirtiest team across the three seasons so far. It is also becoming common to see Liverpool at the bottom of the pile, firming up their claim to be the fairest team in the division.

The 2019-2020 campaign saw Liverpool win the title for the first time in more than 30 years, but did they need to become a little bit dirtier in order to get over the line? Watford, meanwhile, finished 19th and were relegated. Was this tied to better on-field behaviour from the Hertfordshire club? Here’s a look at each team’s performance, in descending order according to Booking Points:

2019-20 Premier League Cards and Booking Points

Team Booking Points Yellow Red 2nd Yellows
Arsenal 975 86 5 1
Tottenham 885 82 3 1
Watford 815 76 3 2
Bournemouth 795 74 3 2
Norwich 755 68 3 0
Everton 745 70 3 3
Newcastle 735 66 3 0
Manchester United 730 73 0 0
Aston Villa 695 68 1 1
Burnley 670 67 0 0
Crystal Palace 670 62 2 0
Manchester City 670 60 4 3
Sheffield United 650 61 2 1
West Ham 635 62 1 1
Southampton 620 53 4 1
Brighton 610 57 2 1
Chelsea 600 60 0 0
Wolves 600 57 2 2
Leicester 475 41 3 1
Liverpool 405 38 1 0

It appears as though there was something in the water in North London during the 2019-2020 season, given that Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur take our top two spaces. Watford were no less dirty than in previous seasons, whilst Liverpool were able to both win the Premier League title and maintain their solid record of being the cleanest team in the top-flight.

The 2020-2021 campaign was played behind-closed-doors for the majority of the time, so did that result in teams being less emotionally involved or did the sterile nature of Premier League football during this time mean that the referees were more willing to call sides out for dirty play? Here’s a look at all of the teams, once again going in descending order of our specific Booking Points system:

2020-21 Premier League Cards and Booking Points

Team Booking Points Yellow Red 2nd Yellows
Sheffield United 805 73 3 0
Fulham 745 67 3 0
Aston Villa 690 63 4 4
Manchester United 665 64 1 0
Newcastle 665 61 3 2
Everton 640 59 2 0
Leeds 635 61 1 0
Leicester 610 61 0 0
West Brom 610 51 4 0
Southampton 595 52 3 0
Brighton 590 46 6 2
Arsenal 585 47 5 1
Crystal Palace 580 54 2 1
Chelsea 565 50 3 1
Tottenham 560 53 2 2
West Ham 545 48 3 1
Wolves 545 53 1 1
Manchester City 510 46 2 0
Burnley 480 48 0 0
Liverpool 400 40 0 0

It is the name of Liverpool Football Club that is once again glued to the bottom of the table, meaning that they are definitively the ‘cleanest’ club over the five years of Premier League football that we’ve looked at. Sheffield United, meanwhile, were the dirtiest team in 2020-2021, at least according to Booking Points.

Ranking Teams by Booking Points

Now that we’ve looked at all five seasons individually, we will now have a look to see which teams have been the worst on average over the course of all five seasons.  It is worth pointing out that some teams will have played in the Premier League more than others. The likes of both North London clubs, both Merseyside clubs and the two Manchester teams have been in the Premier League for all five seasons that we’ve looked at, whereas the likes of Sunderland, Cardiff, Leeds Fulham have only played top-flight football once during that time. For that reason, we’ll tell you what the Booking Points were on average per season. Here’s how it pans out, with the teams organised in descending order of Booking Points:

Chart That Shows the Average Bookings Points of Premier League Teams Between 2016-17 and 2020-21

The use of the average number of Booking Points picked up across all five seasons is a helpful metric, given that it tells us that Watford, who were in the Premier League for four of the five season we’ve looked at, were second only to Sunderland in terms of being a ‘dirty’ team. They averaged 832.5 Booking Points per season, compared to the 850 achieved by Sunderland in just one season of top-flight football. In other words, Sunderland were the dirtiest team, but not by much and there’s an argument that Watford are actually dirtier, given they did it over a more prolonged period of time.

As you might have figured out, Liverpool were the least dirty team over the five campaigns that we looked at. The Merseyside club averaged just 450 Booking Points per season. Even the total number of Booking Points amassed by Liverpool was lower than some teams who played fewer Premier League seasons than they did, given that they’ve been an ever-present during the period of time in question.

One of the interesting things to note is that longevity saved certain clubs from being labelled as the ‘dirtiest’. Arsenal and Manchester United, for example, racked up the most Booking Points over the course of the five seasons, but their average came in much lower than the aforementioned Sunderland and Watford. Many of the teams that have played Premier League football for the longest period of time were all in about the same region as each other when the averages were taken into account, suggesting that many sides are about as fair as each other.

The final thing worth pointing out is that some clubs that you might think of as being quite dirty aren’t when you compare them to others. The likes of Burnley would be thought of by many as being a physical team, yet their average number of Booking Points over the five seasons came in lower than Manchester United’s, for example. Is this because they’re actually ‘fairer’ than some of the other teams, or is that down to referees being more lenient towards their players? It is a common criticism of Premier League referees that they allow poorer teams to get away with more in order to ‘level up’ the games.