Why Eden Hazard getting fouled the most in Premier League isn't surprising
Jose Mourinho has said repeatedly that he thinks Eden Hazard has been targeted by opponents this season – and, sure enough, he was fouled four times in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Southampton, more than any other Chelsea player.
That follows a pattern that has seen the Belgian fouled more than any other player in the Premier League this season – 2.9 times per game – which at first sight, seems to back up his manager’s point.
But could it be that Hazard is fouled more than other players because of the way Chelsea play? Perhaps because he is the conduit through which much of their creativity flows, he simply draws more fouls that others. And wouldn’t it make sense that players who dribble the most are fouled the most?
There is a clear correlation between dribbling and being fouled. Hazard completes 4.8 dribbles per game, attempting 7.3, both more than anybody else in the Premier League. Alexis Sanchez, Victor Moses and Raheem Sterling are all among the top 6 for successful dribbles and in the top 20 most fouled players.
But there are exceptions. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who attempts the seventh most dribbles (5.6 per game), is fouled only 0.5 times per game.
And besides, a list of the most fouled players also shows a number who dribble infrequently. Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge showcased not only the most fouled player in the Premier League, but also the second most fouled player, Sadio Mane.
He is fouled 2.8 times per game on average and, against Chelsea, he was fouled six times, three of them drawing yellow cards. But he beats a player only 1.7 times per game. Even more striking is the fourth name in the list of most fouled players, Steven Naismith, who dribbles only 0.8 times per game. Alex Song, meanwhile, is sixth in the list.
In fact, if we divide how often a player is fouled by how many dribbles they attempt (looking only at the 20 most fouled players), to create some sort of index of how often a player is fouled against how often you’d expect them to be fouled (if dribbling were the sole criterion for that), it turns out that Jores Okore suffers proportionally far more than any other Premier League player, with Naismith second, Jack Colback third and Jordi Gomez fourth.
That suggests another metric may be at play. Naismith is involved in 6.7 aerial duels per game, which seems in part to explain it: referees regularly give free-kicks for minimal contact when two players jump for a header, which is why Niall Quinn and Kevin Davies, neither of them notably dirty players, so regularly topped the most fouls committed charts.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, the joint sixth most fouled player, contests 5.5 aerial duels per game and Okore, the 18th most fouled player, contests 4.1. So, revising the fouled most often against expectation calculation, let’s divide how often a player is fouled in a game by the total of how often they dribble and how many aerial duels they contest.
It’s not a perfect metric – there are probably other factors at work, while a more accurate measure would adjust for the fact that there are more aerial duels than dribbles in a game – but it does give some indication that a player is not necessarily being victimised just because he suffers more fouls than others.
By 'fouled' per game over (dribbles per game plus aerial duels per game), it turns out that the five most disproportionately fouled players, of the 20 most fouled players in the Premier League, are: Jack Colback, Jordi Gomez, Stephane Sessegnon, Leighton Baines and Sadio Mane.
That suggests the calculation needs to take into account players whose main role is to help retain possession, not necessarily passing forwards. But still, imperfect as the formula is, it seems significant that Hazard is only 12th on the list.