Premier League: Do Derbies Feature More Aggression?

By Brendan Kent

The Premier League has seen an influx of foreign talent in recent years. Some would argue that as a result, derby matches don’t have the passion and aggression that they used to. These detractors of modern derbies harken back to a day when local boys played for their local clubs and grew up with the local rivalry. Others argue that no matter where the players on the field come from, the passion of the fans and the derby atmosphere are conducive of play that resembles derbies of the past.

So, are derbies still a passionate affair for the players, conducive of uncommonly aggressive play? I used fouls as a proxy for aggressiveness to try to answer this question.

First, it is important to define which matchups are actually “derbies.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a derby as “a game between local sports teams.” Of course, there are many matchups between clubs from the same city that do not resemble anything derby-esque. For example, nobody would call Spurs-Crystal Palace a true derby even though both clubs are from London. So to determine which local matchups are important enough to be considered true derbies, I turned to Jonathan Liew’s The 20 fiercest rivalries in English football as published in The Telegraph. Eight derbies from this list have been played in the Premier League over the past five seasons. The table below lists the derbies and the number of seasons out of the past five that they have been played in the Premier League‒depending on the promotion/relegation of the teams involved.



PL Seasons Played (of last 5)

North London

Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur



Aston Villa and Birmingham City


East Lancashire

Blackburn Rovers and Burnley


South Wales

Cardiff City and Swansea City



Everton and Liverpool



Manchester City and Manchester United



Newcastle United and Sunderland


Black Country

West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers


This list generated a total of 50 derby matches over the past five seasons. For each of these matches, I found the total number of fouls committed between both teams using data from The average number of total fouls committed between both teams was 25.95 per match, with a standard deviation of 5.76.

I then took a random sample of 50 non-derby Premier League matches from the past five seasons and also found the total fouls committed by both teams in each match. The average number of fouls committed between both teams in non-derby matches was 22.38 per match, with a standard deviation of 5.01.

Without going into any further analysis, it appears that derbies average more fouls per match. After confirming that both sets of data met the t-test requirement of normal distribution, I found by using a two sample t-test that the difference is in fact statistically significant. Furthermore, a two sample confidence interval tells us with 95% confidence that derbies average between 1.4 and 5.7 more fouls per match between both teams than non-derby matches, and the p-value for the means being equal is .0013.

The results show that even though many current Premier League players did not grow up with the derbies in which they compete, there is still a certain uncommon aggressiveness in the way derbies are played. So next time we sit down to watch the North London Derby or the Merseyside Derby, we can expect to hear the sound of the whistle more often than in the typical Premier League match.

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