Who has been the most-fouled player in the Premier League for the past two seasons?
You are probably thinking of Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka or James Maddison. Those clever, quick or skilful players, often wingers, who have a habit of drawing the opposition in, flicking the ball past and drawing a foul.
The actual answer is Crystal Palace’s Jordan Ayew. A defensive winger who is not lauded for tricks, speed or even taking on opposition defenders, the 32-year-old is an outlier among those who have won the most fouls in the top flight since August 2022 — and yet he has more than anyone else.
He is also no two-season wonder. Since his debut for Palace in 2018, only three players can boast a higher tally of fouls than Ayew’s 364: Maddison (377), Grealish (415) and another Palace player, Wilfried Zaha (488), who is now at Galatasaray.
While he does play more minutes than most of those players, his fouls-per-90-minutes played (2.84) is also amongst the highest (Watford forward Isaac Success leads the way here with 4.08 fouls per 90, but he has played only just over 1,000 minutes).
So how does he do it?
- Where does he win his fouls?
There appears to be roughly four types of fouls made on attacking players.
There is the cynical tactical foul, where a player’s skill is just too much to handle and they are brought down deliberately; a similar one, just not deliberate, where a defending player is too late to get to the ball; the ones mastered by centre-forwards such as Harry Kane where the ball is held up with their chest or they are trying to win a header, feel contact from behind and fall to the ground; and a frustrated push in the back on an attacker who is shielding the ball.
Ayew has mastered drawing all of those, but there are specific issues in the way he wins fouls and where on the field.
Whereas a player like Grealish might win his fouls more in the opposition half, given that is where City spend most of their time, Ayew’s are more evenly split between his own half and the opposition’s.
That is, in part, a reflection of Palace having largely been a low-block, counter-attacking team since 2018 — he has been tasked with tracking back and sitting on the edge of the area from set pieces to serve as an out-ball.
Palace’s 1-1 draw with Brentford on August 26 provided a perfect example. The ball was cleared out of the area, Ayew looked to see where he was in relation to any opposition players, controlled the ball and turned at the same time before being brought down. There was no counter-attack, but it did relieve pressure on the defence.
In the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, he turned just inside his own half to chase a ball over the top. In doing so, he attracted the attention of Takehiro Tomiyasu. Ayew went down and the referee decided there was sufficient contact to show Tomiyasu a second yellow card (Ayew has earned 50 bookings for opponents since his Palace debut in 2018).
The Arsenal incident was much debated, partly because the contact on Ayew from Tomiyasu was minimal. Ayew has occasionally been accused of exaggerating contact to win his fouls, but is he really a diver?
“It’s not diving because there is actual contact,” said Glenn Murray, the former Palace and Brighton striker. “More often than not when you see that contact on TV you can say that he dived or he barely touched him. But with the speed and strength of these players, (these fouls) can be quite painful.”
Ayew is, however, smart in assessing where it might be in Palace’s interests for him to be fouled. Early in the 1-0 win over Sheffield United last month, Ayew was surrounded by three opposition players deep in his own half. Palace were under pressure, but he managed to wriggle free from two before winning a foul. Pressure relieved; job done.
- How does he win them?
It is not just where he wins his fouls, but the manner in which he does so which is striking.
Ayew tends to go down almost in stages, falling first to his knees and then, with his arms splayed out, to the ground. It is often when he has close attention from defenders, as in this case at Sheffield United, where he is pushed in the back.
It was the same in a 2-0 win over Southampton in April. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Theo Walcott were behind him, Walcott pushed him in the back, and he fell to the ground in two stages.
In the reverse fixture earlier in the season at Selhurst Park, there was a similar moment. Ayew had his back to the goal and, as Southampton tried to dispossess him, they conceded the foul.
Ayew is excellent at shielding the ball with his body and is able to contort himself, so he can turn and drive away from a defender or win a foul.
With Palace leading Bournemouth 2-0 in May, he received the ball just outside his own area facing his own goal. Joe Rothwell tried to dispossess him from behind but succeeded only in taking Ayew to the ground and conceding the free kick. It is clear how he used his arm to keep Rothwell away from him and had his entire body between the Bournemouth player and the ball.
“He uses his body so well,” Leon Britton, a former team-mate of Ayew at Swansea, tells The Athletic. “His brother (former Swansea and Nottingham Forest winger Andre) was similar as well. Both of them were very good at winning free kicks, using their body to get in between the opponent and the ball and drawing the foul.
“That probably comes from watching their dad (Abedi Pele, a former Ghana international) and also the coaching he did with them when they were younger. He dribbles in a way that entices the defender to think they can win it, puts his body in between and ends up getting the foul.”
Murray agrees. “Players like Ayew put their body between the ball and the defender and desperation kicks in,” he says. “It can be a fear factor as well — you don’t want to be embarrassed by being dribbled past, so you take the man down. Especially at the top level, using your body is extremely important, and it’s like a cuteness you develop over time. It is a bit of an art.”
Ayew may not have the same sort of explosive speed as Zaha — who became the most-fouled player in Premier League history in March 2022, when he clocked up his 728th foul — but he has a burst of acceleration that takes him past players and catches them off guard.
Take this example against Leicester City in Palace’s 2-1 defeat at King Power stadium in April 2022, where Ayew draws the sort of foul that Zaha often earned.
He squared up Youri Tielemans on the edge of the penalty area, produced some stepovers and quickly shifted the ball to his left. Tielemans was tricked by this, sticking out a leg and bringing Ayew down to give away a penalty.
- So why is Ayew not given more credit?
It is a feature of Ayew’s career that he tends to be favoured more by his team’s coaches than fans. That is true with Ghana, where there are regular calls for him to be dropped, and also at Palace, where more flamboyant talents such as Zaha, Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze are more celebrated, even though his manager Roy Hodgson rates him highly.
“He is a player who is, from the outside, potentially under-appreciated by some of his own supporters,” Britton says. “But his team-mates and manager will really recognise the work that he puts in. Whether Jordan is having a good day or a bad day, he’ll always work his socks off for the team.”
Ayew’s demeanour doesn’t help: it is rare to see him crack a smile and his finishing, unlike that of Zaha and Grealish, struggles to live up to the fine work he does outside the box.
Even that, however, could count in his favour when it comes to being underrated by opponents.
“They probably don’t target him because of his demeanour,” says Murray. “He’s low-key. A lot of the attention is elsewhere and many opposition fans would be surprised he’s been fouled so many times. Grealish and Zaha are characters on the field and that’s partly why they get targeted.”
Last season, then Palace manager Patrick Vieira spoke about how Zaha winning fouls when under pressure helped to “push the block a little higher” and how important it was “especially when you’re going through a difficult period”. The same applies to Ayew, but the fouls are not so obvious or distinctive and therefore more likely to go unnoticed.
It may seem that the most common way in which wide players in particular win fouls is through skill, speed and manipulation of the ball, but Ayew has proved that is not the only way.
It is a precious commodity, especially for Palace.