Arsenal v Brentford. How Arteta’s first transformation set Arsenal on this path



By Bulldog Drummond

When Mikel Arteta came to Arsenal on 20 December 2019 he inherited a club that was running on fouling.  As a result of this at the end of the 2019/20 season the club was top of the yellow card table with 86 yellow cards in the season- more than double the number of yellow cards that Liverpool got.

His first major move was to cut this number down, by gradually cutting the fouling rate, and so now, in the current season, we find Arsenal bottom rather than top of the yellow card table with 39 cards so far – less than half the number of cards that Chelsea have got.

This drive has effectively given back to the manager and the players, control of the game which had been seized by over-energised PGMO staff members.  Indeed for many clubs the games still are controlled by PGMO.  Indeed by the end of the season, a number of clubs will be on over 100 cards at the current rate, for the first time ever.

Interestingly this set clubs in the 100-yellow club, includes Aston Villa, the club now managed by Unai Emery, who was responsible for taking Arsenal to the top of the yellow card table in the first place.  Aston Villa are one of three clubs currently heading for a yellow card total of over 100, although they have now greatly reduced their number of tackles per game.    Arsenal’s expected yellow total (perhaps we should call it XYell) is 54.

Yellow cards are reduced primarily by reducing tackling, and then by avoiding other issues like swearing at the referee, kicking the ball away, protesting too much etc.  It’s not that hard to do, and Arsenal have done it.

Figures in the table below are per league game – and of course the numbers look small.  So I have added an extra column after each of the three main statistics, to show just how far above Arsenal the other clubs are – taking Arsenal in each case as the 100% marker.

Club Tackles Percentage of Arsenal Fouls Percentage of Arsenal Yellows for fouls Percentage of Arsenal
Arsenal 15.9 100% 9.6 100% 1.04 100%
Brentford 18.5 116% 10.0 104% 1.59 153%
Liverpool 17.3 109% 12.4 129% 1.22 117%
Tottenham 20.2 127% 10.7 111% 1.42 137%


So Brentford are putting in just 4% more fouls than Arsenal but getting 53% more yellow cards than Arsenal for fouls.

Liverpool are putting in 9% more tackles than Arsenal and getting 29% more of them called as fouls than Arsenal and getting 17% more yellow cards than Arsenal for fouls.

Tottenham are putting in 27% more tackles than Arsenal and getting 11% more of them called as fouls and yet 37% more yellow cards than Arsenal for fouls.

As you can see there is no consistency here – the figures are bonkers.  How can Brentford be committing 9% fewer tackles than Tottenham but getting 16% more yellow cards for fouls?

The answer of course is that PGMO referees are giving out yellow cards on instinct as much as on actual events, and the more a club is considered a “lower level” club the more their tackling comes under scrutiny and the more yellows are waved even for fewer offences.

It was this irrationality of referees that Arteta knew all about when he came to Arsenal and started to change the style of play, moving the club from the most yellow carded in the league to the least yellow carded in the league.

And it is this irrationality that Tottenham have not been able to do anything about, first because of their propensity for changing managers (a manager needs time to change defenders’ habits), and second because they have been loathe to adopt any tactic that has been pioneered by Arsenal.

So here we can see Arsenal’s approach, as we do each week.  Keep the number of tackles low, keep the fouls low, and keep the number of yellow cards for fouls low.

But if you have been reading Untold Arsenal you will know that this is only half the story, for when we start looking at the number of tackles per foul, the number of tackles per yellow card for tackling, and the number of fouls per yellow card, the numbers can get very weird indeed.   We’ll look at that tomorrow.

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