Manchester United and Arsenal, how the wrong model leads to problems



By Sir Hardly Anyone

This morning Manchester United are eighth in the league, 29 points behind Arsenal, who are as you will know, second.   To give a bit of context that is even bigger than the gap between Tottenham and Arsenal at the end of last season, which was 24 points from second to eighth.

In fact, although Arsenal ended up in eighth twice in recent seasons, Manchester United’s position is not the building block that Arsenal made it, as part of their post-Emery programme.  Indeed eighth is often a danger spot – as in 2022 when eighth place was occupied by Leicester, who in the following season were relegated.

In the case of Manchester United, we can look at their home games against other big or well-performing clubs in the league.  And here they have not done too bad: two wins (Chelsea and Aston Villa), two draws (Tottenham and Liverpool) and a defeat to Manchester City 0-3.   For an eighth-placed team that is not too bad, but should not be enough to worry Arsenal.

As we saw in the last piece, Manchester United play a game in which they share possession with the opposition about 50/50 on average but hold their own as best they can through a high level of yellow cards.   We can see how they do that here…

Tackles per foul Tackles per yellow Fouls p[er yellow
Arsenal 1.52 10.25 6.73
Manchester U 1.67 8.27 4.95
Tottenham H 1.72 8.14 4.73


This is a pattern we have seen all season: Arsenal can put in fewer tackles than other teams before a foul is committed.   This appears to be because as a team Arsenal are low in the number of tackles they commit.  Only Aston Villa and Manchester City commit fewer.  

Now because Arsenal only tackle when really necessary, rather than as a general style of play, referees seem less willing to give Arsenal yellow cards for tackles.  It really has seemed all season that referees give yellows not just for very bad tackles but also for using tackling as the main mode of defence.  PGMO have decided tackling as the main route to defending is “a bad thing”.

In short the penalty for tackling a lot is disproportionately more yellow cards, even if the tackles don’t result in fouls being given against the team.   Referees are running the game in part through their perception that lots of tackles is not good rather than on the quality of the tackling.

But because Arsenal have grasped just how weird and whacky the refereeing approach to tackles is in England, they can put in more tackles before getting a yellow card and also commit more fouls (as seen by the referee) before getting a yellow.

In fact Arsenal can put in 24%  more tackles (as judged by the referee) than Manchester United before getting a yellow and commit 36% more fouls than Manchester United before getting a yellow card.  A remarkable achievement.

And to be clear this is not referee largesse on the part of Arsenal but is because referees, as we have seen all season and in past season,n give fouls and cards based not just on the quality of the tackle but on the number of tackles delivered in the game.   It is what Emery never understood (leading to Arsenal becoming the most yellow-carded team in the league in this reign) but which Arteta and his colleagues fully know.

Indeed if there is one thing that has become quite clear this season, it is that Arsenal have realised that Manchester City are out on their own when it comes to the way they are treated by referees.  City saw this sooner however and Arsenal are seeking to emulate them.

This whole approach has given Arsenal the opportunity to have a far better attack and defence than Manchester United.  Indeed the goal difference between the two clubs is currently 63 goals in Arsenal’s favour (Arsenal being on +60 and Manchester United on -3.

This compares with last season where the difference between the clubs was just +30 in Arsenal’s favour.

Indeed it is interesting to see just how things have moved in Arsenal’s favour.  Arsenal have scored 88 goals in 36 games, having scored 88 in 38 last season.  Manchester United have scored 52 goals in 35 games this season against 58 in 38 last season.   In short in goal scoring, both teams are pretty much where they were last season.  Arsenal might edge ahead of their total last season, Manchester United might just equal their figure for last season.

In defence, Arsenal have conceded 15 goals fewer than they did the whole of last season.  Manchester United have already conceded 12 more goals than they did in the whole of last season (and they have three games to play.)

Arsenal are, in short, edging forward from a very, very high position.  Manchesster United are slipping back from a somewhat more modest position

More soon…

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