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By Tony Attwood
In 2015/16 Arsenal came runners’ up in the league with 71 points. The following season Arsenal got 75 points and came 5th. In 2018/19 under Unai Emery we got 70 points, and again came 5th.
So what happened? How was it that we were achieving a similar set of results on the pitch but sliding down the league table and out of the Champions League?
One issue of course can always be the emergence of new teams with new techniques. A perfect example is Leicester’s approach of not getting yellow cards, and it is obviously a technique that has caused a lot of debate. You will perhaps remember our table, very noticeably not picked up by other analysts because of what it reveals.
|Pos||Team||Tackles per foul||Fouls per yellow card|
Leicester get fouls given far less often for tackles than all other teams, and have to commit many more fouls to get a yellow than any other team – a combination that basically has them tackling with impunity. In both cases however Liverpool are not far behind.
Arsenal however have to commit far fewer tackles to get a yellow card than anyone else. As a result the whole approach to defending by Arsenal has been disrupted; the players are nervous to tackle.
So we can see what I am sure you already knew – that suddenly after 2015/16 we were conceding far more goals.
Now the common response to this is that it was because we had a poor defensive line up, and this view obviously made things worse for Arsenal. Defensive players were jeered and criticised, their performance got worse, and incidentally the chances of selling them went down.
But to return to the chart, this decline in the defence, arising with the fact that far more Arsenal tackles resulted in cards than for any other team caused a problem – the players became less likely to tackle, and so more goals were let in. Not huge numbers of goals more (8 more between 2016 and 2017, and then another seven more from 2017 to 2018. Only about one more every four games but clearly enough to lose us points and hence position.
Although it is interesting that despite this problem with being fearful of tackling we actually got only one point fewer in 2018/19 than in 2015/16.
If we assume that there is nothing amiss with the PGMO and its refereeing, and that Arsenal deserve to be penalised for fouls more than most, and have our fouls result in yellow cards more often than any other team, what can we do?
The answer is tackle less often. If on the other hand you were running Leicester and knew this figures (as of course they do) you would tell your team to tackle more and more. Leicester get penalised for tackles far less often than anyone else, and when they are penalised those fouls become yellow cards far less often.
Here is a list of Premier League clubs this season listed in the order of the number of fouls committed. These are Premier League official figures taken from their site. Interestingly they STILL refuse to put up the number of fouls committed by each club, although there is a wealth of other stats on their site.
|3.||West Ham United||547|
|8.||Brighton and Hove Albion||514|
Leicester are doing the obvious thing. They know they don’t get penalised for tackles nearly so often as other clubs, so they tackle more and more and more. Arsenal knowing that they can get penalised for tackling do it less and less. As a result their goals against go up.
The solution of course is either
a) to find defenders who are brilliant at intercepting or
b) find a way of persuading referees to adopt the approach they have to Leicester, when refereeing Arsenal.
c) have midfielders who can get the ball forward very quickly, meaning opposition teams are less likely to push forward in attack.
Of course this is very unsatisfactory since it clearly indicates that Arsenal have to adopt tactics in response to the oddities of PGMO decision making, rather than playing their players’ natural game, but that is the reality. The fact that Liverpool and Manchester City have committed fewer tackles this season than Arsenal, shows this must be possible.
There is however still one danger. If for the moment we accept the hypothetical position that referees are biased against certain teams, if Arsenal do change tactics then so can the referees.
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