Arsenal’s yellow cards dropped by 45% last season. How? Why? And how did it help?

By Tony Attwood


In 2020/21 Arsenal reduced their yellow card tally for the season by almost half  compared with the season before, cutting the number of cards received from 86 down to 47.  It was an extraordinary achievement by Mr Arteta, and was an approach that clearly took a while for the players to get right – thus explaining in art why the start of the 2020/21 season was so poor, but the last two-thirds were so good. 

In comparison, 2019/20 saw Arsenal way above most other teams for receiving yellow cards from referees, with only Tottenham Hotspur being near them with 82 cards.  Interestingly, the top four card receivers that season were all southern teams (Arsenal, Tottenham, Watford, Bournemouth), fuelling the view that the long-standing PGMO bias toward northern referees was still having an effect.

But that bias we have noted before.  My point is that this season just finished, as opposed to 2019/20,  Arsenal reduced their tackling rate by 22%.  This cut the number of fouls given against them by 18% and that reduced the number of yellow cards by an astonishing 45%.

These figures are way out of line with virtually every other team.  And the magnitude of the change that Mr Arteta imposed on the team does explain why the first third of Arsenal’s season was so poor; they were learning a new approach to handling referees.

The change in style and approach imposed by Mr Arteta to counteract the flood of yellow cards made Arsenal the lowest tackling team in the League in 2020/21.  (Incidentally, West Ham tried a similar tactic and they had their most successful season since 1986.)

Of course, there is not an absolute link between tackles and fouls, but tackling is by far the most common form of fouling, so it is not surprising that as Arsenal’s tackles went down by 22% and so their foul rate went down 18%.  As a result of this, Arsenal’s counterattacks were far less often stopped by the referee’s whistle.

But it wasn’t only Arsenal that cut the number of tackles.  Of the 17 teams measured (I have excluded the clubs that did not play in the PL for both of the last two seasons) all except two reduced the number of tackles, suggesting that PGMO warned the clubs before the season started that they were going to come down harder on tackling.

As a result, only Leicester, Liverpool and Sheffield United saw their yellow card rate rise, and here Leicester is the special case.   While Arsenal cut their yellow card rate by 45%, Leicester’s yellow card rate went up by 49%!!!  I’ll return to this shortly, but if you want to see what has been going on, and how, maybe, just perhaps, Untold really has, (pretty much on its own), called this right all the way through, you might enjoy the first article on this topic “How a club can commit the most fouls but get the fewest yellow cards.

I’ll do further analysis and commentary in the next article or two but here’s one conclusion…

We know Mr Arteta changed the team’s style on the pitch this season, and these figures show it.  They also show the incredible benefit the team got from this change – and the turnaround in the league table across the last two-thirds of the season reflects that. 

Now we are starting to see how he did it – and from this can see why a wholesale change of players would be an utter disaster at this stage.

Here are the figures…

Team Tackles 2019/20 Tackles 2020/21 Change Fouls 2019/20 Fouls 2020/21 Change Yellow 2019/20 Yellow 2020/21 Change
Arsenal 584 456 -22% 421 345 -18% 86 47 -45%
Aston Villa 523 530 +1% 451 439 -3% 68 63 -7%
Brighton & HA 641 628 -2% 385 427 +10% 57 46 -19%
Burnley 547 507 -7% 412 384 -7% 67 48 -28%
Chelsea 638 612 -4% 386 433 +12% 60 50 -17%
Crystal Palace 686 636 -7% 425 409 -4% 62 54 -13%
Everton 671 640 -5% 472 386 -18% 70 59 -16%
Leicester City 742 681 -8% 418 416 0% 41 61 +49%
Liverpool 550 526 -4% 331 396 +19% 38 40 +5%
Manchester C 514 498 -3% 361 361 0% 60 46 -23%
Manchester U 580 551 -5% 433 452 +4% 73 64 -12%
Newcastle U 603 512 -17% 370 388 +5% 66 61 -8%
Sheffield United 611 634 +4% 410 459 +12% 61 73 +20%
Southampton 706 727 +3% 450 426 -5% 53 52 0%
Tottenham Hot 665 636 -4% 423 439 +4% 82 53 -35%
West Ham U 696 514 -26% 387 374 -3% 62 48 -23%
Wolverhampton 646 588 -9% 406 425 +5% 57 53 -7%

However, there is a real danger here.   My argument is that the poverty of Arsenal’s results in the first third of the season came as a result of a completely new style of play was being introduced.   One that dramatically cut the tackles and hence fouls and hence yellow cards.

And in this regard one should never underestimate the effect of the yellow card, for the defender on a yellow is always conscious that one more slip means he is off.  A yellow card creates a vulnerability.

But players have to be coached into this style of play PGMO wants, and so the wholesale removal of players from the Arsenal team who have learned this way of coping with PGMO officials would mean another long delay in getting back to this level of performance that saw us do so well in the second two-thirds of the season.

This is why the endlessly growing list of players said to be coming and going this summer is a real danger to Arsenal.  We need to keep the team together not just because they did so well after Christmas but also because players are being asked to play in a style somewhat different from other teams.

Wholesale changes could be a catastrophe.

More on this later.

Now the media are getting desperate in their battle against Arsenal

2 Replies to “Arsenal’s yellow cards dropped by 45% last season. How? Why? And how did it help?”

  1. I have followed this hypothesis for some time and happen to agree with it. But I just had a worrying thought.

    I’ve been inclined to believe (without evidence) that in the past, referees have been more prone to give bookings if we’ve been doing well to put us on the back foot and reduce our prospects. It was pretty certain that we weren’t going to achieve anything this season by at least half way through so perhaps the refs just eased off. If we continue our improvement into next season and start appearing towards the top of the table, they may just start to take notice and take action.
    A scary thought………………..

  2. I agree with Mikey that if we show signs of being successful we may feel the full weight of Riley’s wrath in our direction.
    Another thing regarding yellow cards, we often seem to attract them earlier in the game than our opponents who frequently get a couple of cards late in the game which gives the false impression that the ref has acted fairly and without favouring either side.

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