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|
|Brighton & HA||641||628||-2%||385||427||+10%||57||46||-19%|
|West Ham U||696||514||-26%||387||374||-3%||62||48||-23%|
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.
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