By Sir Hardly Anyone
Ask most people what they thought of maths at school and they will tell you it was boring. Or they hated it. Of course some quite liked it, but these people generally keep quiet about that, because they get to be called nerds and are told (by people who have no understanding of maths at all) that “you can prove anything with statistics”.
So that chart that we produced which compared tackles, fouls and yellow cards for each team that played in the Premier League both in 2020/1 and the season before, probably made many journalists and bloggers turn away at once.
Which is a shame because the table tracking tackles, fouls and yellow cards between the two seasons tells us a lot about club development and tells us what is going to happen next.
Stats without maths
And so important do I think that table’s messages that I thought I would try and explain what makes it so important, without including all the maths.
In 2019/20 Arsenal received more yellow cards than any other club. A lot more in fact: more than two a game. Which meant that in every match we had two or more players being ultra-careful, knowing that one more mistake and they would be off.
And that was because players are not treated equally by referees. Having given a man a yellow refs instinctively watch that player more closely. The player is more cautious, and so misses tackles he might otherwise have tried. The defensive plan goes.
So the system changed and as a result the number of tackles Arsenal put in dropped, the number of fouls given against the team dropped and amazingly the number of yellow cards came down almost by half.
It took the players a while to get used to this new approach, and that explains the poor first third of the season. But now the approach has been learned and as long as Arsenal can hold onto the players who learned it we will take the benefit of this change into next season.
Better still, this change was achieved while making the Arsenal defence the third best in the League…
So what we have are TWO incredible factors going on. Our defence was the third best in the league, and that was achieved after an awful start as the defence was getting used to the new system. I don’t think any club has pulled off such a dramatic drop in yellow cards while improving the defence, at the same time.
Of course others did notice what Arsenal were up to. In fact just over half of the PL clubs reduced their tackles this past season, although only two did it by over 10%. Arsenal in fact cut their tackles by 22%.
Seven out of the 17 clubs that played in the PL both in 2019/20 and 2020/1 managed to cut their fouls total. Arsenal cut by 18% – as did Everton. Liverpool cut theirs by 12%. Other changes were modest.
As a result of these tactical changes 12 of the 17 clubs to play both seasons in the PL cut their yellow card rate. But none of these got even half way to Arsenal’s amazing drop in yellow cards – down by 45%.
So obviously Arsenal were not alone realising that cutting tackles was the key. But what Arsenal did was take themselves from being the yellow card kings in 2019/20 (with 86 cards – more than double Leicester’s level), down to 47 cards.
Interestingly as Arsenal’s yellow cards came DOWN by 45%, Leicester’s actually went up by 49% and I’ll take up that tale a little later. But although the numbers may look complex, the point (constantly ignored by the media who claim to be full of “experts”) is that a huge change took place last season with a number of clubs seeking to adjust their play in the light of the way referees were behaving.
But only four clubs were able to cut tackles, fouls and yellow cards in large numbers in one season. Three other clubs did it (Burnley, Palace and West Ham) but that’s all, and their numbers were much smaller than Arsenal’s.
So now to the key point.
This sort of change does not come easy – players have to be taught the new system and coached to cut out the habits they have gathered over the years. And as any psychologist working in the field will tell you, habits are incredibly easy to pick up and incredibly hard to drop.
That’s why it took Mr Arteta a whole year (from December 2019 to December 2020) to get the players to play the way he wanted. Then it all started to click.
So what of the future? If we get rid of half of the defence (keeper, back four and defensive midfield) as the media demand, we will be back to where we were in December 2019, and Mr Arteta will have to start teaching the defenders not to tackle, all over again.
That is the great danger that the statistics-deniers pose. Their current campaign for more and more Arsenal signings (who will of course be players not used to the “cut tackles, cut fouls” approach) will mean we get stuck in Groundhog Day, bringing in new players, teaching them about PGMO and getting them to cut tackles, and thus fouls and thus yellows.
So who would want to throw away this stunning tactical achievement which has had such success since last Christmas?
The only answers I can find are a) people who don’t understand that there is more to playing football than kicking a ball and b) people who want Arsenal to fail.
- A bumper summer for Arsenal: 39 players arriving, 18 going.
- How Arsenal used research into ref behaviour to rise up the league
- Arsenal’s yellow cards dropped by 45% last season. How? Why? And how did it help?
- How far down might these points deducations take clubs?
- Big clubs that foul less lose fewer players of their own to injury
- What takes clubs up and down the league: attack or defence?
- Referee Extremism: the situation in Spain and in England
- Didn’t appreciate KO time, M1 is a disaster, but watching Arsenal is a joy