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“Arteta’s making unusual decisions”. How Keown was more right than he knew

By Tony Attwood

What Arteta did last season at Arsenal was little short of a miracle.  He completely changed the style of playing of the defence resulting in the fact that Arsenal could tackle more before committing a foul, and foul more before getting a yellow card.  It was a complete reversal of what had been happening, and allowed the club to make major steps up the table.  

But because the journalists, commentators and bloggers who cover the games could not see or at least could not understand what was going on (mostly because of their fear of or inability to read statistics) they refused to accept even the evidence of their own eyes!

Thus what they saw and what they reported was not a major tactical victory, but something so unexpected and so inexplicable that the only response they had was total and utter denial.

Now I am going to be cautious in claiming too much credit here.  We were reporting on the tackles, fouls and yellow card stats from the start of the season, but not because we thought Mr Arteta was about the work a miracle.  Rather it was because we had spotted Leicester’s very dodgy tactical change the season before.  So we were taken by surprise, but at least we noticed.  Hardly anyone else did.

But so huge was the change that Arteta demanded, it took a while to get right, and by December 2020 Arsenal looked as if they were getting themselves into a situation where relegation for the first time since 1913 was a real possibility.  The level of tackles, fouls and cards were down, but the results were really poor.

Of course the journalists had no such worries; stats never bother them.  “The evidence of my own eyes” is enough for these stout fellows.  The team was rubbish, the manager was out of his depth.  And that is what the journalists told us.  In no uncertain terms.

On 22 December Arsenal lost 4-1 to Manchester City which made it one win in the last seven games in all competitions, giving people with long memories thoughts of the one win in 14 in the autumn of 1974.

On 23 December Goal.com ran the headline “‘Arteta is making really unusual decisions’ – Arsenal boss cannot afford any more mistakes,’ says Keown.”  Our Martin added “The support base around the manager has got to help him when it comes to every single decision.  I was screaming at the telly last night….  At the moment, the club feels like it’s in free fall.”

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“Feels” is probably the key word here, because it was an emotional response, not one based on analysis beyond the obvious, and we all love Martin because on the pitch he could be so emotional.

So what were Arteta’s unusual decisions

Tackles per season

  • 2018/19: (Emery): 609 tackles in league games.
  • 2019/20: (Emery /Arteta): 584 tackles in league games (96% of previous season).
  • 2020/21: (Arteta): 456 tackles in league games (78% of previous season).

What we can see is that Arteta didn’t change the tactics too much when he took over part way through 2019/20.  Indeed changing a major tactic like tackling part way through a season is never a good idea.

But the return to training prior to the 2020/21 season gave him the chance to put his plan into action and by the end of this last season, tackling was running at a rate 22% lower than in the previous season.  A staggering tactical change.

The trouble was that the first third of the 2020/1 season was a time of fulsome adjustment to the new regime.  The players took the tackling rate right down from the 16 a game as it was in Emery’s full season to under 11 a game by 19 December 2020.  After this there was a slight easing of the policy and by the end of the season the numbers had edged up slightly to 12 tackles a game but still way down on the 16 per game in the full Emery season.

Date Tackles T per game Fouls Tackles per foul Yellow cards Y per game Fouls per yellow
19 Dec 2020 152 10.85 130 1.17 19 2.00 6.84
2020/21 456 12.00 345 1.32 47 1.24 7.34

But although the number of tackles had edged up slightly the number of tackles players could get away with per foul was also up from 1.17 to 1.32.  Better still the number of yellow cards per game went down massively, while the number of fouls players could commit before getting a yellow card went up.

It is a staggering set of changes, and was everything that Arsenal wanted.  They could tackle slightly more without worrying about having fouls given against them, and they could do so while getting fewer yellow cards.

The Emery tactics had been overturned, and Arsenal were no longer in freefall.

It really is a huge shame that most bloggers and journalists won’t touch statistics with a barge pole because these figures tell us everything that was going on.  

There are three reasons why the media won’t run the story above. First, the story of the Arsenal manager being in freefall is the story they like.  Second, most journalists I know are very unhappy with statistics, and hide this by saying that readers don’t like statistics.   Third the long-term anti-Arsenal bias in the media that we have noted since we started, is still there.

But if you want a reason to be cheerful this summer, just look at the change that came over the team after 19 December.  Arteta had been working all the way through to get this tactical change to happen, and finally it worked.  No wonder our results improved so dramatically.

7 comments to “Arteta’s making unusual decisions”. How Keown was more right than he knew

  • Wildphil

    If our tactics are to include a limited amount of tackling there are of both tactical and PGMO refereeing questions arising from this.

    The referees can still allow the opposition to tackle (and foul) with impunity and without a balance of tackling by the Arsenal they will say they are applying the laws evenly. So will the PGMO continue to shift the balance in our games?

    Will the opposition use the ‘weakness’ in limited tackling and be more direct in running into our box and also be able to exploit our likely inability to recover the ball up front and in midfield.

    The successful teams this year including both Chelsea and Man City are very aggressive in ball recovery and tackling how can we beat these teams if we use limited tackling?

    Also when we are back in the stadium and the opposition is ‘in our face’ will the crowd be happy for us not to return any level of fair aggression?

    Does anyone have the tactical solutions to these questions?

  • Steve Vallins

    Tony I do think expectations by the fans were very high for MA after we won the FA Cup , no one knew what influences certain players were having in the dressing room , along with what he was trying to change in the way he wanted Arsenal to play .
    The changes he was trying to make took a time to work along with younger fearless players coming into the side . I agree with you that the less Arsenal players tackled the opposition the less chance there was of a yellow card coming out which also allowed them a few more fouls before a yellow card was actually issued by the referee .
    As always lm optimistic for the future with no doubt a few players leaving and a few coming in , and again IMO the unbalance squad MA inherited it was always going to take time which I really hope he will be given

  • Andrew Banks

    Blah blah blah. The media, media, media. Satanic.

    Nonsense, baloney, bullshit

    You are obsessed.

  • Well thank you for that insight Andrew Banks. I would argue that I write about the media because they are not mentioning what seems to me to be the key issues of the moment: the transformation of Arsenal defensive policy by reducing tackles, the transformation of Arsenal from a team performing close to the relegation level to a team performing at top four level, and the team with the third best defence in the league.
    Now these seem to me to be the key issues of moment, and the media don’t agree, so I write about that.
    But then one could also say that the media are obsessed by transfers – since that is all they write about.
    or one could say that you are obsessed with my writing, since you clearly don’t accept what I say but a) you keep on reading and b) you take the time to write.
    One man’s research project is another mans obsession.

  • Michaealaa

    I think you are very objective and are clearly dealing with facts.well done

  • Emilio Zorlakki

    I must confess that I did notice a reduction in fouls and yellow cards, but didn’t appreciate the drastic change in statistics. Arteta has certainly been annoyed at the players who have received 2 Yellows, as well as unnecessary Red Cards. Your comments have given me plenty of food for thought Tony, because I never considered this to be such a major factor in the season. Like most people, I truly believed that the lack of creativity in midfield by not playing Ozil was the significant problem. Perhaps, Arteta was promised a player and it did not materialise. Smith Rowe’s introduction saw a massive increase in early passes ,movement from him off the ball, as well as his excellent vision and creativity.

    Arteta lost me with both Villarreal games, but my head tells me to be calm and wait for the summer transfer activity. I think, like his mentor Guardiola, Arteta overthinks strategies and has a bit of an ego issue. I hope that he learns from that, because egoistic managers normally end in failure.

  • Sammy The Snake

    Thank you for supporting the manager, whoever may be.