Arteta’s revolution: the secret behind the post-Christmas improvement at AFC

By Tony Attwood

Yellow cards are, to say the least, bloody annoying.   When a player gets one in a match he knows he has to take it easy for the rest of the game for fear of a second.   If he is a defender that can mean him not doing his regular job but instead trying to change his style and back off a little, to avoid the second card.

What’s more a yellow card is not just for the game.  Yellows accumulate.

A player who receives five yellow cards before the 19th match-week gets a one-match ban. 10 yellow cards by the 32nd game and they get a two-match ban.

A total of 15 yellow cards in the duration of the season will result in a three-match ban, which means a player can get lose six matches even without ever being sent off.  Each ban will be served in the Premier League only.

Worse, as a player approaches these milestones he tries to change his natural style, which can reduce the effectiveness of his game.

Here is the yellow card table for the last 10 years showing the team with the most cards, the team with the least cards and then for comparison Arsenal’s yellow card total and the club’s position in the yellow card table.

Season Most Total Least Total Arsenal Arsenal position in yellow card table
2011/12 Chelsea 74 Swansea 40 64 6
2012/13 Stoke city 73 Arsenal 42 42 20
2013/14 Aston Villa 78 Cardiff C 49 53 17
2014/15 Sunderland 94 Swansea 48 68 9
2015/16 Aston Villa 75 Arsenal 40 40 20
2016/17 Watford 84 Bournemouth 52 68 13
2017/18 West Brom 73 Chelsea 42 57 11
2018/19 Watford 77 Liverpool 38 72 4
2019/20 Arsenal 86 Liverpool 38 86 1
2020/21 Sheffeld Utd 73 Liverpool 40 47 17

Now these numbers vary a lot of course, but overall they are within a range that looks consistent: the highest number of cards is between 73 and 86 on all but one occasion when Sunderland imploded.

But let’s just take this last season: the difference between most and least yellows last season (ie Sheffield United and Liverpool was) 33 yellow.   The season before it was 48, which was even higher than the year Sunderland went bonkers with 94 yellows.

That would imply that clubs are changing their styles and approaches to the game all the time.  And certainly if we look at the final column that appears to be true with Arsenal.   This last season we were very near the bottom for yellow cards while the season before we were top.

Now the main way a club gets a yellow is through a foul and as we might expect there is a link between the number of fouls and the number of yellow cards generally.  For example last season Fulham got three more fouls a game than Arsenal (12.7 to 9.1 per game) and 30 more yellow cards than Arsenal (67 to 47).

Put another way Fulham had 40% more fouls awarded against them than Arsenal and 43% more yellow cards awarded against them than Arsenal; thus the ratio is fairly consistent.

Clearly, looking at the chart above, Liverpool have been studying this carefully, and have cut their fouling right down, coming bottom of the chart for yellows for three consecutive years.

Arsenal meanwhile has changed tactics to decline in yellow cards moving from top of the yellow cards table in 2019/20 to three from bottom this season.

But what happened to Arsenal to have such varied yellow cards?

Season Yellow cards Change over previous year Manager
2017/18 57 Wenger
2018/19 72 + 26% Emery
2019/20 86 + 19% Emery/Arteta
2020/21 47 –  55% Arteta

As we can see, under Emery the number of yellows went up.  That could be for any one of several reasons, but I suspect Mr Emery was brought in and not given detailed knowledge of just how the PGMO worked and how refereeing in the Premier League is different from in other leagues. 

If that is the case, and of course it is only speculation on my part, it was a foolish slip by the board of directors.  But it can come about because managers tend to bring in their own people with them to help with training etc. 

And of course Arsenal had not had a new manager for a very long time – the last time it happened was under a totally different board; a board which included one man who knew his football inside out.   If no one was there giving advice to the incoming manager about the unique approach of PGMO, chaos could and indeed did happen.

Of course things got worse in 2019/20 and after Mr Emery left, Mr Arteta had a tough time turning the ship around, and I doubt that trying to cut the number of yellow in that year was his first priority.  In fact I think the policy was introduced at the start of the 2020/1 season, and that explains why Arsenal were so poor at the start of last season; they were adjusting to the new policy of avoiding yellows.

So how did Mr Arteta know of the importance of watching referee behaviour?  Quite simply, because he had played in the Premier League, and he had worked at Manchester City, where yellow cards are regularly low.

Certainly the figures in the second column above are astonishing and I am not sure any club has ever previously dropped its yellow card rate by over half in one season.   But it worked and sacrificing one third of the season for long term gain.


West Ham has now been added to the Arsenal video collection.  Watch highlights of historic games against individual clubs across the years

2 Replies to “Arteta’s revolution: the secret behind the post-Christmas improvement at AFC”

  1. The entire World runs on statistics.

    Sport, business, leisure, everything.

    What I have found is that people tend to deny this when they don’t like what the statistics say.

    Yes of course, when it comes to football statistics aren’t everything and of course they have to be scrutinized to ensure the correct conclusions are drawn.

    For example taking a players ‘Pass completion’ percentage alone, without taking into account the fact he may only pass sideways or backwards as opposed to attempting killer passes is crucial in determining his impact on a game.

    So it’s not black and white, but by and large a player with a 90% pass completion is going to be a better player than one with a 50% pass completion.

    So statistics are not infallible but they are a very good indicator if used properly.

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