How Arsenal challenged referees, by taking the tackle out of their game

By Tony Attwood

If you have been here before you’ll know the story we’ve been following: that last season Mr Arteta dramatically cut the number of tackles that Arsenal put in.   Through doing this he cut the number of fouls given against Arsenal players, and through that, cut the number of yellow cards.

If you’ve not been here, then you probably won’t know it, because no one else has seen fit to run it – at least not in any detail.  As for why they won’t, it seems to be because most publishers think it’s too complicated for football fans to understand.

For Arsenal, tackles last season were down by over 125, fouls were down by over 75, and yellow cards by just under 40 in league games compared with the season before.

In percentage terms that meant yellow cards were 45% lower than the season before.  It was on this basis that the Arsenal revolution was able to been seen through the last two thirds of last season.

In fact Arsenal’s tackles figures have been declining across the last ten years, with the total number of tackles dropping in nine of the last ten years.  As a result last season Arsenal delivered just six tackles for every ten put in, ten years ago.

Unfortunately tackle figures are only available since 2006/7 when Arsenal, far from being the club with the lowest number of tackles, were actually top of the list with an amazing 998 tackles.  Last season it was just 456.

But does this matter?  Well, yes quite a lot, because the tackle is the main way clubs give power to referees. 

Take the tackle out of the game, and the referee’s power to penalise a team is greatly diminished.

So tackling is in decline, but not every club has understood, and so the gap between the team that delivers the most tackles and the team that delivers the least is widening.  Lats season that gap was 284 tackles.

This is because the decline in tackling by the least tackling team has been more dramatic. 10 years ago Wolverhampton, the least tackling team knocked up 619 tackles.  Since 2016/17 the team delivering the least tackles has always put in under 500 tackles.  This last season Arsenal delivered 456 tackles.

So it is not just Arsenal – there is a general trend against tackling, and Arsenal are at the forefront.  At the current rate of decline, in four years time Arsenal won’t be tackling at all!

Season Most tackles Fewest tackles Difference Arsenal Arsenal change from 2011/2
2020/21 740 Leeds 456 Arsenal 284 456 61%
2019/20 742 Leicester 507 Bournemouth 235 584 78%
2018/19 730 Crystal Palace 518 Man City 212 609 81%
2017/18 744 Huddersfield 508 Bournemouth 236 623 83%
2016/17 727 Middlesboro 574 West Ham 153 673 90%
2015/16 871 Liverpool 608 Norwich 263 709 94%
2014/15 824 Newcastle 615 Burnley 209 739 98%
2013/14 848 Liverpool 619 Cardiff 229 714 95%
2012/13 819 Southampton 602 Reading 217 748 99%
2011/12 824 Sunderland 619 Wolves 205 751 100%

But what does this all mean?

The key point is that most tackles result in the giving away of a foul, most of the time.

I say most of the time because in 2019/20 when Leicester reacted against the trend at became the most tackling team since Liverpool in 2015/16, they not only tackled but, for just over half the season they got away with it, tackling more while getting far fewer fouls against them!!

It was coincidentally after Untold pointed this out, that suddenly they started getting double the number of fouls given against them per tackle.

Tackles are declining because almost every tackle results in a foul being given, so the tackle certainly doesn’t give an advantage to the defending team.  Leicester’s ploy was to tackle so often that (they successfully gambled) refs would not feel able to hand out a yellow card for every bad tackle, and so let the club get away with it.

It was an audacious and successful plan, and it is interesting to ponder that if we hadn’t published the figures showing how outrageous Leicester’s tackling had become, how far referees would have permitted Leicester to get.  We broke the story in our article  “How a club can commit the most fouls, but get the fewest yellow cards” and referee behaviour began to change almost immediately.  Some Leicester fans got very angry with that and suggested their tackle rate declined because of player injury, but that was untrue – the dates don’t match at all.  

So Arsenal last season operated at 61% of the tackles of ten years ago for the simple reason that tackles result in fouls most of the time, so give little benefit to the defending team.

I can’t say definitively that this was what caused our dramatic improvement in results in the last two thirds of last season, but if it wasn’t this change, then that decline was one hell of a coincidence.

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