How Arsenal learned from PGMO and so climbed the table after Christmas

By Tony Attwood

In my reviews of this last season, I have made much of the fact that Arsenal cut their yellow card rate by almost half compared with the previous season, while cutting their tackling rate considerably.

But I wanted to go further and see how Arsenal’s figures compared both to Arsenal’s past record for tackles and yellow cards and how it compared with the rest of the traditional top six.   I also thought I would look at Leicester, because they had at one stage bucked the trend and gone in for tackling on an industrial scale.

Percentage of tackles that get a yellow card

In football – especially at the highest level, where players are highly trained expert athletes, clubs have a choice in the way that they play.

And as I have often said, last season, Arsenal went wholesale into the business of cutting tackles.  And they were not the only ones.  In fact the level of tackling in 2020/21 across the traditional top six, plus Leicester, was 40% lower than it was in 2015/16.

Indeed for Arsenal between 2015/16 and 2020/21 the decline has been even greater.  Last season we undertook 55% fewer tackles than in 2015/16.  A decline of over half in just five years.

Interestingly, the decline in tackling can be seen in all clubs – although not by the same amount.  Liverpool have led the way cutting tackling by 66%, Arsenal are second on 55%.  Tottenham, Leicester and Chelsea have all declined but by between 27 and 29%.

Tackling is interesting because the ratio of tackles to fouls is very low – normally about 1.2, so in essence if a team commits six tackles it will probably give away five fouls.  Not really worth doing in fact.

As if that were not bad enough, anything between 6% and 13% of tackles committed by the clubs I’ve been looking at (traditional top six and Leicester) result in a yellow card.  In short, almost all the time the other team gets a free kick and something around 10% of the time the player gets a yellow.  Tackles should in fact be abandoned, providing an alternative approach can be found.

Now Arsenal suffered from that problem with a vengeance in recent years because across recent years the number of tackles that turned into a yellow card has grown – until this last season when Mr Arteta put a stop to it.

Percentage of tackles that got a yellow card

2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/1
Arsenal 6% 10% 8% 12% 15% 6%
Chelsea 7% 10% 7% 8% 9% 8%
Leicester 5% 11% 8% 8% 9% 9%
Liverpool 7% 8% 7% 6% 7% 8%
Man C 8% 11% 10% 8% 12% 9%
Man U 9% 11% 11% 13% 13% 12%
Tottenham 9% 9% 8% 11% 12% 8%

If you look at the Arsenal line you will see that the percentage of Arsenal tackles that got a yellow card increased year on year from 2015/16 to 2019/20, so that by that year Arsenal every six or seven tackles would mean a yellow card.

This figure was frightening because a) no one knew how far PGMO would take this, and b) while all clubs were getting a higher percentage of yellow cards from tackles Arsenal figures were way in front of others.

So drastic measures were called for and Arsenal moved from having 15% of their tackles getting a yellow card down to 6%.  In fact they moved from having the highest percentage down to the lowest percentage in one season.  An amazing achievement, although the side-effect was a disastrous first third to the season (up to Christmas) as the players came to terms with the new approach.

In fact all the seven clubs in our analysis have cut their tackling across the years, as they have all been perfectly aware of what game PGMO is playing with the rules.   But two clubs stand out way above the rest in this move.

Figures in brown are the lowest in the column, figures in black the highest.

2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/1 Decline
Arsenal 709 673 623 609 584 456 55%
Chelsea 790 652 636 618 638 612 29%
Man U 760 690 564 581 580 551 38%
Man C 729 643 563 518 514 498 46%
Liverpool 871 719 637 610 550 526 66%
Tottenham 805 661 618 626 665 636 27%
Leicester 869 677 630 676 742 681 28%
Total tackles 5533 4715 4271 4238 4723 3960 40%

The bottom line of that table (total tackles) shows how tackles have declined for these seven clubs by 40% over the six years.  The last column on the right (Decline) shows how much the club has reduced its tackling between 2015/16 and 2020/21.

Liverpool have cut their tackling by two thirds, and Arsenal by just over half.

Further  in the last two seasons we have seen the gap between the tackling sides (Leicester, Tottenham and Chelsea) and the seriously non-tackling sides (Liverpool and Arsenal) widen.  In these six years Arsenal and Liverpool have cut their tackling by over half, Chelsea, Tottenham and Leciester on the other hand by just under a quarter.

One tactical change, meaning that Arsenal now get far fewer yellow cards and give away far fewer free kicks to the opposition.

Ignored by most commentators of course, because, well, this is Arsenal, and besides most commentators think that fans are far to stupid to understand statistics.

Arsenal against the Media


One Reply to “How Arsenal learned from PGMO and so climbed the table after Christmas”

  1. Interesting. Two thoughts:

    1. Is reducing tackling really just a reflection of the fact that these teams are having (even) more possession than in the past? No need to tackle if the opposition doesn’t have the ball. It would be interesting to know if ALL (or at least, most) PL teams have reduced tackles; if so, it would suggests a very definite tactical change right through the division.

    2. If it is a genuine tactical change, then what replaces tackling? Getting goal side and just shepherding opponents and/or closing them down without actually putting a foot in, but forcing opponents to play backwards or sideways? There does seem to be a lot of that in football now.

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