How Arsenal’s 40% decline in tackling over the past five years has sparked the revival

By Tony Attwood

To summarise where we have got to… five years ago several clubs began finally to realise that there were two factors in each football match that they had not been taking into account in the past, but which if taken into account, could give them the edge.

One was which referee they had, and the other was how to handle the dodgy referees who seemed to more favourable to some clubs than others.

By 2018 at Untold we were sure enough of where things were going the situation to publish  “How four clubs commit fouls with impunity, while others constantly get punished” and it that article hit the nail.

Our further piece of research under the headline Shocking new referee statistics suggest outright bias against Arsenal showed exactly how referee bias against Arsenal works.

Some referees penalise Arsenal players far more than others – that is shown in the statistics.   That’s bad enough, but what we have also shown in that article is that PGMO have ensured that Arsenal get the referees who penalise us the most, over and over again.  This is possible in the Premier League, because unlike all the other major leagues in Europe, in the PL the number of referees is kept artificially low, and instead of limiting how often each referee can oversee each club to two games a season, there is no limit.  We get the dodgy buggers over and over again.

However all clubs know that fighting PGMO is not possible without the agreement of the whole league, and of course the clubs that benefit from PGMO activities will never agree.  So a different tactic has been needed.

As the chart below (which was published as part of the series of earlier articles) reveals, several clubs decided they had had enough of being at the mercy of dubious refereeing, and started to change their style of play to beat the refereeing tactics.  At the heart of this was the ploy of cutting tackles.

Alongside this came the notion of putting a greater emphasis on young players who were less set in their ways, and so more able to adapt to the new “don’t tackle” reality.

The decline in tackling over the past five seasons has been dramatic, and for ease of reference in what follows I repeat yesterday’s chart showing the decline…

Number of tackles per season with decline measured across the six seasons

  2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/21 Decline
Arsenal manager Wenger Wenger Wenger Emery Em/Lj/Ar Arteta
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%

It is clear that even prior to 2015/16 Mr Wenger realised that penalising tackling was the PGMO weapon of choice against Arsenal, and as we see, by 2015/16 Arsenal were considerably below other clubs in the number of tackles the club was undertaking in a season.

Other clubs followed the ploy but by 2018/9 there was a feeling among some clubs that the bottom had been reached, and indeed Leicester, along with Tottenham and Manchester United then changed policy, successfully taking other clubs and referees unaware.

But the referees caught up and Leicester and Man U once again reduced tackling in 2020/21, so that all clubs in the list above have overall reduced tackling by between a quarter and two thirds in the past six years.  Only Tottenham with their regular changing of managers stayed at the 2016/17 level.

The decline of tackling has worked.  In 2020/21 there were 1095 yellow cards handed out in the Premier League.  In 2016/17 there had been 1315.  A decline of 16%.  Over the same period tackles declined 22%.  Cut tackles and you cut yellow cards, although interestingly the decline in tackling hasn’t made much difference to the number of goals scored.

In 2020/21 there were 1024 goals scored in the Premier League.   In 2016/17 there were 1064.  30 goals fewer across 380 games.   One goal fewer every 13 games.  Nothing at all in fact.

So, cut out tackling, cut down on yellow cards, virtually no effect on goals but partially overcome referee bias in terms of handing out fouls and yellows.

And when Arsenal under Mr Arteta got their new system thoroughly working at an even higher level than before, by Christmas 2020, the results were there for all to see.

And yet, and yet… no one else is mentioning this.  It is a subject utterly forbidden in blogs and the general media.   Just as is the difference in the ways refs treat different clubs.   Why is that?

The policy of ignoring a subject totally, thus suggesting it is ludicrous or irrelevant, is well know to those who study human interactions.  It is known as Gaslighting.  If you are interested in it both generally and in relation to football this series might be of interest…

Gaslighting: how refereeing in the Premier League is manipulated, and why the media never speak about it.

4 Replies to “How Arsenal’s 40% decline in tackling over the past five years has sparked the revival”

  1. Maybe we should stop passing as well. Or how about not taking corners. What a stupid article

  2. Excellent article. I always taught the tackle was the last choice. Maybe being American I saw this differently, but you can’t actually defend while your on the ground(arse) . As I took the lessons of basketball of moving your feet kinda of shuffling side to side. I. believed just as your study found that giving up penalties near your goal isn’t a good idea as it gives not only a unnecessary opportunity but also gives the other a sense of belief. Great to these numbers broken down.

  3. Ted Christman

    “I always thought the tackle was the last choice”.

    Spot on. As a player due to injury I changed mid career from a ‘nippy winger’ to a ‘slow fullback’. As a winger I wanted my marker to ‘dive in’ or try to tackle me. Ok he may win the ball but if he doesn’t, as you say most of the time he will end up on his backside and I was in. When I dropped to full back I knew the last thing the winger wanted was me simply refusing to ‘commit myself’. I saw it as absolutely crucial that I stood on my feet. This doesn’t mean I never ‘tackled’ or ‘went to ground’ but it was a last, often desperate measure.

    But the thing with standing on your feet and not ‘diving in’ is that it’s hard work. As I say I don’t have an issue with the ‘tackle’ or even ‘diving in’, sometimes you have no choice. Desperate situations can call for desperate measures. What drives me crazy is when I see a defender dive in unnecessarily because he’s just being lazy. He couldn’t be asked to stay on his feet, shepherd the attacker and do his job. It’s all about a work ethic and it seems Arteta is instilling the necessary work ethic required to cut down on tackles and remain on your feet until the opposition either runs out of ideas, gets desperate themselves and effectively give you the ball back.

    It’s not rocket science it’s hard work.

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