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July 2021
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Amazingly, in 2020/1 the more clubs tackled, the more goals they let in!

By Tony Attwood

From the work I have done so far on the issue of the reduction in the number of tackles that many clubs have implemented over the last few years, it struck me that there should be some sort of link between tackles and goals conceded.

And it occurred to me that it would be the opposite of what common sense would suggest.

The common sense approach would suggest that clubs that tackle more would let in fewer goals – after all the tackle is a way of dispossessing the attacker.

However the work we’ve done so far has suggested that tackling has become more and more penalised (I was almost tempted to write “criminalised”) in recent years under the PGMO’s own variant of football rules.  So if you tackle, you give a free kick to the opposition, and after a small number of tackles (now seemingly two) the defender gets a yellow card.  A defender who is used to tackling then has to lay off the tackling for the rest of the game – but now has his main weapon of defence removed, so his side lets in more goals.

Thus the more tackles the club puts in the more goals it concedes… but surely that can’t be right.

In each of the number columns below the first number is the number of tackles or goals conceded and the number in brackets is the position in a league table of this subject.

So in the first line, Arsenal undertook 456 tackles in 2020/21 and were 20th in a league table of tackles – the lowest tackling club.

Arsenal in that same season conceded 39 goals, the third best defence in the league.  So they tackled least and conceded the third lowest number of goals.  The opposite of conventional logic, but in keeping with our exploration of tackles in recent posts.

For comparison I have included two clubs from outside the traditional top six: Leicester and Southampton.   These are interesting because in 2019/20 they were the top and second most tackling clubs.   In 2020/21 they were second and third most tackling team.  (Leeds were the top tackling team).

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And in 2020/21, it is true: the more tackles you do, as a rough and ready rule, the more goals you let in.  The fewer tackles you do the fewer goals you concede.  It’s not exact, but generally clubs near the bottom of the tackling league (Arsenal in 20th, Manchester City in 19th, Liverpool in 15th) the better the defence (Manchester City 1st, Arsenal 3rd, Liverpool 4th)

Club Tackles 2020/21 Goals against 2020/1 Tackles 2019/20 Goals against 2019/20
Arsenal 456 (20th) 39 (3rd) 584 (14th) 48 (8th)
Chelsea 612 (9th) 36 (2nd) 638 (10th) 54 (11th)
Liverpool 526 (15th) 42 (4th) 550 (15th) 33 (1st)
Manchester C 498 (19th) 32 (1st) 514 (19th) 35 (2nd)
Manchester U 551 (13th) 44 (5th) 580 (15th) 36 (3rd)
Tottenham Hot 636 (6th) 45 (6th) 665 (6th) 47 (7th)
Leicester 681 (3rd) 50 (11th) 742 (1st) 41 (6th)
Southampton 727 (2nd) 68 (19th) 706 (2nd) 60 (15th)

But the situation was far less clear in 2019/20.  There is some link, (Manchester City 19th in the tackling league and second bet defence.  But Leicester were top of the tackling league and came sixth in the League.

So that might mean this last season was an aberration or it reflected a change in referee attitudes toward tackling.

At least that is how it seems until we remember that 2019/20 was the season in which Leicester went wild with its tackling, and got very few cards, until suddenly in the latter part of the season, everything turned around and referees seemed to turn on them.   The card level shot up dramatically and they slipped, winning only two of  their last 10 games.

We looked at this in summary last year in the article Leicester’s strange tackle / foul / yellow figures which itself drew on early pieces such as the 6 February article “How a club can commit the most fouls, but get the fewest yellow cards” with a follow up article on 26 February “What is the relationship between fouls, tackles and yellow cards?”

Those articles found that Leicester had a foul given against them every 2.08 tackles.  Other clubs got a foul against them after far fewer tackles.  In Arsenal’s case 1.61 tackles led to a foul being given.  But the most curious thing was that Leicester had to commit nearly twice as many fouls as other clubs to get a yellow card.  9.48 fouls for every card in their case compared with Arsenal on 4.32.  (And as the charts show, Arsenal in these figures were fairly mainstream; it was Leicester that was the outlier).

In short as those two articles showed, at first Leicester had either invented a new form of football, or else they were being treated much more leniently by referees than any other club.

But then it all changed and suddenly Leicester were getting more fouls given against them per tackle and more yellow cards per foul than before.

So maybe Leicester caused a referee re-think.  For half a season they were getting away with tackling at 1950s levels.  Then came the turning point, and now there is a clear link.  Tackle less and you let in fewer goals – exactly the opposite of what one might expect – and the total vindication of Mr Arteta’s drive this last season.

Now it is clear.  Tackle less, concede fewer goals. Mr Arteta has got it right.  But you won’t read about it anywhere else.

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

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