How tackling is changing in the PL and how it is affecting clubs’ position in the league

By Tony Attwood

Although you wouldn’t know it from the coverage in the media, the mundane, everyday tackle in Premier League football has become something of a focal point for clubs in recent years.

A successful tackle of course means taking the ball off the opposition, and launching a counter attack.  A foul tackle means giving the opposition a chance to get what could be a very valuable free kick in a threatening position with defenders ten yards away and still taking up positions.  Thus the outcome in terms of whether the ref calls foul or not can be very significant.

So tackling is a chancy business – get it right and you’re away on the counter, taking the opposition by surprise, get it wrong and you’re in deeper difficulty than you were if you just had a player standing in front of the opponent with the ball, harrying him into a poor pass.

I’m not sure anyone has looked at this before, so Untold has looked at the teams that have been in the PL for each year over the last ten years to see first, if there has there been a change year on year on the number of tackles a team can make before a foul is called.

The table shows tackles per foul by club by season.  I have marked the lowest number of tackles per foul in red and the highest number in black for each team by year.   Also the average across all teams is seen in the final column.

Club 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21 Av.
Arsenal 2.01 2.08 2.05 1.96 2.03 1.70 1.63 1.48 1.39 1.32 1.75
Chelsea 1.73 1.91 1.75 1.99 1.94 1.65 1.75 1.82 1.65 1.41 1.76
Everton 1.39 1.74 2.04 1.69 2.32 1.55 1.40 1.62 1.42 1.66 1.65
Liverpool 1.99 2.14 2.07 2.07 2.06 1.81 1.85 1.94 1.66 1.33 1.89
Man City 1.81 1.54 1.92 1.69 1.78 1.63 1.64 1.58 1.42 1.38 1.64
Man Utd 2.19 2.02 1.69 1.63 1.61 1.39 1.40 1.34 1.34 1.22 1.56
Tottenham 2.16 2.18 1.86 1.85 1.78 1.53 1.61 1.67 1.57 1.45 1.75
All PL teams 1.85 1.83 1.78 1.71 1.80 1.52 1.59 1.66 1.52 1.43 1.67

Two points jump out.

First the highest number of tackles per foul for all the clubs come in the earlier years.  Refs are getting tougher.

Second all but one of the lowest number of tackles per foul come in this past season.  Only Everton haven’t got the message and changed their style.

But despite the raw data being available, I don’t think commentators pick up on these figures.  Certainly newspaper “experts” don’t.

But the implication is clear.  The clubs have realised referees are more inclined to give tackles as fouls, and so are cutting their tackles.  Arsenal’s tackles are running at 63% of ten years ago.

In fact of the 17 teams who were in the Premier League both in 2019/20 and 2020/21 only three increased their tackling: Villa, Sheffield United and Southampton.  None, I would argue, did that well.

Leading the reduction in tackling was West Ham who reduced tackling by a whopping 182 tackles and their league position rose from 16th to 6th.  Second came Arsenal with 128 fewer.   Third was Newcastle down 91, and fourth Leicester down 61.  Fifth Wolverhampton down 58 and sixth Palace down 50.

Now you could say that reducing the tackling by 128 tackles hasn’t done Arsenal any good – we were 8th two years ago, and 8th this last season as well.  But as our analysis of last season showed, Arsenal were 15th in the league after one third of the season, but 2nd in the league across the last two thirds.    Just reducing tackles doesn’t take a club up the league at once – it takes time for defenders to get used to the new style – and that’s a problem because football journalists (and some fans) make judgements only over the last few matches.

What clubs need to do, in order to get the rewards from not tackling, is to stay with it for several seasons – which means keeping a fairly stable squad, and bringing defenders into the first team slowly, once they have learned not to tackle.  Bringing in 32 year olds to bolster the defence as clubs used to do, is no longer a viable option.

In this regard Arsenal are helped by having a number of defenders who have been at the club a while and have settled into the team, but are still young enough to learn new ways.  This in fact is the ideal for a transition period: defenders in their mid-20s who have been at the club for a while.  That’s what we have.

Here is the tackle table

Club 2019-20 tackles 19/20 tackle pos 2020-21 tackles 20/21  tackle pos Tackles up or down? Change number Change pos
Arsenal 584 6 456 1 Down 128 2
Manchester City 514 1 498 2 Down 16 12
Burnley 547 3 507 3 Down 40 7
Newcastle United 603 7 512 4 Down 91 3
West Ham United 696 15 514 5 Down 182 1
Liverpool 550 4 526 6 Down 24 11
Aston Villa 523 2 530 7 Up
Manchester U 580 5 551 8 Down 29 9
Wolverhampton 646 11 588 10 Down 58 5
Chelsea 638 9 612 12 Down 26 10
Brighton and H 641 10 628 13 Down 13 13
Sheffield United 611 8 634 14 Up
Crystal Palace 686 14 636 15 Down 50 6
Tottenham Hot 665 12 636 16 Down 29 9
Everton 671 13 640 17 Down 31 8
Leicester City 742 17 681 18 Down 61 4
Southampton 706 16 727 19 Up

Every club except three took their tackling rates down – which given the decision of PGMO to penalise tackles makes sense.

Footnote: These two charts took ages to compile (in that at the start we didn’t know it was tackling that was at the heart of current changes) and so for once we’re overtly saying they are (c) copyright Untold Arsenal 2021.  You’re free to quote from the charts, but if doing so, please mention that it came from Untold Arsenal

Particular thanks to James Curtis of Curtis Associates Research for preparing the data.

Tackles, fouls and yellow cards.  These figures are truly weird.

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