By Tony Attwood
Something odd is happening. In the opening game Man U committed just six tackles. Last season their average was 15 tackles a game!
Tackles are the biggest cause of fouls being awarded on the pitch, and fouls are the biggest source of yellow cards. Yellow cards are one of the main ways of diminishing a team’s ability to defend, because the defenders are much more nervous about what they do next for fear of a second yellow.
Last season after the first couple of games Everton were top of the league (they ended the season in 10th). Arsenal were third (we finished 8th). Crystal Palace were fifth (they concluded the campaign in 14th). Indeed I feel so sorry for those Tottenham fans celebrating yesterday. Judging by last season that could be as good as it gets.
But if the actual league position after one or two games doesn’t tell us where we are likely to end up, is there anything indicated by the first game?
Obviously a lot of our correspondents think there is, since they are calling for immediate and massive changes to Arsenal – but that might not be the best way forward. Because where tactics change it can take a few games to get them right.
The table below shows the tackles for the one game this season, and in the “Difference” column, we show if the club increased tackling in the opening game or reduced it in comparison with last season.
To do this we compared the average tackles per game last season for each club with the tackles in the first match. We also added the number of yellow cards last season for comparison. Some results are extraordinary.
So this table is in the order of the number of tackles undertaken in this weekend’s games…
|Rank||Club||Tackles 2021/22||Average 2020/21||Difference||Yellow 2020/21|
|3.||West Ham United||23||14||+9||48|
|10.||Brighton and Hove Albion||16||17||-1||46|
Overall there were 11 more tackles than the average last season, which is around half a tackle per club. So the average hardly changes.
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But much more to the point several clubs have changed their tactics dramatically.
Manchester United reduced their tackling from an average of 15 per game last season to six in the opening game – which looks like a massive tactical change.
Crystal Palace have cut tackling by six, suggesting that our Patrick has taken a look at Palace’s tackling ability and told them to cut it out.
West Ham, looking to build on last season’s success now look as if “adding some steel” to the performance is the order of the day with the tackling rate going up by nine – the highest increase, and given what happened last season, that could be a huge mistake.
But what is particularly interesting is the gap between top and bottom. Three clubs look like they realise that in a league where referees can blow the whistle at will and penalise as they wish, tackling is dangerous. Tackles lead to fouls which lead to yellow cards which lead to players playing with caution and in the end missing games.
So why these changes? Well, last season Manchester United got more yellows than any club other than two of the relegated teams. Now they have clearly taken a new track.
All the clubs that got over 60 yellow cards are in bold in the final column, and immediately we see a tendency for them to be in the bottom section of the chart, suggesting that they have looked at the number of yellows they got last season, and realised the connection with tackling, and decided to follow Arsenal’s lead in cutting tackling from their game.
But Manchester United’s retreat from tackling is extraordinary – I am not sure I have ever seen a change like it, other than Arsenal’s. Which suggests that Mr Arteta’s tactical approach has indeed be noticed, and one or two clubs are able to see the benefit.
At this rate Manchester United will engage in 342 fewer tackles this season than last in an effort to rid themselves of yellow cards and so take on Manchester City with their full squad, rather than regularly having several players missing or playing a restricted game for fear of another yellow.
Arsenal’s dramatic drop in tackling which cut their yellow card rate by 45% amounted to 128 fewer tackles than the season before. If Man U continues this way, they will take this tactic even further.
This season so far