Opening game shows some clubs changing their tactics radically

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
1. Everton 23 17 +5 59
2. Leeds United 23 19 +4 61
3. West Ham United 23 14 +9 48
4. Chelsea 21 16 +5 50
5. Southampton 21 19 +2 52
6. Brentford 20
7. Wolverhampton Wanderers 20 15 +5 53
8. Norwich City 19
9. Liverpool 17 14 +3 40
10. Brighton and Hove Albion 16 17 -1 46
11. Burnley 16 13 +3 48
12. Manchester City 16 13 +3 46
13. Tottenham Hotspur 16 17 -1 53
14. Leicester City 15 18 -3 61
15. Watford 15
16. Aston Villa 13 14 -1 63
17. Crystal Palace 11 17 -6 54
18. Arsenal 9 12 -3 47
19. Newcastle United 9 13 -4 61
20. Manchester United 6 15 -9 64

Overall there were 11 more tackles than the average last season, which is around half a tackle per club.  So the average hardly changes.

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

6 Replies to “Opening game shows some clubs changing their tactics radically”

  1. Interestingly, Leeds had 23 tackles for 9 fouls, MU 6 tackles for 11 fouls.

    2 yellows against Leeds, 1 against MU

    Then my guess would be that Leeds ‘lost’ the ball more often then MU, making tackles unnecessary.
    As for Leeds, they had to go much more after then ball carrier especially after being behind, which had to make them more aggressive.

  2. Does anyone not think like me that the number of tackles stat is suspect ?

    The range is far too big and the % of successful tackles varies so much.

    For instance Arsenal according to the numbers made 9 tackles of which just 3 were successful meaning 6 were unsuccessful . So one tackle every 10 minutes but only a successful tackle every 30 minutes.

    Whereas Brentford made 20 tackles of which 12 were successful and 8( only two less than reported in respect of Arsenal) were unsuccessful.

    Then you look at Man Utd supposed 6 tackles of which 4 were said to be successful so from those 2 failed tackles they , Man Utd were said to have conceded 14 fouls.

    I know that there are other reasons why fouls are given but bad or unsuccessful tackles surely are the prime reason for fouls aren’t they ?

  3. As I said elsewhere, when I played as a full back my aim was to stand on my feet and not commit myself. Putting in a tackle is committing yourself. Yes you may win the ball, that is the advantage. But you can also not win the ball and end up out of the game, or as is the thrust of this debate, end up with a yellow card, or worse, if your tackle is particularly over zealous or late. Tackling should always be a last resort or at least as a result of your opponents bad touch or loss of control. More ‘nicking’ the ball than a tackle in fact.

    The thing with staying on your feet is it is harder work. The amount of times I’ve yelled at the telly when one of our guys goes in for a tackle around, or indeed inside the box, and gives away a free kick or a penalty. To me it’s just lazy defending.

    Of course we are not the only team with players that take the ‘lazy’ option, but I don’t care about them.

    In the end this notion of ‘Don’t commit yourself’ ‘stay on your feet’ or ‘don’t dive in’ is nothing new. And in addition my era was back in the day when ‘full blooded’ tackling was de rigueur, but even then staying on your feet was still the the way to play.

    I think the current trend is probably about adapting to a more vigilant style of refereeing.

    Having said that, I watched the last 30 minutes of the Spurs Man City game and thought the tackling was, shall we say, robust. Though some of the tackles were very good they seemed never the less very close to the edge. On another day, or maybe another team would not of got away with such a ‘robust’ approach ?

    Not sure if the ref was one of the lenient ones as highlighted in Tony’s article of a few weeks ago, but he seemed to offer a lot of latitude to me.

    Suffice to say, the commentators loved it.

  4. Does possession play a part in your analysis? A team in possession doesn’t need to make tackles. In most games we seem to have 60-70% possession.

  5. Macy we’ve not done possession, but it is an interesting point. I’ll see if we can get reliable possession figures and compare them with results to see if there is a link.

  6. That is a good point.

    Perhaps a good starting point would be looking at whether there was a dramatic increase in our possession at the same time our tackling decreased last year?

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