By Tony Attwood
There is an article on the Premier League website under the headline “Find out how the awards for players, manager and goal of the month and season are decided.” However you might not want to spend too much time there as there is no clue as to how the debates go, only who is on the panel.
So having heard that Mikel Arteta has won the Manager of the Month award, a lot of fans and commentators are expressing bemusement. A glance at the pages of Untold Arsenal in the past year and a bit might have helped of course, because instead of relaying just opinion we have indulged in examining a few facts and statistics which will explain what’s going on.
In fact we were a trifle surprised that Mr Arteta didn’t win the award in the latter part of last season, as a reward for his stunning turn around of Arsenal. If you are a regular reader please forgive me for mentioning it again, but a lot of people still haven’t got to the bottom of this – as the negative comments about Arteta’s win shows.
In the first third of last season Arsenal were 15th. In the last two thirds of last season Arsenal were second. Here’s the table for the first third…
|9||West Ham United||13||6||3||4||21||16||5||21|
And now for the last two thirds
|4||West Ham United||24||13||5||6||41||28||13||44|
We also looked to see how this incredible turn around was achieved – and the answer was by cutting out the yellow cards, reducing them from 86 in 2019/20 to 47 in 2020/21 – a cut of a staggering 47%.
And the reason for using this approach this came from another bit of research – certain referees tend to give us lots of yellow cards, while other referees give us very few yellow cards. OK, just a bit of local variance one might think, but it turns out that the referees that like to give us yellows get to referee many more Arsenal games than referees who don’t give Arsenal yellows.
So Arsenal worked to stop giving referees any excuse to give them yellows – which meant stopping fouling, which in turn meant stopping tackling. Tackles went down by 22%, and only West Ham managed to exceed this taking their tackling down by 26% – a factor which is worth remembering when looking at West Ham’s figures this season – but we’ll leave that for later.
Thus Arsenal made extraordinary tactical changes based on statistical evidence, and it worked.
But why didn’t the media mention this? Well, because of that bit about referees. Such a change was only worth undertaking with the knowledge about Arsenal constantly having matches overseen by the referees with a propensity for handing out yellow cards. You can find details in our Key Data Tables 2020/21 page.
I am not sure any manager has gone through such an approach as this before, but it most certainly worked in the last two thirds of last season.
But then the club did something just as dramatic as last season: this summer they changed the defence around – a defence that had been so carefully drilled in the process of not tackling in order to avoid record numbers of yellow cards (86 in 2019/20, remember).
This meant that the newcomers into the team had to learn the new art of defending without tackling, to avoid giving referees the chance to yellow card the player. This was complicated by the fact that for the first match a number of the team went down with coronavirus, and then we played two teams who were always certain to give us a tough time.
Some managers might have folded at that point and gone back to a high tackling approach but Mr Arteta didn’t. He stayed with his plan, took the players with him, and took us through a run of played four wins in four games in September.
Of course the media have a hard time covering this development. They can’t mention the apparent bias in selecting referees, so they are left without any reasons to give, thus giving free reign to the anti-Arteta, anti-Arsenal, if in doubt change everything, opinion formers.
We can be grateful however that the boss stuck by his gunners, and by his ideas. And he is a most worthy winner of manager of the month.
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