Arsenal and the top six, why can’t we beat the other top teams?

By Tony Attwood

One explanation as to why we can’t beat other teams who are aiming for European football next season is that our defence has not yet got itself adjusted to the way they need to perform when facing Liverpool, Chelsea etc.

In this regard, we were not helped by the fact that we bought a new defence last summer, although we do now sit two places higher up the league than they did at the end of last season.  But can we trace this improvement back to tactics?

To compare where the top six (and we’ll throw in WHAM as well, since they have a top-six position at the moment and their figures are absolutely bonkers) are we need to look at points per game as this table does…

Columns three and four measuring points per game allows us to compare how the clubs (which have played different numbers of games this season) are doing this season with last season.

Pos now Team Pts per game 20/21 Pts per game 21/22 Difference
1 Manchester City 2.26 2.48 +0.22
2 Liverpool 1.82 2.18 +0.36
3 Chelsea 1.76 1.96 +0.20
4 Manchester United 1.95 1.73 -0.22
5 West Ham United 1.71 1.61 -0.10
6 Arsenal 1.61 1.71 +0.10
7 Tottenham Hotspur 1.63 1.80 +0.17

As we can see, of the seven clubs considered five of them have improved, and two (Manchester United and West Ham United) have declined in terms of points per game.   Although Arsenal are in the improvement group, doing better than last season overall, we are not doing anything like as well as we did in the last two-thirds of last season and have seen nothing like the improvement of Manchester City, Chelsea and above all, Liverpool.

But the revolution in defence that Arsenal introduced last season has been maintained by the new players.  We now tackle less and get called out for fewer fouls than our rivals.  Although third in the yellow card list we are at the level of Liverpool.  West Ham are way out in front but their figures throughout are incomprehensible.

The number in brackets after each total is the order among the seven clubs, (low to high), for that list…

Club Tackles Fouls Yellows
Arsenal 301 (1) 189 (1) 30 (3)
Chelsea 380 (7) 244 (7) 39 (6)
Liverpool 302 (2) 225 (5) 29 (2)
Manchester City 305 (3) 200 (2) 30 (3)
Manchester United 337 (5) 230 (6) 44 (7)
Tottenham Hotspur 326 (4) 209 (3) 34 (4)
West Ham United 356 (6) 214 (4) 26 (1)

What we can see is that there is a clear link between the three columns.  It doesn’t hold up totally in every case not least as referees seem amazingly reluctant to give West Ham yellow cards no matter what they do, but otherwise, there is a similarity in position.

Arsenal tackle least, give away the smallest number of fouls, and were it not for the eccentric and bizarre treatment of West Ham would be second in the yellow cards table.

Chelsea at the other extreme, tackle the most, foul the most and are only exceeded in terms of yellow cards by Manchester United (5th in tackles, 6th in fouls, top in yellows).

But the most interesting figures normally come when we compare relationships.   Of course, a club that bought a load of the very best tacklers in the market could be tackling at a high level but only getting a limited number of fouls and yellows.

Club Tackles/fouls Tackles/yellow Foul/yellow
Arsenal 1.59 (2) 10.33 (3) 6.30 (4)
Chelsea 1.56 (3) 9.74 (6) 6.26 (5)
Liverpool 1.34 (7) 10.41 (2) 7.76 (2)
Manchester City 1.53 (5) 10.17 (4) 6.67 (3)
Manchester United 1.47 (6) 7.65 (7) 5.23 (7)
Tottenham Hotspur 1.56 (3) 9.59 (4) 6.15 (6)
West Ham United 1.66 (1) 13.69 (1) 8.23 (1)

In simple terms, in all these numbers, the higher the figure the better for the team.  In other words, a team is better off if it can deliver more tackles before getting a foul, if it can deliver more tackles before getting a yellow card, and if it can deliver more fouls before getting a yellow.

Given the way Xhhaka is reported and even allowing for his injury, one might expect Arsenal to be bottom of the list throughout, but we are not.   The club in trouble is Manchester United; the club sailing through the season virtually untouched by referees is West Ham.  How they do it I don’t know.


West Ham have found a way to play in which they tackle more than other clubs in the top seven, but get punished far less in terms of fouls and yellows.  As I say, how they are doing it is beyond me – I watch the videos and note the tackles (remembering they are the sixth-highest tackling club out of our top seven sample) and the refs just don’t see their tackles as fouls or the fouls as yellow offences.

Arsenal’s new defence is doing ok in learning the ways of refereeing, (which will undoubtedly have come as a shock to them upon arrival for those joining from beyond the PL), and they will be pleased with the numbers.

We can commit more tackles before having a foul called than our rivals except for West Ham, whose numbers are frankly bonkers.

We can commit more tackles before getting a yellow card than West Ham and Liverpool; Liverpool have been able to tackle and tackle for years without getting yellows.  We are getting closer to them. 

And here’s a final thought.  West Ham and Liverpool have gathered a reputation among commentators for having clean, nice, jolly decent players.  That couldn’t be the explanation could it; their reputation..

But leaving that aside, it looks like our numbers should start improving over time.  It’s just taken the new defence a while to get used to it all.


So far Arsenal have been on five different runs this season. What next?

10 Replies to “Arsenal and the top six, why can’t we beat the other top teams?”

  1. Having to play against 12+ opponents, especially if reduced to 10 players, as as happened in this season’s matches against the top 6, makes the task much harder.

  2. Any comparative data set will have so me sort of distribution curve.
    Does the number of tackles really indicate defensive performance. I’m not sure any of your data shows this. In fact it could be equally argued that reducing tackles has gone along with poorer performance.
    And tackling data ignores the role of the goalie. Isn’t the goalkeeper part of the defence?
    Surely a more relevant indicator of the performance of the defence is shots conceded on target, and the ratio of shots conceded on target per goal. As long as these numbers are moving in the right direction, does it matter whether it’s achieved with a few more fouls per game or a few less fouls per game?

  3. And, as I say repeatedly, this takes no account of yellow cards given for non-fouling offences……but still this fact is ignored. Why?

  4. @Mikey,

    I would think that this sort of informtion is not readily available online where we can just access it. I’ve never seen it.
    I’d love to know where to get that information.
    And I concurr that we may find that our yellow card/tackling ratio is even lower then what we think,

  5. @mikey
    I agree.
    And what is a “tackle”. Is a push a tackle? Is a shirt pull a tackle? Is obstruction a tackle?
    Tackling is a good thing if the consequences of the tackle are preferable to the consequences of not making the tackle. Reducing tackling per se is meaningless. Reducing unnecessary tackles and tackles with dire consequences is obviously a good thing.

  6. @ Chris breaks cards down into three categories. ‘Fouls’, ‘unprofessional’ and ‘other’. They also show a fourth heading, ‘dive’ but they haven’t reported any team getting a card for this for a couple of seasons so I suspect this has been absorbed into ‘unprofessional’ or ‘other’.

    You will have to hunt around the website as it’s quite comprehensive and covers the major European Leagues. Once you have found the Premiership, go to ‘team statistics’. One table is headed, “Premier League Situational Statistics”. Within that table is a tab headed ‘card situations’. You will see that, in fact, Arsenal get the fewest cards for fouls (22 to date), Leeds being the highest at 47.

    For ‘professional’ we do ok with just 1 card, Palace having the most at 7. Leicester and Man U have zero.

    ‘Other’ is what intrigues me. Since this is where it may well be easy for refs to show bias (conscious or otherwise). Time wasting, ungentlemanly conduct, encroachment etc must all fall into this category. So as a team that commits comparatively few fouls and gets a very low count for ‘professional’ we find that Arsenal get one of the highest counts for ‘other’. It would be great to see a more in depth analysis on those. The highest is Newcastle on 12. Arsenal is third highest on 10. Lowest are Watford and West Ham, each with three.

    So this is where the discrepancy with West Ham occurs. In terms of cards for fouls we get 22 to their 25. For ‘professional’ they get two to our one. Bizarrely, we get more than three times as many cards for ‘other’ offences. Looked at ‘other’ from another perspective, the traditional ‘big six’ get 36 cards for ‘unprofessional’ offences but we get twice as many (or higher) as four of the other five irrespective of how much more they might tackle and foul than we do. As I say, I’d love to see a more in depth analysis of this.

    @ Dublin Gooner

    As to what constitutes a “tackle” or “foul” in this context is anybody’s guess.

    What also intrigues me though is that how a team that fouls so little and gets fewer cards for fouls than any other, why do we get so many players sent off?

    The thing is, it may well be that in most cases those players deserve to be sent off but how many times do we see players from other teams not get sent off for similar or worse.

    Leeds, for example, commit over 50% more fouls than us, get more than twice as many yellow cards for fouls than us, and get more cards for ‘unprofessional’ offences. Yet still we get more cards for ‘other’ and more players sent off. These are the real questions that need asking.

  7. Mikey

    Interesting and as you know I too have not been able to reconcile Tony’s conclusions based on the raw statistics.

    If you work backwards from the sites definition of a foul

    – An illegal manoeuvre by a player that results in a free kick for the opposing team (does not include offsides)

    That suggests to me that only yellow cards are given if play is actually stopped fall into this category and that could I guess include handballs & pulling the player back etc but certainly not restricted to just tackles bad or otherwise

    That then sort of suggests that any indiscretion such as time wasting, taking your shirt off, dissent, and of course situations where advantages have been played fall into the other category.

    It’s the Palace professional numbers that distort every thing when it comes to the last group of yellow cards.

  8. Mikey

    Missed out that sites explaining how a tackle is defined

    – Dispossessing an opponent, whether the tackling player comes away with the ball or not

  9. @mikey – the split between home and away cards is also interesting in that we have 17 cards at home for fouls and 6 for other whereas away from home only 5 for fouls, 1 for unprofessional and 4 for other. We obviously do not foul enough away from home leading to a card! Is that down to shape as we get caught exposed on the counter attack at home and so foul?

  10. Reading all this I have found it very interesting. Getting to the bottom of why anomalies occur, either for us or anyone else is fascinating, and potentially very reveling.

    -Are some teams just better at tackling ?

    -Are some teams just more ‘unsporting’ ?

    And so on. Or is it the way the referee behaves ? IE stricter with some teams, players, than others ?

    All I know is when there is an anomaly, an outlier, whatever you want to call it, as without question there is, it should arise suspicion, or at the very least interest, because there is more often than not something behind a statistic that doesn’t fit the norm.

    The fact is anomalies shouldn’t happen and are rare, which is why they are anomalies. But why shouldn’t they happen ?

    Because believe it or not human beings are very predictable, as is their behavior.

    I worked in marketing for many years and average ratio’s between leads generated to appointments made to appointments pitched to sales achieved to business written to business fitted, never changed. It fluctuated of course but taken over time the ratios never moved.

    And that’s down to human nature.

    If something changed we wanted to know why.

    Scientists and Sales executives alike are intrigued by anomalies.

    All I know is if the ratio between the leads my department made and the amount that ‘pitched’ fell through the floor something was wrong and 99 times out of a hundred it was a canvasser making up leads. Or cheating if you like.

    If the pitches to sales suddenly went through the roof it was usually a salesmen using what was called a cancellation close. In other words a very weak, basically pointless signature. Again trying to cheat the system.

    On the back of that, whenever I see an outlier regarding cards (and penalties) or anything else for that matter, I know something is wrong. That’s why when I see our statistics for ‘other’ I know something is wrong.

    Now what that ‘wrong’ is, is the tricky part.

    There are basically 2 reasons.


    Our players swear at the ref, waste time, kick the ball away, fail to retreat 10 yards, all more often than everyone else.


    The referee is applying a much harsher interpretation of these laws to Arsenal than almost everyone else.

    I know which one I think it is.

    Unfortunately it’s just about impossible to prove.

    But why ?


    “The thing is, it may well be that in most cases those players deserve to be sent off but how many times do we see players from other teams not get sent off for similar or worse.”

    Exactly, and I’ve been saying that for years.

    And it’s this very fact that makes our point so difficult to prove. Due to the subjective nature of every single tackle/foul it is indeed perfectly possible to, in someones eyes at least, justify every single card we have ever had, as well as justifying every inch of latitude afforded our opponents.

    It’s when this justification and latitude leans disproportionately more towards one team than the other that the problems of potential bias arise, but it is by it’s nature almost impossible to actually prove, and even more difficult to decipher what, if anything, is behind such bias.

    And these ‘other’ offences are just as difficult.

    How many times does a referee ignore blatant abuse, players laying a hand on him, kicking the ball away, refusing to get back 10 yards, slightly tugging on the shirt ?

    Or even if he does react it’s often with just ‘a word in his ear’.

    Only recently one of our regulars (hopefully he’ll remind us of the actual event) highlighted a player effing and blinding in a referees face and he got nothing. He highlighted this on the back of Gabriel getting a second yellow for just questioning the referees decision a day or so earlier.

    My point is it seems to me these ‘other’ offences are even easier to apply with extreme latitude than it is with fouls.

    For example, if a player without a ‘reputation’, or perhaps the referee even ‘likes’, or he knows the media likes, gives him some stick, or taps the ball away, or lays a hand on an opponent, a word will do.

    But if it’s a player with a ‘reputation’ or perhaps the referee doesn’t like, or he knows the media don’t like, gives him some ABUSE, or KICKS the ball away, or PULLS an opponent, a card is issued.

    The latitude in those scenarios is enormous and wide open to abuse, if the referee so desires.

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