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The continuing strange tale of how PL referees punish tackles

By Bulldog Drummond

We have often noted the great change that came over Arsenal last season as the club worked to eliminate tackles from their playing style.    And in fact this has worked as Arsenal are now 19th in the tackles league for the Premier League this season; only Manchester City undertake fewer tackles.  The top tacklers remain Leeds and Everton – two clubs struggling near the foot of the table.

Indeed this is often how things go – and it can be explained either because clubs near the foot of the table tackle more, or because clubs that tackle more end up near the foot of the table.  In this table we compare three clubs – Arsenal, Leeds (the most extreme tacklers) and Leicester who have a strange history in terms of tackles, fouls and yellow cards.

Tackles Fouls Yellow cards
Arsenal 433 289 45
Leeds 665 389 91
Leicester 524 262 40

Leeds are included as the team with the most tackles, fouls and yellow cards so far this season in the Premier League.  Leicester are included as historically their figures don’t seem to follow the pattern for other clubs and hence it seemed a good idea to see how their figures are panning out at the moment.

If all things were equal we would expect the relationships between tackles, fouls and yellow cards to be similar for all clubs – but we have seen in the past this is not the case.   Leeds have become notorious this season for picking up the most yellow cards by far, and committing the most fouls, and yet there is something strange about their figures.

Leicester we tend to follow since they managed to come up with the extraordinary figures of a couple of years back that started our interest in following the numbers.  If you want the history take a look at

We trace the implications of the numbers each time by looking at the relationships between tackles, fouls and yellow cards.  Which is not to say that each club should have the same number of tackles per yellow card, but there should be a pattern between the various columns.

Tackles per foul Tackles per yellow Fouls per yellow
Arsenal 1.50 9.62 6.42
Southampton 1.40 9.04 6.46
Leeds 1.71 7.31 4.27
Leicester 2.00 13.10 6.55

The figures show that Leeds are not just the team that tackles most in the League – they have taken tackling to another level.  They tackle 50% more than Arsenal.  They get 35% more fouls given against them than Arsenal, but double the number of yellow cards as do Arsenal.

This is the sort of pattern we have often seen in the league – the more you tackle the disproportionately more fouls are given against the club.  Now clearly every club knows this – the clubs are packed with analysts and tacticians – so most likely they keep doing it because that is the only way they have of breaking up an attack. 

But it is when we look at how many tackles a club can put in before they get a yellow, and here once again Leicester City are out on their own.   Leicester can put in almost twice as many tackles before getting a yellow card than Leeds.  And although we might believe that Leeds are a bunch of thugs, when we set prejudice aside and watch the games, are Leeds’ tackles that much worse?

Certainly, the referees think so because while the other teams in our table above are in the same ball-park figures when it comes to the number of fouls committed before a yellow card is given, Leeds get those yellow cards after far fewer fouls.

But once more the real outlier is Leicester in terms of how many tackles they can put in before getting a foul called or a yellow card waved.   The figures show a real set of anomalies…

  • Tackles made: Leicester make 21% more than Arsenal.
  • Fouls committed: Leicester commit 10% fewer fouls than Arsenal despite the 21% more tackles.
  • Yellow cards given: Leicester get 11% fewer yellow cards than Arsenal despite the extra tackles.
  • Tackles per foul: Leicester can make 33% more tackles before having a foul called than Arsenal.
  • Tackles per yellow: Leicester can commit 36% more tackles than Arsenal before a booking is given.

This scenario gives Leicester’s defenders a sense of freedom in tackling – they know that compared with Arsenal and indeed most teams, they can get away with a lot more than the opposition.

This is explicable only in three ways.  One is that Leicester have discovered a way of tackling that does not produce nearly so many yellow cards, and amazingly and extraordinarily, no one else is copying this approach.   (This was the explanation given by angry Leicester fans after we first raised the point, but it was found not to be true).

The second explanation is that referees are influenced by the reputation of clubs.  So they aren’t deliberately helping Leicester, but they believe that Leciester players commit fewer fouls.  The same explanation could be used for Leeds only in reverse – the referees believe that Leeds are a dirty side.

As a result of this belief a 50/50 tackle might not be given as a foul or yellow card offence when Leicester commit it, thus they get fewer fouls against and fewer yellows, and so the myth perpetuates itself.

What is also interesting is that when we first looked at this issue in November 2019 Leicester were second in the league. Subsequently, they slipped and ended up fifth.  They maintained that last season but conceded more goals.  This season they are currently ninth and have already conceded nine more goals than in the whole of the 2019/20 season.

Of course, it is possible to argue that Leicester have devised a much more effective way of tackling without fouling than other teams, although if that is the case I wonder why other teams have not copied this approach.

 

 

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