Only Watford are penalised more than Arsenal for tackles

By Tony Attwood

How referees punish Arsenal

Why cutting tackles is the policy of the top clubs

We have for several years postulated that some Premier League clubs worked hard to keep the number of tackles down because tackles so regularly result in a foul, which of course gives the advantage to the opposition.

Arsenal in particular did this with yellow cards as this table shows.  (Raw data taken from WhoScored and Premier League).

  • 2021/22: Arsenal yellow cards: 60 (11th highest in league – Arteta manager)
  • 2020/21: Arsenal yellow cards: 47 (17th highest in league – Arteta manager)
  • 2019/20: Arsenal yellow cards: 86 (highest in the league – Emery, Ljungberg, Arteta)
  • 2018/19: Arsenal yellow cards: 72 (4th highest in the league – Emery season)
  • 2017/18: Arsenal yellow cards: 57 (11th highest in the league – Wenger’s last season)
  • 2016/17: Arsenal yellow cards: 68 (13th highest in the league)

Having taken the number of cards right down in 2020/21 they have crept back up again, seemingly because the new players introduced to the non-tackling system in the summer of 2021 that Arteta pioneered as a way of reducing the number of cards, took a while to get used to it. 

Most yellow cards come from tackles, and as we have shown are closely related to the number of tackles, rather than the severity of the tackles.   Overall, the range in the number of tackles per game that each club records is wide, from Leeds United who at 20.7 tackles a game were the tackle fanatics of the season, through to Manchester City who at 13.1 tackles a game were clearly reluctant to get their legs entangled in such primitive work.

However, the figures also show that clubs which tackle the most get away with the most.  Clubs which tackle least are more likely to be penalised for each tackle.

Six of the seven clubs that tackle the most in the Premier League are able to get away with more tackles before a foul is called.  Thus Leeds who put in 6.5 more tackles per game than Arsenal – and that is in each and every game last season.  However they were allowed to make 1.68 tackles before a foul was called while Arsenal could only make 1.48 tackles per foul.

And this wasn’t just a problem for Arsenal as this table shows…

Team Tackles per game Fouls per game Tackles per foul Tackle/ foul pos
1. Leeds 20.7 12.3 1.68 6=
2. Everton 18.6 9.7 1.92 2
3. Leicester 18.2 9.4 1.94 1
4. Wolverhampton 17.7 9.6 1.84 3
5. Brighton 17.6 10.3 1.71 5
6. Newcastle 17.3 10.3 1.68 6=
7. Crystal Palace 16.7 10.9 1.53 13
8. Aston Villa 16.7 10.6 1.58 10
9. Chelsea 16.3 10.8 1.51 15
10. Watford 16.2 11.6 1.40 20
11. Norwich 16.2 9.4 1.72 4
12. Brentford 16 9.8 1.63 9
13. Southampton 15.8 10.6 1.49 17
14. Tottenham 15.7 10.2 1.54 12
15. Burnley 15.5 10.4 1.49 16
16. Manchester United 15.4 10.4 1.48 18=
17. Liverpool 14.6 9.6 1.52 14
18. Arsenal 14.2 9.6 1.48 18=
19. West Ham 14.1 8.5 1.66 8
20. Manchester City 13.1 8.4 1.56 11

A number of the top clubs have learned to reduce their tackling per game, in order to stop referees endlessly penalising them. Manchester City, West Ham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United from the top seven in terms of league position last season, occupied the bottom five positions in terms of clubs that tackled the least.  

But there are major oddities in the table, and none more so than the number of tackles that each club can put in before a foul is called.

For Arsenal, after 1.48 tackles they were shown a yellow card.  This was the same as Manchester United.  Only Watford got yellow cards more often than Arsenal per tackle at one yellow card for every 1.40 tackles.

Clubs like Leeds, Everton, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Brighton and Newcastle, which were engaging in many more tackles per game than Arsenal were getting away with more tackles before a yellow card was called.

So although Arsenal have worked hard to reduce the number of tackles they put in per game, with Mikel Arteta following the approach that he learned at Manchester City, this has not resulted in referees showing the same leniency to Arsenal as they do to clubs like Leeds, Everton, Leicester, Wolverhampton etc etc.

For these referee figures to make sense the argument would have to be that Arsenal’s tackling was notably worse than that of the heavy tackling clubs like Leeds, Everton, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Brighton and Newcastle.

Of course, it could be stated that this is true.  Having been at the majority of the games, I don’t see that.

The fact is that some clubs are allowed to make many more tackles before a foul is called, than others.  This could be explained by saying that these clubs (Leeds, Everton, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Brighton etc) have players who are more adept at tackling than those of Liverpool, Arsenal, West Ham or Manchester City.  Personally, I just don’t see it.

It appears to me that the clubs that tackle a lot are given a much easier ride by the referees than the clubs that tackle less, simply to avoid handing out card after card after card.

And the most bizarre finding is that it is still Leicester who can get away with tackles the most.  They can commit 31% more tackles than Arsenal before each yellow card is called.

5 Replies to “Only Watford are penalised more than Arsenal for tackles”

  1. Just a thought but is a shirt pull counted as a tackle as far as tackle stats are concerned? If not then the cards per tackle figures are distorted because a shirt pull invariably results in a yellow card. Add these to yellow cards issued for dissent, tacking your shirt off and other non tackle misdemeanours and your figures really do not mean much. It is only a guess but my impression is that a lot of the yellow cards issued to the more attacking teams are for shirt pulls in order to stop a counter attack and being caught out with a lot of players in advanced positions.

  2. Yes a shirt pull is considered a tackle, as is a block and a push.
    Taking the shirt off to celebrate and swearing at the ref are not considered tackles.
    The percentage of yellow cards for no tackle-related offences is tiny as far as I can see but obviously affects all clubs in the same way.

  3. Do you honestly believe that clubs with more possession have learned to tackle less to avoid being penalized, or do you think it’s possible that they just tackle less because there’s not much point to attempting tackles when you’ve already got the ball? Four of the five clubs you pointed out as being at the bottom of the tackles table also happen to be at the top of the possession table.

    Also, yellows can be given out for a number of things besides tackling. Time wasting, dissent (Arsenal had several of these from my memory), taking off a shirt to celebrate a goal…without accounting for all of these, the tackles/yellow statistics are probably a bit misleading just due to a relatively small sample size. Unless you can remove all of the non-tackle yellows from the sample, you’re really not getting any sort of accurate idea of how tackles and yellows are actually related.

  4. Three factors here Scubas. From my own observation the number of yellows for offences other than those which are tackles or closely related to tackles such as pulling back, appear to be very low. Certainly under 10%, and probably under 5%. Second, clubs are all affected in the same way by this, unless we see one teamm that is very much prone to this sort of offence, and I haven’t. So the evidence suggests that the figures are helpful as a guide to what is going on, although of course you don’t have to believe them if you don’t want to.

  5. @ Tony

    30% of Arsenal’s yellow cards were for non-foul offences, i.e. 47 for fouls and 20 for non-fouls.

    18% of Leicester’s yellows were for non-foul offences i.e. 46 for fouls and just 10 for non-fouls.

    Hardly an insignificant difference!

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