By Tony Attwood
In 2015/16 Arsenal scored their lowest goal total in nine years – 65 goals. And yet gained their highest league position in nine years (runnes-up). The following season they scored 77 and came in fifth.
What the club actually had in that season of coming second, was the best defence since 2007/8. A defensive record that has not been bettered since.
And yet last season despite spending a huge amount of money buying in a new defence, we conceded 12 more goals than in the runners-up season.
So does that mean that last season’s defensive transfers were a mistake, and that yet more defenders need to be purchased?
No, probably not, because as ever the situation is slightly more complex than that. We do have one new defender who looks sure to be a regular, of course, in William Saliba, now returned from loan. But we also have a defence that has learned the new tactical approach that was introduced by Arteta in 2020/21 – that of reducing the number of tackles made by the club and as a result reducing the extraordinary number of yellow cards that were being dished out. It is a topic journalists assiduously ignore – leading to our decision to use their terminology of “deadwood”
(Details of the interesting ways in which different referees treat Arsenal and other teams can be found in our statistical review for 2020/21).
That this tactical change is tough to get right was shown by the problems Arsenal had up to Christmas 2020, at which point the club was 15th in the league. After that, as you will know if you are a regular reader, the number of tackles dropped, the number of yellow cards dropped and the club rose up the league.
This table shows how different managers have dealt with the vagaries of PGMO.
|Manager||Emery||Arteta from Dec||Arteta||Arteta|
|Tackles||609 (15th)||584 (14th)||456 (20th)||540 (18th)|
|Fouls||412 (9th)||421 (8th)||345 (20th)||363 (16th=)|
|Yellows||72 (4th)||86 (1st)||47 (17th)||60 (13th)|
Tackles: Across the first three seasons noted above Arsenal reduced the number of tackles year on year, until by 202/21 the club was the lowest tackling club in the league. However at the end of that season, despite the defence’s success much of the defence was changed and as a result, 84 more tackles were executed in the league season (just over two more per game)
Fouls: In his first full season, Arteta took Arsenal from a team fouling around an average number of times in the league, and moved them to being the team least likely to commit a foul in a league match. However again, having replaced most of the defence the fouls returned somewhat and rose by 18 (compared with a drop of 76 the season before). A rise of 5%.
Finally in terms of yellow cards, in the season in which Emery lost his job, one of the key factors was that Arsenal were being yellow carded every step of the way, and looking in from the outside, it did appear that Emery could not accept that this was due to variant refereeing.
Arteta however seemed to grasp this at once although he was not able to change the habits of the team (by cutting down the number of tackles yet maintaining defensive stability) during that first half season. However, in his second season, Arteta got the measure of the referees, and so cut out a lot of the tackling, and thus cut the yellow cards by almost half.
However again, with a new defence in 2021/22 the lessons had to be re-learned and yellow cards rose again, although to nothing like the level seen in the Emery season, and the handover season.
So overall the number of tackles that can be put in before a foul is called has risen this past year. However, the number of fouls that can be committed before a yellow card is called has declined.
Likewise, the number of tackles that can be put in before a yellow card is shown has also gone down.
So overall, last season, the great advances of 2020/21 in terms of reducing the number of tackles that are called as fouls, and the number of fouls that are given yellow cards, has been reversed, and referees last season called fouls and handed out yellow cards for tackles by Arsenal players more readily than before.
Watching the team through the season, and with the great fortune of my having a front row seat in the upper tier looking across one of the 18 yard lines, the issue of tackling by Arsenal (at least through half the match) is perfectly clear: the stats are right, Arsenal are looking to defend by committing fewer tackles.
However what can also be seen from this position is that it takes players a while to adjust to this system, and hence the number of tackles this last season went up, and with them the number of fouls and yellow cards.
But how did this compare with some other teams – including those notorious for getting very strange figures?
Tackles, fouls, penalties: the December 2020 review gave one review – and we will continue with a further look in forthcoming articles.
You might also be interested in “Do referees give yellow cards because of the quality or the quantity of the fouls committed” – an article written in response to a challenge to our figures and the conclusions drawn.
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