By Tony Attwood
The problem with pundits is they start from the premise that they know. And because they know they can immediately draw conclusions, without bothering to provide much evidence.
Speaking on The Gary Neville Podcast, Neville said, “You ask the question now: would Arsenal strengthen in January? What risk does that bring? Do you strengthen to boost the squad or do you strengthen to actually boost the first XI?
“If you strengthen to boost the first XI do you upset one of the players or two of the players that are in there? And that’s the sort of conundrum that will be going through the Arsenal board’s mind at this moment in time.”
Except that statement takes no account of how Arteta has transformed Arsenal. Now if you tend to read most of Untold’s articles, you’ll know what’s coming next. But for those who don’t, to be top of the league on 14 November 2022, Arsenal went through a step-by-step transformation.
Step 1: Get rid of the yellow cards
On 20 December 2019 Arteta joined and did not make major changes to the style of play and as a result, at the end of the season, the club had been given 86 cards, more than any other club. It was not the highest number of yellows (it was in fact the fifth highest – Sunderland got 94 in 2014/15 and that was the record at the time although Leeds reached 101 in 2021/22).
But it was bad news because yellow cards mean that effectively the referee has control of the players’ style of play since once a player has a yellow he will change his style in order to stop the referee giving another yellow.
Now the obvious way in which yellows are given is for bad tackles, and I am sure Arteta would have noted something very strange going on. Arsenal were solidly mid-table (10th in the league) and I believe he watched in amazement through the rest of the season as the yellow card figures piled up, while he was left noting how differently Arsenal were being treated by the referees from Leicester (to take one example).
Those numbers were wildly different. Particularly with Arsenal getting twice as many yellow cards as Leicester while actually undertaking fewer tackles per game.
The comparison analysis shows this even more clearly
|Tackles per foul
|Tackles per yellow
|Fouls per yellow
My view is that Manchester City were well aware of this level of variation during Arteta’s time at Manchester City and indeed video of matches show him sitting alone at the side of pitch with pen and clipboard noting data. And what data it was.
Step 2: Study Leicester
Leicester could commit twice as many tackles as Manchester City without getting a yellow card. Leicester could commit almost twice as many fouls as Manchester City before getting shown a yellow. The figures are outrageous, and although I can’t prove it, I believe Arteta’s job included taking note of such data to see exactly how Leicester could commit so many more tackles and fouls than Manchester City without getting cards.
Now Arteta clearly did not change the situation immediately at Arsenal when he arrived – for that could have been a disaster as players tried to adapt. He needed weeks and weeks of training in the new system before any games were to be played.
Arsenal were 10th in the league when Arteta arrived…
... way below the low tackling clubs, Leicester, Manchester City and Liverpool. Besides Arsenal were in free fall when he arrived and he needed to steady the ship.
So he waited and changed the approach through the summer of 2020, and at first it looked like a disaster as Arsenal did not rise up the league. But tackles dropped by a quarter, fouls dropped by 18% and amazingly yellow cards dropped by 45%. Interestingly Leicester’s fouling stayed almost exactly at the same level but their yellow cards went up by 49%!!!
Why was that? Well, you’d have to ask PGMO, but one obvious possibility is that PGMO referees realised that the oddity in Leicester’s figures for tackles – fouls – yellow cards had been spotted and so were no longer giving them special treatment. Leicester fans argued on this site that it was because their best tackler was injured, but the change in numbers did not coincide with the injury.
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