Talking Tactics

How the art of tackling was challenged in 2016/17

By Adrian Clarke 4 Jun 2017
Arsenal v Everton - Premier League

In the second of a three-part series, Adrian Clarke on the reasons behind a record-low campaign for clean tackles

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The 2016/17 season in numbers

With the dust settling on another exciting Premier League season, Adrian Clarke is reviewing the story of 2016/17.

After analysing how fewer shots somehow led to more goals, he next looks at the reasons behind a record-low number of tackles. 

The art of tackling

We have suspected for some time that the art of tackling is dying out in modern football, and data from the 2016/17 campaign backs up this theory.

A record-low 13,138 clean tackles were made at an average of 34.57 per match. This is by some distance the fewest we have seen in English football’s top flight.

It is a massive 10.8% drop from 2015/16's 14,729. 

See: Top tacklers in 2016/17

Nacho Monreal, Arsenal
2016/17 was a record low for the total number of clean tackles made in a PL season

It appears clear that PL coaches are focusing less and less on the importance of their players imposing physicality on opponents.

Concentrating harder on the technical and tactical side, the notion of being aggressive feels like it is on the wane.

In light of stricter enforcement from referees, players are also becoming ever more cautious at the prospect of diving into a challenge. The risk-to-reward ratio is shrinking.

They are right to be wary.

In spite of the low number of tackles, cautions are on the rise. 

Lee Mason, Referee
A 17% rise in yellow cards has led to the risk-to-reward ratio of an attempted tackle to shrink

Yellow cards leapt from 1,186 in 2015/16 to 1,392 this season, a gain of 17%.

Considering the foul count only went up from 21.6 to 22.8 per match, that jump highlights the clamping down on challenges by referees.

See: Law changes for referees in 2016/17

Over the past 10 years we have also seen a change in the type of players who are making tackles.  

A decade ago the PL contained an assortment of so-called tough tackling centre-halves. But with challenges from behind now outlawed, and defenders generally cautious about committing themselves in areas close to their own goal, very few of these players now exist.

06/07 v 16/17: Most tackles won by CBs
2006/07 2016/17
Player Tackles won Player Tackles won
Distin 90 Azpilicueta 63
Jagielka 89 Otamendi 52
Dunne 88 Martins Indi 44
Ben Haim 82 Bailly 43
Lescott 80 Koscielny 42

Currently the best exponents of this defensive skill are central midfielders or full-backs; players who occupy positions further away from their own goal.

The make-up of this season's top 20 tacklers contains nine central midfielders, eight full-backs, two wingers and only one central defender: Cesar Azpilicueta, who happens to spend much of his time in wide areas due to Chelsea's formation.

Most tackles won 2016/17
Player Tackles won
Gueye 99
Romeu 87
Kante 82
Pieters 81
Fuchs 80

It will be fascinating to see if this trend continues next term.

See: Full marks for finishing in 2016/17

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