"If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake"
Everyone in the '90s, other than Paolo Maldini, loved a good tackle. Nothing quite got the crowd going like a full-blooded 50/50 challenge or slide tackle that took man and ball into the advertising hoardings. This still remains the case for many fans, of course, particularly those starved of attacking finesse on the field. We have all been present at drab affairs, instantly ignited by a player putting his opponent two feet in the air and atmospheres have often been at their most feverish in the aftermath of these combative moments.
Closer to home, many fans of Isaac Hayden cite this as his key asset and wax lyrical over his slide tackles, which have become almost as famous as the man himself. However, critics of his will highlight that the official Premier League site records him as having made 55 tackles over the course of last season. This counter argument suggesting that, if tackling is his strength, doing it less than twice per game is hardly something to get overly excited about - particularly in a team that tends to spend the majority of games without the ball.
Although the majority of analyses done on this site to date have compared Newcastle player to Newcastle player or Newcastle season to Newcastle season, for this particular issue it seemed appropriate to cast a wider net. Away from individual player or team analysis and comparison, is tackling still a valuable skill or is it a fading feature of Premier League football?
In the 2019/20 season, Newcastle United's players made a total of 603 tackles. This was down 24% from the number of tackles the team made in the 2015/16 season. Newcastle were relegated, after conceding 65 goals in that season, and yet made 190 more tackles than they did last season.
Before delving into potential factors influencing Newcastle's drop in tackling, a wider glance across the league showed that this was actually part of a general pattern. Looking at the other teams who were also in the Premier League in 2019/20 as well as 2015/16, there was an average drop of 17% in the number of tackles over that period.
Other than the number of tackles, the main tackling statistic available is their success rate. Newcastle's tackle success percentage in the 2019/20 season was 59%. Again, this was down significantly from the relegated side of 2015/16, when that number was 77%.
Although this seems like a remarkable drop in just a few seasons, analysing the league as a whole revealed that once again Newcastle were part of a wider trend. Looking across the other teams who were also in the Premier League in 2019/20, the average tackle success percentage was 59%, down from an average of 76% in 2015/16.
Interestingly, individuals who tackled less often tended to have a higher success rate. Jorginho (61%) and Rodri (60%) scoring significantly higher than Hayden's 49%, for example. Perhaps this suggests that those who had found alternative ways of regaining possession only resorted to tackling when they were more confident of success.
Traditionally seen as an instantly recognisable feature of the English game, why has its elite league seen not only the overall number of tackles but the success rate of those tackles fall so dramatically? What has happened to tackling in just five seasons to see such a widespread and consistent decline in these numbers? Finally, how are teams regaining possession if they are not doing it by tackling?
I asked Paul McGuinness, FA National Coach Developer, for his thoughts:
"The biggest factor is the interpretation of the laws of the game in this country falling more in line with the rest of the world. The type of tackles that were common in England are not now allowed: tackles from behind; tackles with studs showing; overly aggressive tackles and tackles that could endanger the opponent. This leads to a big opportunity for coaches to develop players who are better at using their body to protect or win the ball. The best players use their body rather than tackle or prevent tackles by intelligent skillful use of the body."
Elite teams like Manchester City have fielded diminutive players like David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gündogan in the centre of midfield - traditionally the battleground of any football match. These players have used their smaller frames and skillful touch to lean into players and flick or drag the ball away with a pirouette or turn rather than the traditional tackling technique. Not only does this reduce the chance of a foul being committed but it increases the likelihood of regaining possession compared to the potential ricochet of a tackle. That those individuals are also comfortable on the ball then allows the team to control the game by retaining it.
"We talk about tackling but what is tackling? The point of tackling is to win the ball back. You can do it in different ways. It's how quickly they win the ball back. It's not just about making a big tackle, it's about getting players around the ball. Who was doing that at Barcelona? Xavi and Iniesta. They're not tacklers. It's not a challenge. They hunt the ball in packs and they win it through pressure."
(Jamie Carragher, 2016)
Given the drop in tackling statistics, it seemed reasonable to assume that games would have an increased number in a range of possession statistics. In other words, if the methods of regaining possession all showed a downward trend then surely teams were putting in more crosses, taking more shots, having more touches and making more passes. Well, yes and no:
The average number of crosses per team, per season, fell by 58
The average number of shots per team, per season, fell by 19
The average number of passes per team, per season, increased by 26
The average number of touches per team, per season, increased by 1349
So what does all of this mean? Well, it is open to interpretation of course, but what it suggests is that touches of the ball has become the key aspect of Premier League football matches. The previous identity of the league as the home of tackles, clearances, crosses and shots appears to be making way for a game of controlled possession.
The clues were already there in the development of central defensive and central midfield roles and the attributes of those who fill those roles but the statistics certainly add further weight. Of course, not all teams in the league play the same way and not all teams can afford to recruit their ideal target but a look at those who can puts the statistics into context.
Rather than compare those who have and those who have not, due to substantial differences in average possession, a look at the elite clubs across the two different seasons demonstrates the shift in focus in the middle of the pitch.
In the 2015/16 season, Emre Can made 79 tackles across the entire season and averaged 60 passes per match; Nemanja Matic made 84 tackles and averaged 49 passes per match; Fernandinho made 105 tackles and averaged 57 passes per match. The examples continue around the top clubs of the more defensive of their midfield duo (or trio) averaging fewer passes per game than their total number of tackles in the entire season.
This was not the case in the 2019/20 season. Jorginho made 66 tackles across the entire season and averaged 73 passes per match; Granit Xhaka made 45 total tackles and averaged 61 passes per match; Rodri made 50 total tackles and averaged 74 passes per match. The examples continue around the top clubs of the more defensive of their midfield duo (or trio) averaging more passes per game than their total number of tackles in the entire season.
"I'm not a coach for the tackles, so I don't train the tackles. What I want is to try to play well and score goals. What's tackles? We're not going to win or lose for the tackles."
(Pep Guardiola, 2016)
Manchester City won the Premier League in 2018/19 and recorded fewer tackles than any other team over the course of the season. Fernandinho's season statistics changing from 105 total tackles and 57 passes per game in 2015/16 to 57 total tackles and 71 passes per game in this short period of time.
The role of the defensive midfield player has completely shifted focus among the elite clubs in just a few seasons. This raises the question of whether those clubs who are unable (or unwilling) to make this switch in style are in danger of being left behind in a quickly-changing landscape. Will teams who still field a defensive midfield player who does not follow this trend, struggle to influence such an important area of the football pitch?
Regarding Newcastle United, the Premier League's rise in the number of passes was not a trend followed by the team, who had a 14% drop from 2015/16 to 2019/20. Similarly, the rise in the number of touches was not a trend followed, with a 12% drop.
This certainly raises concerns that Newcastle United's team is in danger of being left behind, if it hasn't been already. If the team has lower numbers in tackling and tackling success but also lower numbers in passes and touches then it is hard to see what the all-important central midfield area is doing effectively.
In identifying players who can improve it, it appears that those with tackling at the top of their list of attributes are not the answer.