What can I say? To anyone who had the misfortune to watch the Manchester derby on Wednesday, I sincerely apologise. I am generally a vocal advocate of the Premier League and its many thrills, but both United and City somehow conspired to serve up 90 minutes of the most turgid and dismal football I have seen all season. At least United’s players were variously ill and/or on medication – what was City’s excuse?
Anyway enough of that – the game of which we shall speak no more. Let us instead discuss a topic that has been something of a hot potato in the Premier League this season: tackling. On Tuesday night, Sunderland’s perpetually revved-up destroyer Lee Cattermole clobbered Tottenham’s filagree pattern-weaver Luka Modric in a challenge that could well have earned him a red card. Then on Wednesday night in the final moments of Chelsea’s 1 – 0 west London derby win, the clumsy Michael Essien did see red for an unnecessary two-footed stab at Fulham’s Clint Dempsey.
In isolation, two bad challenges in a round of ten games, probably doesn’t seem too much to get worked up about, but so far this season, players such as Fulham’s Bobby Zamora and Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa (as well as Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia following a Champions League clash against Rangers) have been sidelined with broken limbs – and teams such as Wolves (Karl Henry in particular for his rocket-like assault on Wigan’s Jordi Gomez) have had to deal with accusations that they are taking to the field intent on injuring people.
»Players need to think«
Arsenal Wenger has passionately decried the situation (and met with gruff rebuttals from unreconstructed hard men such as Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce), whilst Luka Modric had this to say about the tackle he suffered on Tuesday: »Players need to think before they make challenges like that, because you are talking about your fellow professionals. They can ruin their careers.« Having already had his leg broken last season in a game against Birmingham City, Modric was quick enough this time round to leap out of Cattermole’s way and preserve his health.
Danny Murphy, a largely sensible chap, was meanwhile castigated last month by the League Managers’ Association for suggesting that managers had a responsibility to keep their players in check, rather than sending them out of the dressing room dangerously pumped up: »You get managers who are sending their teams out to stop other teams playing, which is happening more and more – the Stokes, the Blackburns, Wolves«, said Murphy. »They can say it’s effective and they have got to win games but the fact is the managers are sending out their players so pumped up there is inevitably going to be problems. Every ship has a captain and that’s the manager who is in charge.« Murphy then went on to describe certain tackles as “brainless” – perhaps not an unfair charge when you consider how often certain players are flying in late and recklessly.
Lots of fans, players and managers with long memories will proudly say that the game has cleaned up a lot – and there’s no doubt that the routine hacking down of players is largely a thing of the past. The rules changes enacted after one of the most negative tournaments in World Cup history – Italia 90 – were a godsend for the game and part of what has driven its evolution as an entertainment product during the last 20 years. But football doesn’t stand still and perhaps we are reaching another major turning point in the history of the game.
In the Premier League age, players have become quite stunning athletes, playing the game at an ever-increasing pace. Though human biology dictates that such development is asymptotic, it is probably still reasonable to suggest that with the continuing appliance of sport science to footballers’ physiques, the game will speed up further. If that is the case, then are we simply asking the impossible of players to land clean, safe tackles? Is the decision time required by a defender poised to make a challenge no longer there?
If that is the case, or if that will soon be the case, then the future of slide tackling might be in doubt altogether. Given that witnessing a perfectly executed tackle can be as thrilling as watching a goal fly in, most fans would consider that a terrible loss to the game – but if the upshot was that the game’s creators shone even more brightly, without risking life and limb, they might be somewhat mollified. Considering the continued emphasis put on individual players in the marketing of the game (not usually defensive ones by the way), it would not be unlikely to see the emergence of a lobby group at the game’s highest echelons pushing this point soon.
An impasse is fast approaching
The alternative could be simply impossible: asking referees to judge the intent of players making challenges to prevent »malicious« tacklers staying on the pitch. No referee should be asked to essentially make an educated guess at human nature and no player should be subject to the resultant bad decisions. An impasse is fast approaching.
The vexed issue will simmer beneath the surface for the rest of the season then, bursting back into the spotlight if another limb is broken. What do you think the solution is, if there is one? Does the same problem exist in the Bundesliga – or do cultural and technical differences make a difference? Would you watch football without the challeneges? Please, try and tackle the problem.
An dieser Stelle erklärt Titus Chalk die englische Fußball-Kultur auf Deutsch
Folge 11: Mind games
Hmm: noch ein anderes Wort, für das ich keine Übersetzung gefunden habe. Kann man wirklich Geistspiele sagen? Ich hoffe es – weil wer nicht Geistspiele spielen mag? Der Geistspiele-Meister ist allerdings Sir Alex Ferguson, der kraftvolle schottische Svengali, der einmal Kevin Keegans Seele abgetaut hat, danke einfach der Intensität seiner Gehirnströme. Seine Überlegenheit der Psychologischen Kriegskunst kommt wahrscheinlich von heimlichen Zutaten, die in sein Kaugummi versteckt sind – Niemand, aber Niemand, kaut mehr.