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. 

Die Titus-Fuss­bal­ling-Eng-zyklo­pädie
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.