The Lost Art of Tackling

Posted on March 21, 2013

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Bobby Moore

Tackling is one of the most difficult skills for a footballer to master.  Anticipation, timing, reactions and technique are all key aspects when attempting to execute the perfect challenge.  It is essential to break up opposition attacks; nullify the creative midfielder, prevent a tricky winger creating a cross, or my personal favourite blocking a shot on goal with the desperate, last ditch slide.  If a player can master this skill then he or she immediately becomes a highly important component of their respective team.

The late, great Bobby Moore doing what he did best

The late, great Bobby Moore doing what he did best

Bobby Moore was a pioneer of the art, flawlessly dispossessing the opposition with a perfectly timed tackle and then playing a short and simple pass to a team mate in midfield.  One of Moore’s most famous tackles came in the 1970 World Cup against Brazil; the England centre back robbed a rampant Jairzinho of the ball just inside the England penalty area with graceful show of athleticism.  That one tackle was the pinnacle of a well rehearsed skill which Moore had mastered over his career and is deemed a piece of football pornography by the defenders amongst us.

However, the old fashioned tackle seems to be slowly disappearing from the modern game as softer and softer challenges are punished by referees.  It seems to me that football, especially in European competition, is beginning to distance itself from the skill of tackling.  The Champions League is one of the worst culprits as the match officials seem to readily punish any challenge where the tackler goes to ground.  It is accepted that some sliding tackles can be deemed dangerous play, or to quote the official rules ‘serious foul play’ and therefore should be punished to the full extent of the law.  In my opinion; when a player wins the ball cleanly and a foul is still given for the simple fact that the player went to ground, the referee has made a mockery of the game and the skill involved in making a successful tackle.  Having said that, the beauty of football is captured in the various interpretations of events during a match and the subsequent debate in the aftermath.

The changing tide

The game has seen a lot of change since the days of Billy Bremner, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris and even more modern tacklers such as Dennis Wise with the governance of tackling tightening significantly.  The push for player safety in the professional game has driven these changes but what is the current interpretation of the law?  Is it too strict?

A lot of referee’s seem to be quick to interpret a strong tackle as reckless and thus the player will be deemed guilty of serious foul play.  For example, Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany was sent off for a perfectly timed sliding tackle on Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere back in January 2013.  Referee Mike Dean had obviously felt the tackle was reckless and out of control during the match, but the whole incident reignited the debate over tackling and the interpretation of the laws of the modern game.

Vincent Kompany tackles on Jack Wilshere which received a red card

Vincent Kompany’s tackle on Jack Wilshere which received a red card

Another example from this season would be Jonjo Shelvey’s tackle on Manchester United’s Jonny Evans in September 2012.  Shelvey had overrun the ball and lunged into a challenge with Evans, the tackle saw Shelvey collect a straight red card from referee Mark Halsey.  This was another controversial incident as Jonny Evans had also gone into the tackle with both feet off the ground, but did the fact that Evans came out of the incident with an injury sway the referee?  In this scenario, it was a classic 50/50 tackle reminiscent to the days of Billy Bremner or those of Dennis Wise, both players were committed to winning the ball in a full blooded challenge.  However, one player came away with a red card and the other with a minor injury but was able to continue the game.

Jonjo Shelvey's 50/50 tackle with Jonny Evans which resulted in a red card for the Liverpool man

Jonjo Shelvey’s 50/50 tackle with Jonny Evans which resulted in a red card for the Liverpool man

Halsey’s interpretation of this incident has been well debated and my personal opinion is that both players should have been given a yellow card.  However, the law defines a tackle to be an incident of serious foul play as follows:

A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play.

Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play.” [1]

Following this logic and applying it to the Shelvey-Evans incident, both players should have been sent off as they endangered the safety of the opposing player.  However, the fact Evans remained on the pitch shows that the laws which govern tackling are still very much open to the interpretation of the referee, and despite the rigorous guidelines in place, they are still applied inconsistently.

To look at yet another example, Callum McManaman’s challenge on Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara in March 2013 was one of the worst tackles the Premier League has seen for a long time and one which could have ended the career of Haidara.  Yet no card was shown for what should have been a clear dismissal.  Fair enough, the replays may have shown Mark Halsey’s view was blocked by another player but as I will come to shortly at least one of the officials did see the incident.

So on three different occasions this season; we have seen three scenarios’s where the laws which govern tackling have been interpreted and applied in different ways.  Kompany was sent off for a perfectly fair tackle, Shelvey was sent off for a 50/50 challenge in which both players should have been shown a card and finally, McManaman managed to escape a clear red card for a truly awful tackle.

Callum McManaman's horror tackle on Haidara went unpunished

Callum McManaman’s horror tackle on Haidara went unpunished

To add insult to Haidara’s injury, McManaman also managed to avoid any retrospective punishment for the incident, which enfuriated all at Newcastle United.  Twitter exploded as angry football fans vented their frustration at the decision (me included).  It was a shocking display of ignorance and a lack of common sense on The FA’s part in my opinion.  As the governing body of the sport in this country, The FA need to have a serious look at their policies.  I ask you to solve this riddle… How is it possible that Vincent Kompany’s red card for the Wilshere tackle can be rescinded retrospectively; despite the fact the referee saw the incident and made a judgement at the time, but McManaman’s tackle on Haidara cannot be punished because one of the match officials saw what happened?  I understand The FA don’t want to undermine their referees but this is a complete contradiction as rescinding a card automatically undermines the referee, but at the expense of correcting a mistake.  Please can you give us some consistency with your decisions?

A grey area?

In a way we are still lucky in England to maintain any form of tackling in our game.  Barcelona’s tika-taka style of play has drawn all the plaudits, lauded as the future of football but historically, there has always been a place in the game for well timed, precision tackling, hence the Bobby Moore reference.  As eluded to earlier, continental football and particularly that in Spain seem to be suffering from the interpretation of tackling and what actually constitutes a foul.

I find it highly frustrating watching a La Liga game or a Champions League tie these days, the constant breaks in play where the referee signals a foul and awards a free kick for a soft tackle takes away from the entertainment of the game and endlessly frustrates the players, coaches and spectators. To bring this back into a Premier League context, we have seen a number of exceedingly poor defensive records in recent seasons and I believe the slow death of tackling to be a major cause in this.

The whole tackling debate goes hand-in-hand with the issue of diving.  The theatrics of various professional footballers are only accelerating the demise in the art of tackling and thus make the job of the referee even more difficult.  To interpret what is a foul and what isn’t is hard enough, but the diving culture only exacerbates the issue.  This is another serious problem that needs addressing before tackling can fully reclaim its place in football.

The lines are becoming extremely blurred with the whole issue as referees are making inconsistent decisions on a weekly basis.  However, as much as everyone likes to scrutinise the match officials the problem does not lie solely with them; players also need to take responsibility for tacklings downfall.  Moreover, it is a fact of life that people make mistakes and referees and footballers are no exception to this.  We will just have to accept that bad decisions will be made between those white lines for the time being, at least until the introduction of a video referee… I will leave that point open to debate.

At the present moment; it seems that the monumental midfield battles between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, or the commanding defensive displays of Tony Adams are becoming a rare commodity as the art of tackling struggles to maintain a foothold in the modern game.

A number of factors have contributed to the downfall of tackling, a fear of vilification and exploitation has prevented the modern player from effectively performing their defensive duties.   We are slowly losing one of the oldest skills in the book for a variety of reasons but for me there will always be something invigorating about the art of tackling.  The excitement and aggression amongst the crowd as a player retakes possession of the football with a strong and well timed tackle is an intense moment.  The tackle will always be one of the signature ingredients of football and something we cannot afford to lose.

By Jamie Allen


[1] Law 12, Fouls and Misconduct, FIFA Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees, The FA, http://www.thefa.com/football-rules-governance/laws/football-11-11/law-12—fouls-and-misconduct.aspx

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Posted in: Football, Soccer