Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Why clichés could be more dangerous than two-footed tackles

There is a successful Twitter account which brilliantly collates the clichés in football. They are provided by managers, players, pundits and fans alike. From 'come-and-get-me pleas' to 'hijacked' moves, January is a month in which football provides plenty of material for the internet to chuckle about.

It is when the lines between cliché and law become blurred that problems begin to arise. On Sunday afternoon, we saw this in abundance.

There are two offences in football where popular interpretation departs from fact on a regular basis; the forceful tackle and the isolated defender hauling down an attacker on a goalward path.

Laurent Koscielny's dismissal in Sunday's second fixture was entirely correct, as was Howard Webb's decision to give Martin Skrtel a yellow card for halting Danny Welbeck. The concerning thing is that many of the people employed to explain why they were correct did not know how to.

The words of commentary teams and pundits find their way onto the council pitches of the UK with regularity. When a Sunday League footballer (who, as ever, could have made it...) screams the words “he was the last man, ref!”, remember to address your letters of complaint to Niall Quinn.

'The last man' is a notion which comes up regularly, yet has absolutely no place in the football rulebook. It is the clearest example of those around football saying something incorrect so frequently that it begins to carry some weight.

This isn't the greatest problem area though. The 'denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity' is a relatively simple decision to make and it almost always involves more than one official. The presence of a covering defender is a factor, but not the primary justification for a decision either way.

The interpretation of tackling is a far more significant problem in the game. The judgement of a tackle usually falls on the referee alone and in the short moments he has to make his decision, there is a worry that the same clichés that flood from the mouths of onlookers whirl around his head.

The two phrases of concern are 'studs showing' and 'two-footed'. Both are worthy of consideration, but at no point do they figure in the rulebook. When Niall Quinn, Mark Bright or Andy Townsend justifies a referee's dismissal with one of these lines, football as we knew it slips further away.

Vincent Kompany's red card against Arsenal was not the first time that the big defender has been a victim of the fear that now surrounds the strong tackle. Nobody wants to see another Eduardo or Ramsey, but prevention methods should not harm the game.

Strong tackling is not consigned to the archives in the same folder as the legal back-pass or the quarter-tonne boot. The names of players who spent their careers charging into 50/50 challenges before lifting the vanquished foe from the turf have not been gone from the game for too long.

Take Paul Ince and Roy Keane. Modern football would be terrified by their style of play, but did their methods leave opponents with shattered bones each week? Only when they wanted it to.

It is too late to halt the changing nature of our game. The key phrases are already a part of the pundit's vernacular and, if we are to speculate, the officials who are employed to enforce the rules too.

Look at the 'studs showing' line. Where did that come from? It came from challenges like Keane's on Alf-Inge Haaland where the studs sunk into the Manchester City midfielder's knee. It also stems from tackles where a player's challenge goes over the ball and strikes an opponent. Simply, it was a phrase used to differentiate between kicking somebody with the leather of the boot and planting the studs into them. In all of the examples, the ball was rarely a factor.

In today's game, however, the studs are said to be showing a number of times per game. Even when the studs are attached to a boot that is sliding along the grass, they are showing and people react as if Nigel de Jong is kung-fu kicking people again.

If the studs are planted in the ground as you attempt a sliding challenge, two things are true. Firstly, you are not sliding. As a result of the 'not sliding tackle', the chances of suffering injury are greatly increased.

It is possible to perform a strong and safe tackle regardless of what direction your studs are pointing. If we are going to become so offended when a player goes to ground in a head-to-head challenge, we have effectively outlawed it already.

Kompany's red card has been overturned by the FA, but still there are people who are deeply offended by the notion of the two-footed tackle, despite the second foot hardly being involved and the ball being won long before Wilshere arrived at the scene. “But both feet were off the ground,” they say, “so the rules say he had to be sent off.”

They do not. There are three categories of illegal tackle in the rulebook. The 'careless' tackle merits nothing more than the award of a free-kick. A 'reckless' tackle would involve the disregard of another player's safety and should result in a yellow card. Finally, a tackle that uses 'excessive force' can be punished with a red card because it exceeds the level of force that is necessary and is in danger of injuring an opponent.

There are four types of tackle if you include another category; the legal tackle. A tackle which uses both feet could actually fall into any of these categories, yet the majority of fans would immediately place it into the most severe.

'Two-footed tackles' became an official term of criticism due to tackles like Steven Gerrard's on Gary Naysmith in the Merseyside derby. That was a dangerous two-footed tackle. Kompany's was not. It wasn't even close.

Comparisons between football and rugby do not tend to meet with approval from either side, but the oval ball game is far superior in the way it categorises the severity of offences.

In football, a two-footed tackle or one with the studs visible could be anything from legal to dangerous. There is no such room for interpretation in rugby. If you turn an opponent beyond the horizontal, you will be leaving the field of play. While football asks officials to interpret a challenge using particularly vague definitions, we need to stop throwing the ill-informed clichés about.

They have crept into the consciousness of everybody involved in the game and as a result, the strong tackle is a dying breed. Very few people apply the rules to the context of a challenge and search for a precedent instead. No two tackles are identical and to think that the black and white theory of rugby laws can be applied to football is foolish.

Football is evolving and our constant outrage at the tackle is one of the driving forces. While nobody wants to see players injured, we are likely to eradicate the 50/50 challenge all together unless we stop allowing the clichés to overpower the rules.