Tackling has been thrust into the spotlight once again with a series of contentious challenges in the Premier League in recent weeks.
The issue is a key one and it shines a light on the development of the English game. Suddenly referees are actually applying the rules, leaving many mystified. Vincent Kompany was shocked to find himself sent off against Manchester United recently, but he should not have been – he went into his challenge with Wayne Rooney with two feet, and therefore deserved to go.
There still remains this naïve ignorance in the game which thinks that if you win the ball, then a red card is not an appropriate penalty. This is nonsense. A reckless tackle, no matter if it leads to the ball being won or not, is reckless, and is punishable with a sending off. That is right and those are the rules.
The inability of many clubs to grasp what appears to be a rather simple premise is remarkable. We stopped goalkeepers picking the ball up and there were rules to prevent goalkeepers holding the ball for more than six seconds. The offside rule, though complex, is understood. So why is it so difficult to understand that a two footed tackle is a red card offence?
It is probably because it tugs at the heartstrings of the English football romantic, who stupidly believes that a good tackle is as entertaining as a sublimely struck shot which gives the goalkeeper no chance. It is a key part of the matchday experience for fans who cheer when a defender boots the ball high into the stands when under pressure. It appeals to the English spirit and favouring of the underdog – after all, those underdogs rely more on such challenges. Basically , it appeals to those who admire Stoke, that sorry excuse for a ‘football’ team whose style of play has about as much to do with the beautiful game as Michelin star cooking.
Tackles are becoming extinct, and are justifying those wise words of Xabi Alonso.
“I don’t think tackling is a quality,” he told the Guardian last year.
“It is a recurso, something you have to resort to, not a characteristic of your game. At Liverpool I used to read the matchday programme and you’d read an interview with a lad from the youth team. They’d ask: age, heroes, strong points, etc. He’d reply: ‘Shooting and tackling’. I can’t get into my head that football development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play.
“How can that be a way of seeing the game? I just don’t understand football in those terms. Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn’t a quality to aspire to, a definition. It’s hard to change because it’s so rooted in the English football culture, but I don’t understand it.”
England then gave a superb demonstration of why tackling is not a quality when they then beat Spain. Rather than launch into the kind of challenges you might expect from a Ryan Shawcross or Joey Barton, players such as Scott Parker sat back and intercepted .Interceptions are the way to win the ball in the modern day. Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal is perhaps the best example of this. He has played arguably his best games against teams – Chelsea, Barcelona etc – who pass the ball through the centre. What he is so good at is not tackling, but intercepting. In fact Koscielny has completed more tackles than any other player in the league, and this is not because he is strong, but his anticipating and ability to intercept.
Tackling is dead. Long live the interception.