One of the fears from many supporters of the game is that the art of tackling will be outlawed for one reason or another. Football has the history of being an aggressive game, but the ambiguity surrounding what is an acceptable tackle is taking away a vital dynamic that has made it such a joy for most.
Everyone has their opinion about what is a dangerous tackle and what is an exceptional example of that side of the game. The Paolo Maldinis are not bone crunchers, but the Italian remains one of the finest defenders we’ve seen. The biggest problem about the whole debate is the word ‘opinion’ and that most people – including referees – make their decision based on what they believe to be within the rules of the game.
Vincent Kompany’s tackle on Jack Wilshere two weeks ago became a hot topic for debate, and it’s not the first time the Manchester City captain’s tackling has sparked serious discussion. The argument in favour of Kompany is that he got the ball, while also carrying through onto Wilshere. So what’s the problem?
The issue is we don’t really know what we’re looking for. Yes, a few decades ago the debate and the boundaries of the rules had greater clarity. Now, do we punish tacklers for following through on the opposition player? Some would say Kompany’s tackle could have been dangerous had he got it wrong, but then why would Manchester City win their appeal?
What about the reaction of the player who is in possession of the ball? That brings into question another debate on diving or feigning injury, but it really does distort the view when at first glances a tackle looks to be a good one.
On that occasion, none of the Arsenal players protested; none of the Manchester City players expected much to come from the referee. So who really knows the rules? How can players compete if one week a dangerous tackle is deemed acceptable, yet the following week a strong but clean tackle is viewed as a red card offence?
Incidentally, there was a passage of play during Barcelona’s game against Malaga on the same weekend, where Javier Mascherano flew in to challenge Diego Buonanotte with a strong tackle which did leave the Malaga midfielder on the deck. It was a strong tackle but it was equally an excellent tackle. Mascherano went through the player but there was no doubt that he took all of the ball. It was notably one-footed and the referee had no hesitation about letting play carry on.
Now, it’s one thing to talk about foreign leagues coming down heavier on tackles, but a good tackle remains a good tackle no matter where it takes place. Mascherano’s challenge could have been dangerous considering the speed at which he came in, but then that raises the point that tackling is an art form perfected by some, and one to be admired. The greater problem here is that referees are calling a lot of their decisions on the fly.
And I’m not sure that ex-professionals don’t really help the cause either. Yes, they give their view on whether Kompany should have been sent off, for example. But do we ever get a definitive answer on what is an acceptable tackle in the modern game? One ex-pro will give their opinion – again, opinion, not precise rule of the game – and the following week another ex-pro will give a totally contrasting view. What if you bring together two footballers who played in the early nineties but in two different leagues? Doesn’t that just create further problems on what is a good tackle and what isn’t?
Tackling remains a pride of the English game, but it’s not something other nations particularly regard as highly. There’s a case to be made that a tackle is used by lesser players, those who don’t read the game as well as others and who aren’t able to stay on their feet to intercept or halt opposition play. But that’s a view from other parts of the footballing world and one that is unlikely to sit well with many Premier League fans.
At this stage, the issue needs the intervention of football’s governing bodies. If UEFA and FIFA want to outlaw tackling then they should do so; it at least might be a little better than sitting in purgatory and arguing every other week over what are considered strong tackles and which cross the boundaries into dangerous play.