The tackling debate seems to take place every season, but not always with the same debaters, and not always with the same arguments. Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany’s, undeniably well thought-out, response to his red card against rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup made some interesting points. His main argument was that the reason the Premier League is the most watched league in the world is due to the physicality. The Belgian international said:
“My understanding is that English football prides itself on the hardness, the fairness and the tradition of its game. That is why hundreds of millions of people tune in to watch Premier League football.”
Kompany was quick to praise the referees whilst merely asking for more consistency. However there is a problem with this; players always call for two things from referees: common sense and consistency. However the two demands are juxtaposed to each other. Either there is a blanket criteria for red and yellow cards and that template is used for every single incident regardless of player mistakes and adhered to without consulting common sense, or common sense is used and the referees are allowed to make up their mind by applying the rules to the individual situation they see in front of them. Neither is objectively the better view, but it is important to recognise that consistency and common sense are, to an extent, mutually exclusive in football.
However Kompany’s point about us losing the physicality in our game that makes it so popular is a fair point. The loss of the physical competitiveness would be a shame, but tackling alone does not embody that. There are many elements to the physical side to our game: for example speed and strength are just as much a part of our game as hard tackling; you could also consider that not reacting to minor fouls is more important than allowing stronger tackles. If every player stayed on their feet every time they could then we wouldn’t be complaining as much as we are. There are bad and strong tackles in every league in the world, that in the English leagues players are less inclined to go down under those tackles is what makes the league ‘more physical’, not the tackles themselves.
However there are areas where perhaps it could be argued that we are less physical. Certainly our attitudes towards goalkeepers, even in the twenty years that I have been watching football, has changed. They are protected beyond belief these days and are always given the benefit of the doubt when they come for ball and miss it at corners or with crosses.
It is also true that if we are looking at, not the strength, but the number of tackles in the Premier League then we are losing that side to the English game. In the last six years the number of tackles per game has fallen every single year and over that period there are now ten fewer tackles per game now than there were in 2006/07. During the 2006/07 season we had the highest number of tackles per game in Europe, now we are fifth in that table. However, whilst this data has some use to us it is not conclusive. The fewer tackles might mean more people playing the offside trap, or less players dribbling and more direct styles of football, or more wingers who are quick enough to evade tackles. There might be fewer tackles, but that doesn’t necessarily mean less physicality.
One final point is that increasingly these days we have older outfield players who are still able to be effective in the English game. Paul Scholes made a scoring return out of retirement whilst Thierry Henry scored on his second debut for Arsenal. Similarly Ryan Giggs is still playing football, and well, as he approaches forty. So how can we explain these older players, some who even retired, being able to come back to the Premier league and hold their own. Well you could put it down to a less physical English game, or you could put it down to developments in sports science; exercise, nutritional experts, yoga and other tools that can be used to prolong the physical prowess of these aging players and are more than capable of justifying their presence in the English game. Kompany’s, and others’, concerns that we may be losing the very ‘Englishness’ of our game that makes it so popular is perhaps a valid concern, depending on your definition of what makes a game physical, and what physical aspects make the game ‘English’. For Kompany it might be going in hard on tackles and giving the defenders the benefit of the doubt, however for me that is just too simplistic. There are so many aspects that make a game physically competitive and it is ultimately hard to argue that we are losing that side to our game.
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