By Paul Gardner
Jim Beglin, an Irishman, played soccer for Liverpool in the 1980s. If you’re a Liverpool fan you will remember him, if not you probably won’t, there was nothing particularly notable about his soccer career. Except for what happened in February 1987, when Beglin broke his leg -- that is, he had it broken for him by a wild tackle from an Everton opponent. The injury, in effect, finished Beglin’s playing career.
These days Beglin does TV work and writes a newspaper column. You may have heard him this past weekend, during the NBC airing of the game between Chelsea and Everton.
The game itself was hardly electric. Everton was certainly the better team in the first half, but the game swung, slightly, Chelsea’s way in the second half. Everton turned more defensive, looking to protect the 0-0 draw, and Chelsea labored ineffectually to find a way to break down the Everton bunker. Everton, despite a 53%-47% possession advantage, had only two shots on goal. Chelsea managed eight and, with the help of some poor goalkeeping from Tim Howard, scrambled a winner in added time.
Hardly a game to remember, largely because of stifling defensive play that did not, never does, make for enthralling viewing. But the dominance of negative defensive play was not what our analyst -- Jim Beglin -- found objectionable. What Beglin wanted was more defense. Specifically, more aggressivetackling.
Coming from someone who had his career wrecked by an overly aggressive tackle, that seems a perverse attitude. It is certainly not one that appeals to me. Yes, I have a problem with Beglin -- not because I disagree with him, but because he allows his viewpoint to significantly distort what is happening on the field.
Beglin told us -- he has said this before, actually -- that since his playing days, the game has “gone soft.” He blames FIFA. Too many rule changes designed to protect players from reckless tackles -- “defenders are now unable to display the art of tackling or use controlled aggression to win the ball.”
Beglin pushes further: “Tackling has become an art form that has been phased out. The aggression has gone and it [soccer] is barely a contact sport now ... ” If the sport has lost its contact, it is also pretty clear that here we have an expert who has also lost contact -- ... with the sport.
The “art of tackling” says Beglin cannot be found these days -- a comment I happen to agree with, though, frankly -- having watched this sport for quite a few decades now -- I have some doubts whether this mysterious “art” ever existed at all, other than in a precious few top players. Bobby Moore would be one.
According to Beglin, the decline of tackling is all the fault of FIFA’s rule-tweaking which has led to players (mostly, without doubt, forwards) “on the receiving end of challenges making a meal of them to get their opponents booked or sent off.”
Given that Beglin played most of his soccer in England, you will quickly recognize that he’s talking about those two English obsessions, simulation and diving.
I have a rather different opinion on poor tackling. I do, as it happens, blame FIFA. Not for what it has done, but for what it has not done. It has never developed a vision of the game as they want it to be played.
Lacking a model to aim for, FIFA has totally failed to resist the rise of the coaches’ influence, which has always been negative, and on occasions -- as here -- a disaster.
Since the 1970s, defensive tactics have infested the sport. That is proved, quite conclusively, by the constantly falling -- and still falling -- scoring rate. Goals as an endangered species? Quite so. As the defenders took over, refereeing changed, became much more lenient toward poor tackling. And once defenders got the message that they were likely to get away with poor tackling, why on earth would anyone be interested in cultivating this elusive “art of tackling”?
So of course we now have a situation where -- in Beglin’s words -- “I cannot point to anybody in the game today who I would describe as a great tackler.” So we agree on that.
What Beglin fails to do is to consider the consequences of that observation: That the game -- especially in England -- is now full of mediocre to poor defenders. What effect might that have on the players who are “on the receiving end”? Would he not expect some sort of reaction from players (mostly forwards) who are now, more than ever, the victims of sub-standard tackling? Beglin was a defender and his view of the game is a defender’s view. As a TV guru, Beglin should surely have widened that view to take in the forwards’ POV. He has not done so.
We got a rather neat insight to Beglin’s soccer brain at work during the Chelsea-Everton game. Throughout the first half Beglin found various ways to excuse rough play: at 16" Leon Osman’s foul on John Terry was “the most gentle of contacts, the referee could have let that one go”; at 21" when Eden Hazard was crudely barged off the ball “it looked shoulder-to-shoulder”; at 23" when Frank Lampard was called for fouling Steven Naismith, Naismith had “made the absolute most of it”; at 26" Hazard went down after a clumsy challenge from James McCarthy -- “Hazard just threw himself down” -- no foul, the referee agreed, I didn’t.
On it went into the second half. Gary Cahil was fouled by Gareth Barry, but Cahill was “looking for it -- the ref could have ignored that.” When Beglin did admit a foul by Gareth Barry, he chuckled as he put it down simply to “tiredness.” Then Beglin told us there “is too little aggression in the game” today, before slamming Fernando Torres for “conning the referee” into calling a foul against Leighton Baines. “He [Torres] was looking for it. Baines has not touched him. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Sorry Jim -- the replay shows contact.
And so to the 93rd minute. Foul by Phil Jagielka on Ramires, a trip, free kick to Chelsea. Beglin was, of course, unconvinced. “Did he [Jagielka] stick a leg out? Did he pull it away in time?” Yet the trip looked obvious, as the replays confirmed. Beglin relented, slightly -- “He [Jagielka] just caught him -- but Ramires certainly made the most of it.”
Then, after the score, Beglin reminded us that Ramires was accused earlier this season of going down to win a crucial penalty kick, and maybe this time the call was “a little soft in favor of the Brazilian again.”
This strikes me as being pernicious nonsense. Jagielka clearlystuck his leg across Ramires, inevitably causing contact with the accelerating Ramires. At the very, very least this could have been reduced to an obstruction call -- but still a free kick, probably the same free kick, so still a goal, because that goal needed the intervention of Terry who beat Tim Howard to force the ball over the line.
But Beglin deserves praise for actually having the gall to criticize the saintly Tim Howard -- “Howard made a mistake” -- words rarely heard on this side of the Atlantic. Otherwise, Beglin gave us 90 minutes during which he repeatedly distorted the reality of the game by trying to establish that it was being played by honest, brave, upright defenders who would never commit fouls, and sneaky, cheating forwards who were always conning these naive defenders into fouling them, or conning the referees into awarding free kicks when no foul had been committed.
Beglin’s view of the free kick quickly received support -- not surprisingly, from the Wigan coach Roberto Martinez, who accused Chelsea of using “every trick in the book” to con referees, and said referee Lee Probert “should have been stronger.” Of course, he also accused Ramires of “looking for” the foul.
Martinez, sad to say, is getting to be known for blaming referees when his team loses. Last season, when he was coaching Wigan, he was fined $15,000 for criticizing referee Michael Oliver after Wigan lost 4-0 to Manchester United at Old Trafford. This season Martinez has already publicly weighed into referee Jonathan Moss after Everton lost 3-1 at Manchester City. He also blasted Mark Clattenburg for not giving Everton a penalty kick during its 1-0 loss to Spurs.
This makes the whole business rather painful for me --- for I do regard Martinez as one of the more likeable and more sensible EPL coaches, and I do find Jim Beglin’s TV work much better than that of most of his ex-pro colleagues in England. Why both of these intelligent guys would want to take up the cudgels on behalf of roughhouse defending baffles me. That both were defensive players does not seem an adequate reason for such an abdication of fair-mindedness.