When Coaches Speak

Listening in as coaches accuse each other of dirty tactics is a fascinating, if ultimately frustrating, exercise. If only because you know that while Coach A may today be accusing Coach B of encouraging roughhouse play, it won't be long before Coach A will be accused of the same crime by Coach C, while Coach B will be finding the same fault with Coach D.

And all of them will be correct. Because it is rare for coaches to speak objectively. Indeed, it may be impossible. So expect no consistency from coaches when it comes to the matter of fouling. Coach A complains bitterly of what he sees as a disgraceful tackle from one of Coach B's players -- and let's say that we agree, it was a bad tackle. But when, the following week, one of Coach A's players commits an almost identical foul, the coach will tell a very different story as he attempts to justify what he had condemned only a few days earlier.

Let us take Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal coach, whose team has a reputation of playing attractive soccer. One might almost say, given the unpleasant macho atmosphere that obtains in English soccer, that Arsenal are often accused of playing good soccer.

Whatever, Arsenal frequently play skilled soccer -- which ought to mean the opposite of roughhouse soccer. Generally it does. And when opposing teams resort to fouling, Wenger -- probably the most articulate of the EPL coaches -- springs to the defense of his players. He did it this past week and, to my eyes, he was exactly right to do so.

He directed his criticism at Stoke City, and in particular at the tackles that saw two of his players, Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott, stretchered off the field.

Both tackles were bad -- dangerous or clumsy, it makes no difference. Anyway, one surely has a right to expect that tackles in the league that claims to be the best on the world will not be clumsy.

Wenger questioned whether either of the Stoke tacklers - Ryan Shawcross and Rory Delap -- were even trying to play the ball. Of course the Stoke coach, Tony Pulis, defended his defenders, Delap in particular, who is "as honest and committed as they come." Of course. Then the Stoke goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen, had to have his say, accusing the Arsenal players of "lacking that bit physically ... they lack that bit of spine you need." Spineless wimps, in fact.

No coach is going to take that, so Wenger pointed out that if it's a question of bravery on the field, then "you don't have to be brave to tackle from behind." No, he said, it was his Arsenal players who showed bravery by trying to play soccer in the face of such intimidation.

Again, I'm in agreement with Wenger. His complaints can be easily dismissed as the bleating of the losing coach, but I feel he is correct to sound off about the use of rough play as a tactical weapon. I do not find the attempts of Pulis or Sorensen to disguise intimidating roughness under that catch-all definition of direct play at all convincing.

Sadly, this confrontation between "physical" soccer, and "pretty" soccer is tilted, from the start, toward those of the physical persuasion. They play their game and if the real soccer players don't descend to their level, then they're wimps. If they do, they may get the satisfaction of kicking their opponents, but their chances of coming off best in a kicking contest are obviously not good.

And the sport itself suffers, of course. But it seems we're not to be concerned with that. As long as it's played in a manly way, everything is OK. On that point, as Pulis and Wenger were exchanging barbs, I was astonished to see another English coach -- Paul Ince of Blackburn, something of a Rottweiler in his playing days -- come out with a phrase I thought one didn't use these days -- "It's not a game for women," he said.

Perhaps all that needs to be noticed here is that Arsenal, despite being spineless, are considered one of the strongest teams in the EPL, while the manly Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers are among the weakest -- and among the worst, should you be looking for something worth watching.

In this instance, I'm in Wenger's corner. But I know that will not last because it will not be too long before Wenger is excusing or ignoring an egregious foul by one of his own players. After all this is the same Wenger who harbored the talented but undoubtedly violent Patrick Vieira on his team for years, and I certainly don't recall Wenger ever criticizing Vieira, despite his impressive collection of red cards.

2 comments about "When Coaches Speak".
  1. , November 6, 2008 at 11:16 a.m.

    Although I dislike it, physical play will be part of soccer for ever. When you have a huge difference in the technical and tactical ability of two teams, The lesser team will resort to defence and physical tactics to keep the better team from running the scoring board and embarassing them. I put the blame on the referees for not showing the cards earlier when they sense that the lesser teams are resorting to these kind if tactics. The majority of the physical players become less physical after they receive a yellow card.

  2. Kent James, November 10, 2008 at 1:37 a.m.

    Good column. I'm an arsenal fan because of the attractive style they play, but I'm also an aggressive (but clean) defender as well as a referee, so I've seen this difficult issue from many different angles. Intentional intimidating play needs to be dealt with immediately, and this is the referee's difficult job. Too many referees try to avoid giving yellow cards, and try to "keep players in the game". If someone has committed a foul that deserves a yellow card, they should get one. Sure, a foul in the grey area may be dealt with by admonishing the player, and wether or not a card is given in such a case is may depend on how the rest of the game is going. Even worse is when referees hesitate to give a 2nd yellow, in order to keep from ejecting a player. I've even had assignors (at the college level) criticize referees for giving too many yellow cards, even when the assignor had not seen the games (it was a blanket statement). Attitudes like this allow teams that intimidate to get away with it. At the higher levels, it is insulting to a player not to give a yellow card for a foul that deserves one, because to not do so essentially says "I think you did not really mean to do that and should be dealt with leniently because you can't help your lack of ability."
    That being said, skillful players should not be encouraged to "draw fouls". Soccer, even soccer played cleanly, is a contact sport, and players who go down at the slightest contact are almost as suspect as players who foul on purpose (the only reason they're not is because they don't hurt anyone). Players who dive, or embellish fouls put the referee in a tough spot (especially the latter; divers you can card, but what about the player to "makes a meal" out of an incidental foul. Call the foul, one team sees you as falling for a dive. Don't call the foul, the other team thinks you can't see a foul. So if you're diving, then you should not complain if the referee misses some fouls because he assumes those are dives also.
    The only solution I can see is to support referees in their attempts to crack down on illegal physical play. And at the highest levels, where there are videos of everything, allow post-game punishments (forcing players to miss games) for any bad tackles, and also for any dives (or embellishments). Referees can't get them all right, but with video evidence, they should be able to catch some that they missed initially. Soccer is a beautiful game when skillful players are allowed to play it.
    One (significant) rule change that might encourage referees to eject players who deserve it would be to not make them play short (unless the player was ejected for preventing a goal scoring opportunity). Making a team play short certainly can change a game (and not always for the better), and referees (rightfully so) hesitate to "determine the outcome of a match." Such a change would hurt the individual but not punish the entire team (nor significantly change the nature of the game).

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