Tackling: an awkward activity for players and rule makers alike

Tackling. An essential part of soccer, of course, we all accept that. Well, just about. A year or two back, Michel Platini had the audacity to voice a notion that must have occurred to anyone who has watched more than one or two games: that the sport might be better off if tackling were banned.

The English, of course, threw a collective fit over such a heresy, and no more was heard of it. I am not about to revive that idea, but I do want to draw attention to the fact that tackling does cause a lot of problems, and that most of those problems arise because no one -- least of all the rule book -- has been able to give us a clear definition of what constitutes a legal tackle.

I shall take as the text for this sermon, a tackle made during the EPL game between Bolton Wanderers and Fulham last Saturday. We are at the 56th minute, Bolton its attacking: its South Korean midfielder Lee Chung-Yong dribbles the ball into the Fulham penalty area with Fulham’s Danny Murphy pursuing at his right shoulder. Murphy reaches forward with his right foot, and prods the ball forward as, more or less simultaneously, Lee goes down.

The referee allows play to continue, satisfied that there has been no foul. So, no penalty kick. As it happens, I think he got it wrong, but my point here is not the correctness or otherwise of the referee’s decision. It was a difficult call, and he called what he saw. Rather my point concerns the amount of physical contact surrounding Murphy’s challenge.

Murphy clearly did make contact with the ball, prodding it  forward, but only slightly -- indeed he immediately caught up with it, as Lee was going to ground. So one can safely assume that if Lee had not fallen, he would have got to the ball before Murphy.

So why did Lee fall?  Did he dive?  There was no caution from the referee, so evidently not. Which is where the replays explain matters. Lee fell because he was tripped by Murphy -- slightly before Murphy made contact with the ball. Just before Murphy’s right foot is moving forward to contact the ball, his left leg is making solid contact with Lee’s right leg, more than enough to break Lee’s running motion and to send him tumbling.

One might assume that to be a foul. One might be wrong. This is what the rule book says on the matter of contact when tackling: a direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player “tackles an opponent to gain possession of the ball, making contact with the opponent before touching the ball.”

That’s clear enough, but there’s a major problem. That is what the rule book used to say. That wording was removed in 2008, without explanation.  The rule book no longer deals with this aspect of contact. There is only one conclusion to be drawn: that it is now acceptable to trip or otherwise flatten a player, as long as you then -- afterwards -- manage some sort of contact with the ball.

This is an extension of the more generally accepted view that it is OK for a tackler to bring down a player after he has made contact with the ball -- provided the referee doesn’t judge the tackle to be careless or reckless or to involve excessive force.

But that interpretation is, in my opinion, much too lenient on poor tackling. Returning to Murphy’s tackle. I’ll alter it slightly. Let’s say Murphy had touched the ball away, exactly as he did, but had made contact with Lee only after that. Most referees, I think would allow that. But should they? In this case, if Lee stays on his feet -- I should say if Lee is allowed (by Murphy) to stay on his feet -- he will retake possession of the ball and a dangerous Bolton attack will become more dangerous.

So we’re forced to acknowledge that a tackle can be judged successful not so much because the ball was won, but because the opponent was brought down. If the tackler -- provided he isn’t too vigorous -- is going to get the benefit of any doubt the referee may have, why shouldn’t the tackler aim to bring the player down before, during or after his tackle?

Of course, there is a complicating factor involved. The ball itself. If a tackler gets only ball, but in doing so forces the ball into his opponent so that the opponent trips over it, that is a fair tackle, without a doubt (assuming it is not done violently).

Tackling -- which will no doubt remain a crucial part of soccer -- is a an awkward activity for the rule makers who, as we’ve seen, have trouble defining what’s permissible and what isn’t.

But it also presents problems for the players. How does one learn to tackle? You can’t practice tackling on your own. You need a partner, or a victim, really. Do you know of any teams that have regular tackling drills? How would they be arranged? Who would be the players required to play the guinea pigs, suffering inexpert tackles and risking injury?

It doesn’t happen. Tackling is largely a self-taught skill, learned on the job. It seems likely that today’s game features more crude tackling than used to be the case, if only because modern tactics are so insistent on having everyone, including forwards, assume defensive duties.

Given that, the amount of crude tackling that is seen is hardly surprising. What does raise eyebrows, however, is that the rule book virtually encourages sloppy, even dangerous, tackling by ensuring that it can be judged as legitimate play.

10 comments about "Tackling: an awkward activity for players and rule makers alike".
  1. Soccer Bloke, August 20, 2010 at 8:33 a.m.

    Anyone trying to figure out what is "fair or foul" by reading the rules is in for a tough time. (For example pulling shirts is foul, except, it seems, when you doing it in your own penalty area)

    Refs seem to develop consensus (of a kind) as to how to call things. With tackling it seems to be that if tackler reaches the ball first but with their foot going over the ball and tripping/kicking the opponent, or with the other leg coming in high, then it's a foul. Otherwise, if you get the ball first it's OK.

    A problem with this kind of "case law" is that a different consensus emerges in different leagues: I am not just talking about, say, youth vs adult here, but different leagues at the highest level. Every four years there is some attempt to reconcile practice via the World Cup.

    It is hardly surprising that so many amateur and youth refs have different understandings of the rules, or even seem to have a personal set of beliefs about what to call. Maybe it's not all their fault.

  2. ckg beautiful game, August 20, 2010 at 8:44 a.m.

    Are you serious? Have you ever played soccer or any sport for that matter? Contact and fair or foul is part of most sports. I can't believe I actually read the entire article. I thought at some point you would actually make a point.

  3. Kenneth Elliott, August 20, 2010 at 10:02 a.m.

    What I would like to see, to minimize much of the horrible injuries we see and that the players experience, is a concept, whether it be through the rules, through consensus, or through a combination of the two, where tackling that involves sliding, lunging, jumping, or running INTO the player be considered a foul unless the ball, and only the ball, is contacted fully first. On the other hand, a tackle made on a dribbler by a defender going in the same direction as the dribbler, as long as the ball is touched first, possibly simultaneously, should be considered a good tackle. Going into - foul. Going with - good.

    I have not done any extensive research, but in watching many games in the EPL and the World Cups over the past 12 years, most, if not all, broken legs, torn ligaments, etc. have occurred when the tackle is made in a direction other than the one of the dribbler.

    A dribbler needs to be punished, but fairly. Lunging into him at full force is way too dangerous, especially considering the athletic specimens that play this game.

    The coolest tackles in the world involve that defender who, in starting behind the dribbler, is able to slide forward just enough to nab the ball with his instep, causing the dribbler to go tumbling while he himself rises from the ground, ball at his feet, to start the counter attack.

  4. Gus Keri, August 20, 2010 at 10:21 a.m.

    What was Platini thinking banning tackling all together? Does he want soccer scores to be like basketball scores? If it wasn't for tackling, fouling, shirt pulling, arm grabbing we would have seen scores like 10-9 or 31-0 more often.

  5. Theodore Eison, August 20, 2010 at 10:30 a.m.

    You have really gone off the deep end, but at least you're showing your true colors. Why must you write the same article over and over?

  6. Thomas Sullivan, August 20, 2010 at 11:24 a.m.

    Generally agree with Ken Elliott. Shirt pulling/grabbing really sucks and I would love to see the reds come out for that. But the one thing I would really like to see strictly enforced is an automatic red for leaving your feet for a tackle. More on studs up challenges too. Punish the obvious game killing fouls hard and do it consistently. Players and coaches will get the message.

  7. Eric Bethmann, August 20, 2010 at 3:45 p.m.

    If the trend towards plastic pitches continues, Platini and other 'soft' players will not have to worry about the hard, slide-tackle again. Soft, play-acting, roll around on the ground for five minute wusses are what is keeping football from being a major sport in the USA. This is not to condone the clumsy, violent tackles of say Van Bommel or De Jong. We need better refs around the world who KNOW the differences! BAN PLASTIC GRASS FOREVER!!!

  8. Miguel Dedo, August 20, 2010 at 6:40 p.m.

    Law 12 provides (this is a quote):
    Charging an opponent
    The act of charging is a challenge for space using physical contact within
    playing distance of the ball without using arms or elbows.
    It is an offence to charge an opponent:
    • in a careless manner
    • in a reckless manner
    • using excessive force
    (end of the quote)
    Stepping in front of an opponent to play the ball, by this standard is simply a “fair charge.”

  9. Frank Cebul, August 21, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.

    As a former soccer referee I found Paul Gardner's article to be thought-provoking. Upon reflection I am not so sure that I had a firm concept of a fair sliding tackle, though I tried to call what I thought at the time was fair. I think the best way to clarify the rule is to disallow tripping of the attacker by the defender in all cases except if the ball is stopped by the defender coming in from the side and the attacker trips over the ball. Referees would have to be consistent, and also would have to be willing to show yellow for suspected diving by the attacker, but I think that wording would be easier to learn and leave less open for individual interpretation. Another idea would be to disallow slide tackling all together, which many recreational leagues already legislate. Since slide tackling is most times a desperation move by a defender to try to stop an attacker who has already beaten him, tightening up the rules on slide tackling does not seem wrong.

  10. Chaz Worthy, August 22, 2010 at 1:17 a.m.

    TACKLING is a hazy aspect of soccer…I do think a defender should able to get away with anything IF he touches the ball first…I thought that WAS indeed the rule… an extension of the concept that any player has an equal right to the ball

    …like a safety and a receiver both have an equal right to a thrown (American) football

    …Robbie Musto once said “football is a man’s game”
    …yet we Americans think there is something feminine about the sport…aggressive defending is what gives soccer an "edge", perhaps weeding out less-durable purely finesse players

    Unless a player’s “studs” are “up”…no matter what the angle, if he touches the ball first before crashing/sliding/lunging into an opponent, it should be okay
    …I don’t see any other way of interpreting this rule

    Compelling piece

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