Time to clamp down on studs-up

By Paul Gardner

Two recent incidents in English Premier League games have -- as was drearily predictable -- produced yet another shriek of outrage from those who want soccer to be a sport in which kicking opponents is all part of the fun.

On Sunday Manchester City’s defender Vincent Kompany got a straight red card for a, shall we say, robust frontal tackle on Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere. Alan Hansen, formerly a Liverpool defender, now a top TV guru, is distraught -- if that red card is not overturned, he says, “it will send out the message that tackling has gone forever.”

Then we got this -- a lament that we’ve heard before -- “Soon, defenders will be frightened to make any tackles at all.” That came from former Chelsea defender Ron Harris, which makes it something of a joke, given Harris’s well-deserved reputation as a violent tackler, and his nickname of “Chopper” Harris.

The defenders of violence invariably feel they have to disguise the true nature of what they are advocating. The brutal “sport” of boxing, has long called itself “the noble art,” and that commendable word, art, crops up again and again -- the art of hunting, the art of self-defense. And, of course, “the art of tackling.”

Kompany’s tackle was a slide tackle, so his studs were showing, which is often considered a no-no these days. As it should be. But the obvious contradiction -- rules that permit sliding tackles, as against the widespread acceptance that studs-up tackles are dangerous, has not been resolved -- indeed, seems to have been barely noticed.

Kompany has been heard from, stating -- irrelevantly -- that “I will never pull out of a tackle, I will never intend to injure a player.” No one is saying that he should avoid tackling, or that he is looking to harm opponents. The objection is that he is using a form of tackling that is inherently dangerous. It needs to be carried out with perfect technique and timing to be risk-free.

And how often does that happen? Not very. Though it may have happened here, with the claim that Kompany achieved perfection and got all ball and none of Jack Wilshere. But how telling that a Reuters article, looking for a comparable example to confirm the “art” of these tackles, had to go back to 1970 to recall a tackle made by England captain Bobby Moore on Brazil’s Jairzinho. Moore, mark you, was generally considered an exceptionally skilled tackler.

Chopper Harris -- whose absence from the playing field since his retirement in the mid-1980s has not exactly damaged the sport -- raises the matter of diving. Of course, diving is the focus of much discussion in England at the moment, with the noisy anti-diving brigade whining of another apocalyptic moment -- not just the end of tackling, but the end of soccer itself. Killed off by the cheating divers, who are now detected everywhere.

“Instead of making villains out of people like Kompany, they need to crack down on the cheating we are seeing,” says Harris, “We see it every week.”

Well, maybe. Certainly “we” -- a “we” I can only interpret as those who want to see diving whenever a player goes down -- saw it the day before the Kompany red card, when Southampton had beaten Aston Villa 1-0 on a penalty kick. A PK that should not have been called because, as replays showed, the tackler, Villa’s Enda Stevens, did not make contact with the Southampton player who went down, Jay Rodriguez.

A dive by Rodriguez, then? No. There is absolutely no evidence that Rodriguez, in going to ground, was “attempting to deceive the referee by ... pretending to have been fouled.” For a start there was no embellishment, there were no theatrics, from Rodriguez.

What happened was that Stevens launched himself into exactly the sort of tackle that Kompany made a day later: jabbing his leg forward, studs up, toward Rodriguez. The difference being that Stevens got his timing wrong -- his tackle was late and his studs were headed directly ... not toward the ball, but towards the ankle of Rodriguez’s weight-bearing right leg. Rodriguez saw it coming -- and just had time to give a hop as he raised his threatened leg. With the inevitable result that he pitched forward.

The referee was fooled -- but not by any trickery by Rodriguez, who was acting in self-preservation. Had he left his right foot on the ground, the chances of an injury, possibly a severe one, were high. His action -- to get out of the way, was surely instinctive. He was not cheating. But The Telegraph newspaper duly reported on “the latest storm over cheating”, The Sun spoke of “the latest cheat row.

As part of this contentious issue in England, we are asked to believe by Chopper Harris and his crew, that soccer is now composed of devious forwards (“prima donnas” he calls them) who use every cheating trick they can think of to fool referees and to outsmart defenders. While the defenders, we must understand, are all forthright, honest players who only rarely commit fouls, and wouldn’t dream of trying to con a referee. If an opponent does happen to get injured by one of their splendid tackles, well, that’s too bad, and anyway, it’s a contact sport isn’t it?

The facts in this division of opinion are overwhelmingly against the doomsayers who moan that tackling will soon disappear from the game. Have they not noticed the stranglehold that defensive play has on the game? Are they unaware that the goalscoring rate has been going steadily downwards for decades?

That can be summarized by simply pointing out that it is now absolutely acceptable in the game to commit tactical fouls (though they are specifically banned by the rules), and that such fouls, a regular part of every game, are openly if cynically described by commentators as “good fouls.” How else is one supposed to interpret that attitude other than to call it a blatant bias in favor of defenders breaking the rules? How else? Well, we could call it what it is ... cheating.

Defenders, including goalkeepers -- maybe especially goalkeepers -- already have it far too easy. For reasons that I do not understand, and for which I have yet to see a satisfactory explanation, they are usually granted “the benefit of the doubt” when things are not clear.

Given all that freedom to ignore the rules, it should not be surprising that they feel they have the right to demand that dangerous studs-up tackling be accepted as just part of the game.

But wiser heads should prevail here. Which makes it tragic that action should really begin with the rule-making body, IFAB, which should make it clear that studs-up tackles are banned -- (which might well mean the end of all slide tackles) -- as either reckless, or because they pose a danger of injuring an opponent. Sadly, the notion that there are wiser heads to be found among the IFAB ranks is not one that can be relied on.

11 comments about "Time to clamp down on studs-up".
  1. Aris Protopapadakis, January 15, 2013 at 1:31 a.m.

    It makes no sense to me to NOT call a foul in the situation you describe with Rodriguez. If a player has to jump out of the way and falls (or not fall) because the coming tackle may injure him, why is that NOT a foul. Do you have to be injured to get a foul call?

  2. Allan Lindh, January 15, 2013 at 3:41 a.m.

    This time Mr Gardner is right -- almost. Don't have to ban tackling, but studs up, sliding through the player at high velocity, those should go. And he's quite right that "tactical fouls" should all get yellow cards, first time, no question. Intentionally breaking the rules to gain an advantage is the definition of a yellow card.

  3. R2 Dad, January 15, 2013 at 10:39 a.m.

    It doesn't help that most of these commentators have previously worked in the defending half of the pitch--it's a simple bias on their part, really. What should take place now is a comprehensive review on the part of the media on what constitutes a careless, reckless, and excessive force tackle. It appears the Brit's definition may be different from that in the LOTG. Interpretation changes over time and there is no crime in that.

  4. R2 Dad, January 15, 2013 at 11:19 a.m.

    I haven't been following the English papers, but here are the drama queens over at The Daily Mail:

    The forgotten art of tackling: Sportsmail remembers Moore, Bremner and those who put the boot in best... before the skill is outlawed for good

    "Vincent Kompany was sent off at Arsenal on Sunday even though he took the ball - and, deliciously, the man: Jack Wilshere."

    "It pains me because a blood-and-thunder tackle is something to be celebrated in football. It gets fans off their seats, draws a roar from the stands and creates atmosphere. And atmosphere is, after all, the reason we all love going to football matches."

    There doesn't appear to be excessive force, so in my book it's a reckless tackle and only a yellow.

  5. beautiful game, January 15, 2013 at 11:40 a.m.

    Allan L makes a good point about tactical fouls which need to be punished a caution. As for, "Blood & thunder tackles....?" Studs up is dangerous play and should be enforced without hesitation. Too many top players have had their careers cut short because of such permissive recklessness.

  6. David Mont, January 15, 2013 at 1:18 p.m.

    Unbelievable. The FA overturns Kompany's red card for a challenge that many thought either deserved it or was borderline. Yet, the FA does nothing when refs disallow perfectly good goals, or allow goals that never crossed the goal line, or allow goal scored with a helping hand, or when a deliberate handball in the box goes unpunished, or... the list is too long to continue. I'd like to hear from those who preach how great the English refs are. (Of course, when they do get it right, i.e. Kompany's red card, the FA publicly humiliates them!)

  7. Kent James, January 15, 2013 at 5:45 p.m.

    I agree with the need to crack down on tactical fouls; there should be no such thing as a "good" foul. While Kompany timed his tackle perfectly, studs up with the full weight of his body going into where the attacker is going to be is inherently dangerous, and should be banned (so it wasn't unsporting or malicious, it's just too easy to miss and really cause damage). That being said, there is an art to tackling, and good slide tackles are fun to watch (and do, assuming the field is in good shape). Good slide tackles block the path of the ball completely and should pose no risk to the offensive player (other than them possibly tripping over the ball when it's progress is stopped). But such tackles are not going into the player, they are going across the path of the player. Aris' point about the attempt on Rodriguez still being a foul is correct, there does not have to be contact for something to be a foul (the rules include the provision "trip or attempting to trip" an opponent). So it sounds like the ref got that one right. R2, thanks for posting the You-tube clip.

  8. Ramon Creager, January 15, 2013 at 5:46 p.m.

    A couple of thoughts. First, as a former defender myself, I think I can safely say that proper technique does not entail leading with the studs. Any tackle leading with studs should be banned, as it is meant only to intimidate. A properly executed slide tackle aims to allow the defender to sweep the ball away with his shin or the instep of the foot, with one leg semi-extended. Ideally contact with the opponent is minimal or avoided entirely. Now let me put on my referee hat (I did that for a few years too) to say this: The current publication of the FIFA Laws of the Game already deals with these atrocious lunges. In the "Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees", under Law 12 on the section on "Serous Foul Play" it states: "Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play." NOTE: It does not say that it is OK if no contact is made! It says "with excessive force, and endangering the safety of the opponent." If the opponent manages to avoid the horror tackle it is still sanctionable.

  9. Ramon Creager, January 15, 2013 at 5:57 p.m.

    BTW, I forgot to mention that according to Law 12 "Serious Foul Play" is a sending off offense, not a cautionable offense. If you look at the video R2 Dad posted it is crystal clear that Kompany's lunge fits--to a tee--the description of serious foul play in the "Interpretations and Guidelines" that I quoted above and therefore was correctly sent off.

  10. R2 Dad, January 16, 2013 at 11:27 a.m.

    This tackle is unusual since Kompany does lunge but almost from a standing position. Wilshere is the one carrying speed, so it's hard to claim excessive force is due to Kompany in this instance. I think it would have been more intelligent for the FA to allow the red to stand but make an exception for a 1 game suspension instead of 3. Publicly gutting your referee's decisions is bad policy and now the FA will have to deal with unintended consequences the rest of the season.

  11. Ramon Creager, January 16, 2013 at 4:05 p.m.

    R2 Dad, I agree on what you say about the FA. They are essentially showing up their ref, which is doubly bad since I think the ref was arguably right. (He certainly was not guilty of any blunder or misinterpretation of the rule; it's a matter of judgement whether Kompany was using excessive force; he certainly did go in two-footed and studs up.) And this brings up a more fundamental issue. PG says there ought to be a rule. I think the issue is not whether there is or isn't a rule against this, because there is, as I've noted above. Rather, it is whether bodies like the FA are willing to enforce it. Which doesn't appear to be the case. It does little good to have a rule if it is ignored.

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