What Vertonghen dreads is that VAR decisions will turn “standard” fouls into penalty kicks: “I think in the next few years in the Premier League you will see at lest 20, 30, 40 more penalties.”
An exaggeration? I think so. But there is nothing unusual about that. Defenders always feel threatened by rule changes. They lament that their No. 1 weapon -- tackling -- is being weakened, its physical aspects being slowly whittled away. A plaintive where-will-all-this-end? is posed, and answered with the dire warning that tackling is being legislated out of the sport.
Vertonghen does not actually say that. But he does say: “Before it was quite physical but in a fair way. Now you are too scared to get close to someone.”
Another exaggeration. Well, OK, Vertonghen believes defenders are misunderstood, and feels the need to dramatize what he considers the vital point. Things are not as bad as he makes out -- there is still plenty of tackling going on.
The BBC story on Vertonghen referred, in its headline, to “the art of defending.” A high-sounding phrase -- but can it be justified? Is there an art of defending? In theory, yes, of course. But in practice the crudities of modern defending tend to crowd out any idea of artistry.
Something that was neatly illustrated during a recent NBC telecast: April 14, Crystal Palace-Manchester City. Analyst Stephen Warnock (a former Premier League defender) had interesting things to say about the role of “modern-day fullbacks,” and the intricacies, subtleties even, of positional play for defenders. For sure, this aspect of defending can comfortably qualify as an art.
Warnock was worth listening to -- until the 35th minute. That was when Palace captain Luka Milivojevic jumped hard and clumsily into the back of David Silva. Maybe Milivojevic was trying to play the ball, but it didn’t look like it. Whatever, he got nowhere near the ball, but he did flatten Silva. The referee called the foul.
Immediately, Warnock was heard from. Forget about art and subtleties. Forget about the foul, too: “Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to let them know you’re there. Milivojevic was a little bit late, but Silva will be looking over his shoulder next time to see if he’s there or thereabouts.”
A sharp reminder of how defenders range between those who show respect for the rules and those who cynically ignore them. And how commentators have no problem accommodating -- and praising -- both species.
Vertonghen’s answer to what he sees as a looming VAR threat -- that defenders will have to “change the way we defend” -- is intriguing. Not least because it implies that defenders have been “getting away with” fouls that will now be revealed by VAR scrutiny. That those 30 or 40 extra penalty kicks will be justified.
But that is a view that comprehensively undermines Vertonghen’s belief in a golden age of “before” when tackling was “quite physical but in a fair way.” We have come across that claim before -- the venerable and still much cherished English “hard but fair” slogan. I term it the “hardly fair” slogan, and I dislike it. It is the attitude that allows Milivojevic-type fouls to be praised rather than deplored.
The contradiction in Vertonghen’s thinking makes it difficult to fathom exactly what change he is advocating. One plausible interpretation is that he believes defenders will have to become paragons of soccer virtue and abjure the overtly physical and the dubious tackles. That they will have to clean up their act.
I would like to believe that. But decades of watching, studying and listening to defenders (to say nothing of the referees who too frequently favor them), tell me not to believe it until I see it. And I don’t think that will be any time soon.