When a team attacks in numbers -- when it sends a majority of its players deep into the opposing half -- soccer’s short-blanket rule takes effect: keep your feet warm and your shoulders will freeze -- moving the blanket up means warm shoulders, but frozen feet.
From the bed to the playing field, where all those players surging into the attack means an under-manned defense, one that is perilously vulnerable to a sudden counterattack. Pull the players back, and the attacking strength is weakened.
If the opponents do suddenly get the ball and start to attack this shaky defense the answer is to quickly halt the progress of the player with the ball. To openly foul him. Stand in his way, pull his shirt, trip him -- nothing too physical, but enough to halt the attack, to allow time for the defense to fall back and reassert itself.
That is the tactical foul. Although it is not mentioned under that name in the rule book, it is clear that the rule-makers regard it as a serious offense. That is spelled out in Rule 12, where a player who “commits a foul which interferes with or stops a promising attack" is deemed guilty of “unsporting behavior.” For that, says the rules, the “player is cautioned.”
That rather mild wording is not a suggestion. It is a command -- the player must be yellow-carded. But it is a command to punish a defensive action. Experience shows us that such rules are rarely enforced with any great zeal. Yellow cards for tactical fouling are not seen too often -- certainly not as often as they should be.
Are there teams that are “getting away with” tactical fouling? Maybe. The culprits would likely be attacking, possession-dominating teams -- like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Sure enough, Man City has been accused. After it had beaten West Ham 5-0 in the season-opener, West Ham coach Manuel Pellegrini had this to say: “All our offensive moments of attacking ended in a foul. You can look at the statistics.”
Pellegrini is clearly alleging that Man City was using tactical fouls. His mention of stats, though, doesn’t help. Evidently those fouls were not called, for Man City got only two yellow cards, both very late in the game. So -- no tactical fouling? Or tactical fouling that was not identified by the referee?
The BBC decided to investigate Man City’s behavior under the heading “What do the stats say?”
A curious article indeed. Firstly because it seems to find it acceptable for a team to employ tactics that involve the deliberate committing of a yellow-card foul.
“Is there actually anything wrong with it?” asks the article, a question that is immediately followed by a section headed “The art of the tactical foul.” And there are plenty of quotes from TV guru Pat Nevin, a former Scottish winger who tells us that every team does it, always has done it, coaches would be furious if they didn’t do it, and tells us that tactical fouling is “utilizing the rules to the best of your ability.” You sense the situation, you commit the foul -- “it’s instinctive and intuitive.” In that fatuous soccer phrase, you “take one for the team” -- thus giving a banal foul the sound of a noble deed.
According to Nevin -- and he’s far from being the only one with this opinion -- tactical fouling is not really seen as breaking the rules, it’s a natural part of the game.
Another curiosity about the BBC story is that, having decided on a statistical analysis of tactical fouling, it then uses stats that are not up to the task.
It was quickly realized that recording the number of fouls a team committed didn’t help. In the 2018-19 EPL season Man City committed only 328 fouls, next to lowest. Only Liverpool, at 315, had fewer. Liverpool, a team with a similarly all-out attacking style to Man City.
Next came counting fouls committed in the opposing half. Man City came third on that scale, at 59%. Top of that table was Liverpool at 63%. Figures that solidify a tactical similarity between Man City and Liverpool, but get us no further on the tactical foul front.
So how about looking into who fouls the quickest after losing the ball? This unusual stat seemed relevant to the BBC, which had got around to defining a tactical foul as “one that is committed soon after giving the ball away.”
Amazingly, the stats were available. Arsenal topped the table, with 8.2 seconds. Then came Man City and Liverpool, both at 8.3 seconds. Telling us what? Very little, unless we also know how many cases there are when Man City loses the ball and either gets it back quickly without fouling, or because the opponents cough it up, or where the opponents simply hang onto it. It is surely unlikely that Man City, or Liverpool, foul every time they lose the ball.
Also working against these “quick-response” stats, is that they fly in the face of what was once held to be the strength of another dominant Guardiola team -- Barcelona. Just a few years ago it was all the rage to praise Barca for the way they recovered the ball so quickly after it had been lost. That was their secret, we were told.
It was not a revelation that appealed to me. I’ve always preferred to explain soccer through players rather than with tactical ploys. I preferred to credit the genius of Lionel Messi. But many assured me it was the team play that did it, that everyone knew to put pressure on opponents whenever the ball was lost. Rapidly winning it back was the aim -- not presenting it to opponents by fouling.
The BBC story fails to either convict or to absolve Man City (and Liverpool, too) of using tactical fouling. Whatever, it does appear to me that Man City (and similar attacking teams, like Liverpool) are the teams most likely to find themselves repeatedly in situations where its use seems desirable.
Not a conclusion that brings me any pleasure, as I admire and enjoy teams devoted to attacking play. Did Barca once solve the problem by pressuring opponents to cough up the ball? Guardiola has denied that his players are told to foul. Unfortunately for him there exists, in a Man City documentary, footage of Mikel Arteta, one of his assistant coaches, telling players “If there is a transition, make a foul.”
So soccer puts another of its perversities before us. You want attacking soccer? Very well, but the price you have to pay is to see the attacking teams using disreputable tactics. For which they should be penalized. At the moment, they frequently escape unpunished.
Something that should not be allowed to continue. Tactical fouling is a game-killing tactic that should be banished from the sport. It is up to the attacking teams -- which usually contain plenty of highly skilled players -- to find a better way, without losing their attacking vitality, of dealing with the sport’s short-blanket problem.