The devious problem of tactical fouling

It is, of course, highly annoying to those of us who favor all-out attacking soccer to be forced into the admission that such an approach involves calculated use of the tactical foul.

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.

18 comments about "The devious problem of tactical fouling".
  1. George Miller, August 23, 2019 at 3:43 p.m.

    Make the penalty hurt: yellow card player n coach. 2nd yellow new player n red coach.
    this along with fines would stop it

  2. Chris Morris, August 23, 2019 at 4:49 p.m.

    Paul, his name is Pat Nevin, not Nevins. No S.

  3. Kent James, August 23, 2019 at 5:07 p.m.

    PG, I wasn't sure where you were going with this; it almost seemed like you were going to favor the tactical foul in order to not penalize possession and attack minded teams for throwing everyone forward.  I'm glad you ended up advocating for more cards for the tactical fouls.  I think most refs are aware, and I think they're fairly common (though they probably leave the card in the pocket if they're not sure).  I played as a defender for 35 years and never committed such a foul, and have had many discussions with teammates as to whether they're necessary (I was usually of the belief that we could stop them legally).  Such fouls are what I would call "honest cheating"; another example was Juarez stopping the ball from going in the goal while playing for Uruguay in the WC a few years back.  You're not hurting anybody (physically), and you're doing it openly (accepting your punishment), so it's not devious cheating (Marodona's "hand of God" goal).  Still not a fan, and not sure what more we can do (though George's carding the coach is worth a try).  

  4. John Soares, August 23, 2019 at 7:34 p.m.

    Perhaps reduce the number of yellows required for suspending a player.
    And/or not all yellows are equal.
    Perhaps the "tactical" foul should count double vs say removing your jersey.

  5. beautiful game, August 23, 2019 at 9:14 p.m.

    KJ; it's not "honest cheating;" it's common player knowledge that most refs will not caution a tactical perp. Tactical fouls are not punished because the refs don't care to enforce it as their instructions are "it's up to your discretion amigo referee." I've seen such fouling in the first minutes of the game and in the latter minutes of the game; the "swallowers" are the majority. It doesn't take a rocket scientist's IQ to figure out a tactical foul...the majority of derelict refs will never caution a player until the director of referees demands it; and they don't.

  6. humble 1, August 24, 2019 at 12:13 a.m.

    I do agree that tactical fouling sucks and deserves more attention, but don't agree associating Liverpool with Man City as having to use tactical fouls as they are both 'attacking' teams throwing everything forward.  Liverpool's front three actually defend, as far back as their own 18 yard box and they have a defensive system to get the ball back in their attacking half.  If you watch the team you will know and recognize this.  Man City's tactic, is also clear if you watch them (Fernandinho et al), and it is exactly Peligrini's point; they do systematically use tactical fouls.  One cannot extrapolate that Liverpool does the same as Man City just because the 'statistics' show the fouls happen in the same zone and they are 'attacking' teams.    

  7. James R Snyder, August 24, 2019 at 7:01 a.m.

    KJ, speaking of misspelled names, it is Suarez, not Juarez, who got Uruguay through to the semifinal. 

  8. Kent James replied, August 24, 2019 at 9:04 a.m.

    My bad.  I'm getting old....

  9. frank schoon, August 24, 2019 at 8:22 a.m.

    Guys , we keep nitpicking as this game and there will be nothing left of this game to enjoy. Look at the fantastic job <sarc>the VAR has done ,it not only alleviated some things  but it has also created other problems.
    In this particular situation PG writes about is all can say that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
    The game has been around for over a hundred years and now all of a sudden we’re constantly reading of all the unfairness situations of the game which has never bothered me of having played over 50 years.
    I understood that the game is played by humans thus is not perfect and therefore  the REF is not perfect ,and therefore teams can gain an advantage one game and disadvantage in another is fluid.

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, August 24, 2019 at 11:05 a.m.

    I would be happy merely if the laws were enforced, but especially persistent infringement.

  11. beautiful game replied, August 24, 2019 at 11:46 a.m.

    Frank; no one is perfect, but when refs are encorouged to keep the game moving and being blind to selective rule infringements, their whistle-swallowing comes into question...that's called dereliction of their duty in enforcing LOTG. All pro-players with half-common sense know how to test a referee's credibility...they'll do it every game, and  until the refs put a stop to it on a consistent basis. Otherwise, the root cause of referee so-called imperfection will continue to to denigrate the game.

  12. frank schoon replied, August 24, 2019 at 11:53 a.m.

    BG, try a robot because that's the only alternative ,otherwise accept human refs, warts and all. 

  13. R2 Dad replied, August 25, 2019 at 4:24 p.m.

    In this case, I agree with BG. IFAB has made a hash of rule updates this year, and yet still no clarification/improvement on Persistent Infringement. In my book, Persistent Infringement has a much greater impact on game "fairness" than a keeper off the line 6" on kicks from the mark. I suppose this is due to the ambiguity involved in deciding which player on a team deserves the yellow, when it could be any number of players that participate in the hacking to stop counterattacks. Regardless, the ignoring of Persistent Infringement because top leagues don't like making that call demands better from IFAB, FIFA and leagues around the world. I certainly expect better interpretation/implementation from Collina in UEFA, yet have seen/heard nothing in this regard. 

  14. Bob Ashpole, August 24, 2019 at 1:09 p.m.

    I don't think BG is complaining about warts and imperfection at all.

    I personally was never bothered about tactical fouls because I was 205 lbs. and 5'11". If someone tried to play me physically, I would run through them a few times instead of around them. That sent a message that always settled things down.

    The smaller guys saw physical play all the time. Cruyff for instance. He played through it, but he certainly didn't like it.

  15. frank schoon replied, August 24, 2019 at 2:47 p.m.

    Bob, whatever the problem, it all comes down to the ref no matter how you look at it....For me to complain about a ref it will have to be disastrous call but otherwise I let things be as they are.
    But as I can tell from some of the postings ,its disaster so often...
    What Cruyff did to protect himself was to vacate the #9 position and left it open for others and himself to run into there foregoing bad fouls.  he preferred receiving the ball facing downfield or his opponent and also making sure to receive He also demanded the  ball to be passed always to the furthest foot away from the opponent and at last always receive the ball on the run but never standing still.....All of this kept him injury free....

  16. frank schoon replied, August 24, 2019 at 3:11 p.m.

    Bob, read this, you'll like it
    Tactical Tale of Arrigo Sacchi | Football Bloody Hell
    Saggi , studied Cruyff, and Michells and like Michells he also studied the '70Brazilian team as well as the  Hungarian  National team of the 50's that introduced the open #9 position that Cruyff followed in his soccer thinking which led to the right half on a lot  of Cruyff's teams to be one of the leading scorers....
    Sacci also went to Ajax where Cruyff coached and became  an understudy at Ajax to Cruyff when has was getting his Italian license. After that he bought from Ajax, Van Basten and Rykaard from Cruyff's team and also Ruud Gullit  and brought them to AC Milan.

  17. beautiful game, August 25, 2019 at 10:18 a.m.

    F.S., ...all I'm asking is fairness and consistent enforcement of LOTG...nothing for your "robot" reference, that robot is the Head of Refs in charge of these enablers who are the warts. 

  18. Mike Lynch, August 29, 2019 at 11:17 p.m.

    Tactical fouls are unsporting, and should be accounted for accordingly per LOTG. Tolerating tactical fouls means the team does not have to be better, just simply illegaly stop the game whenever caught out of position. The only reason why it is so pervasive is because refs tolerate it. With all the silly, nonsense rule changes the past 5-10 years to make soccer more attacking, more continuous, etc and then, tactical fouling is allowed and even encouraged. We are sleeping in the bed we make.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications