Birmingham City And The Definition Of Malicious Intent

Arsene Wenger has talked a lot about tackling. Invariably the discussion gets hijacked by clueless hacks and pundits who convert that into an Arsenal V Rest of the League debate and take pride in highlighting one or two poor tackles by Arsenal players.

According to a number of morons who have the privilege of influencing public opinion, Arsenal are just as bad as any other team when it comes to tackling. These half-wits honestly think that the card count this season actually proves their point!  Leaving aside the fallacy of that argument, I want to focus on one issue that Arsene keeps talking about but is rarely heard.

Allow me the liberty of paraphrasing Wenger’s message. Based on what I’ve understood, Le Boss is against bad tackles irrespective of the player or the team that commits such a tackle. He is in favour of a physical game where the referee is strong and protects the talented players from getting injured. Wenger does not want a ban on tackling per se; he just wants to see good quality tackling being promoted and poor, dangerous, and at times malicious tackling being stamped out.

In this regard, Arsene has been very consistent and has often apologized for a mistimed tackle by one of the Arsenal players. Here is where it gets tricky. As no one can get into the head of the player, how do we know the perpetrators intent? When is a bad tackle simply mistimed? When is it malicious and reckless?

While I accept the possibility that an honest tackle can break a leg and the incident could be pure bad luck, it’s hard to accept all horrendous tackles being classified as ‘lacking intent’ or ‘honest but mistimed attempts’. Some teams have realized that they can hide behind this excuse and go out to cause significant damage to the opposition. In Arsenal’s last game, Birmingham City gave us numerous examples of just what is wrong with English Football.

Let’s look at Roger Johnson’s tackle on Cesc Fabregas.



After looking at that snapshot, no one can argue that it wasn’t high, studs-first, and consequently extremely dangerous. It wasn’t a late tackle as the Birmingham defender got the ball so the next question is, was this tackle clumsy or malicious?

In order to answer this question we need to ask another one. What was Roger Johnson trying to do? The answer to that question will help us establish a better context for judging the actions of the man in Blue. We can do this by observing the play just before the tackle. The following image will help.


What is Roger Johnson trying to do?

If you’ve seen the game/video of this incident, you might recall that this tackle came about after a poor touch by the defender put him in a spot of bother. As we can see above, if Cesc had won the ball and hadn’t been taken out, RvP and Nasri would have had a great run at goal with only Scott Dann (outside the image on the left) between them and the goal. So it’s safe to say Johnson was trying to break up the attacking opportunity, which is fair enough.

The next question we need to ask relates to the technique of the defender. Why did Johnson go studs first and what was he trying to achieve with his tackle?

As we can see in the snapshot above, and given the angle at which Johnson went in, it seems clear that he wasn’t really trying to win possession or pass to a team-mate as there was no Birmingham player behind Fabregas. As it turned out, the ball went towards Djourou and the Blues would have conceded possession even if it had been a fair challenge.

So we have to wonder why Johnson didn’t go for the ball with his laces or instep. He could have swung his foot with his studs facing the ground or away from the opponent. He would have achieved the same purpose even with that technique and there would have been no real injury threat even if he caught the opponent in the process. In fact, if he went for the ball with his laces, the defender could have passed the ball towards Bowyer.

To summarize, the Birmingham player could have used different technique to achieve a similar result or better but chose to go in high and studs-first. To me, that is a classic example of “leaving your foot in” or “letting them know you’re there”. Roger Johnson didn’t want to break Fabregas’ leg but he wanted to make an early impact on the best midfielder in the Premiership. I rate that as malicious intent.

I might have dismissed this as a one-off if it had been an isolated incident. But anyone who saw the game will agree that there were many other ‘physical’ moments in the game. Let’s analyze this challenge by Bowyer on Sagna in a similar manner.


Both have an equal chance of winning the ball?

At the moment when the above snapshot was taken, Sagna is on the ground and Bowyer is in a good position to win the ball. His weight is on his left foot and the right foot is in the air. All he has to do is stretch towards the ball and knock it away. Similarly, Sagna just has to swing his left leg to make an attempt to win the ball.


Sagna goes for the ball, Bowyer for the man!

The Frenchman does just that and wins the ball while the Birmingham player raises his foot quite like a horse would raise its hoofs when the animal wants to attack someone. If you actually think from a technique point of view, it’s very difficult to understand just what Lee Bowyer is trying to achieve here.


A geometry lesson might have helped?!

The shortest distance for him would have been the straight line I’ve drawn at the bottom of the image. That would have given him the best chance of winning the ball if he actually wanted to. Instead, the Birmingham hard-man raised his foot up and brought it down.

Football is a game where tackles can be won or lost in a fraction of a second. Bowyer has been around for a long time and he knows this all too well yet he chose to go for the stomping action.


"Leave Your Mark", they say!

By the time Lee Bowyer landed on Sagna’s knee the ball was out of the frame. It is interesting to note that the Birmingham man actually twisted his leg a bit and I’m really thankful for that act of mercy if I can call it that!

If Bowyer had brought his foot straight down (see the second last image above), his studs would have penetrated the Arsenal defenders skin and might have caused serious damage to his ligaments and other tissue.

These observations strengthen my belief that the Birmingham player wanted to leave his mark without really having the intent of breaking a leg or causing serious injury. The problem with such attempts is that it’s not always under control and the risk of a horrific accident is much higher than from a mistimed but honest tackle.

Arsene Wenger does not have a problem with tackling but he has a problem when opposition players go out to target their Arsenal counter parts. The matter goes out of hand when the ref turns out to be blind or impotent.

I accept the argument that no one wants to break a leg but it’s pretty obvious these players want to inflict ‘some’ pain. Unfortunately, they cannot always control the extent of pain/injury that they cause.

I don’t normally agree with Graham Poll but in this case he got it right.

Incredibly, he was allowed to stay on the field after a disgraceful stamp on Sagna before raking his studs down the Arsenal defender’s Achilles. Both incidents appeared pre-meditated and intended to cause maximum harm.

The FA are said to be looking at both incidents. Let’s hope they find a hitherto unseen strength and give him at least a six-match ban.

There is no doubt the fouls were pre-meditated and intended to cause harm, maximum is debatable. If the FA actually want to improve the English game they must ban Bowyer for six games at the very least, although I’d personally prefer to see him banned for the rest of the season. That would send a very strong message to other teams in the league that they cannot hide behind the “he’s not that kind of a player” excuse when the evidence is damning.

On a side note, it was fun to hear McLeish initially giving the excuse – “he did not see it”, and later refusing to comment on the incident on the grounds that it is under review. The Birmingham manager knows what a horrific challenge that was and I’ve a sneaky feeling it was closely related to his pre-match instructions. Will we ever know? I guess not.

Unfortunately, there are very few people who actually like to look at the details and ask serious questions. Here is what a pundit on MotD said,

You’re playing Arsenal and you think let’s make it extremely difficult without, you’d hope, crossing the line.

Speaking about the Johnson tackle the same pundit said,

It’s a really, really strong challenge but he does go for the ball here.

Could he have done any worse if he actually wanted to trivialize the whole issue!?

In conclusion, this game gave us a clear definition of malicious intent in football.

Malicious Intent can be seen when football players choose to tackle in an inefficient manner, with poor technique even when they have better, and at times easier, options available, in order to specifically inflict some sort of a physical blow on the opponent. Such a tackle is not intended to cause serious injury but the extent of harm inflicted is often outside the control of the player making the tackle.

From now on I’ll keep an eye out for such tackles and will try to point them out whenever possible. Any opinions or observations on this topic are most welcome.

36 Responses to Birmingham City And The Definition Of Malicious Intent

  1. Claver says:


    I can only say thanks for highlighting this awful manifestation of ‘tactics’ used against Arsenal. But never against Man U!

    For the last 4yrs especially, we have had to watch players put up with GBH on the football pitch and that being labelled entertainment.

    Of-course, this is all edited out of the final clips by reporters and never discussed. Personally, I think Lee Bowyer is just an extremely lazy player, who never bothered to learn how to defend or how to attack. His mouth does the running for him.

    It isn’t just a question of malicious intent. The coaches who allow players to do this are responsible for the lazy, kick and run football we see from England. I blame them.

    They think it’s easy to do what Makelele did, just run around like Fletcher or Anderson, kick a few people, block their runs illegallly, muscle them off the ball, job done. And run around a lot.

    What a lazy, primitive way to play football. Most people don’t realise that someone who can do flicks and tricks in a game does a lot more work on the pitch than a plodder like Bowyer.

    I best stop.

    • bob says:

      @Claver: No, this is beyond lazy, primitive. To let it go at that is to enable the practice as in “boys will be boys.” What to make of the referee’s malicious negligence. Did he see either assault on Sagna or not? No, he will say. And if he didn’t see it, what then of the 4th official, Anthony Taylor, who is tasked with informing the referee IF the referee is not in the vicinity. Did the headsets give out? That would take them both off the hook. What do you think about Peter Walton, the so-called referee being “in charge” at Stoke when another lazy, primitive (aka as a “good lad”) named Shawcross also lost control. And no mention, dear Clavel, of Eduardo’s fate at this very ground. There is a context, Desi – an historical context – that while not necessarily proving criminal intent (yes, beyond malicious intent) and a constellation of beneficiaries of injuries to Cesc and Sagna that cannot be whitewashed, either by euphemism (“lazy, primitive”) or by neglect. I greatly respect you for raising the issue so prominently here, but there are other vectors that converge and flow from this crime scene. The point is that now, before tragedy derails our drive for the championship, is the time for bloggers and readers to converge on this moment and demand a stop to the violent intent with real winners and losers that is hijacking our beautiful game.

      • desigunner says:

        I agree there are other vectors involved. But it would need a great deal of research and a large number of articles to cover. I wrote this piece specifically to show that there is malicious intent in many of the challenges against the Arsenal players. I don’t think many people have touched upon this and most tend to dismiss it as “just an accident” or a “honest mistake”. So I thought it was relevant to discuss the difference.

        If you wish to say something more on this topic feel free to drop me an email.

    • desigunner says:

      Never against ManU. It’s shocking but hardly surprising. I watched the Birmingham – United game with interest and am right now watching the United – Stoke game. Can’t recall a single “strong challenge” on a United player. Would love to see the reaction if someone goes in on Rooney the way Johnson or Bowyer did in this game.

      I agree the coaches are responsible for this kind of football but they are not the only ones who have kept English football in a primitive state.

  2. Dhruv says:

    considering one of their goons already snapped our at the time in form striker’s leg in two, it really is quite disgraceful how some of them went about “roughing” The Arsenal up. I really hope they double the ban to 6.

  3. Prabal Rakshit says:


    Completely agree with you about the way Arsene is taken out of context on this. Troy Pulis loves pointing out that Arsenal have won more red cards than his team, yet none of the two reds by Koscielny and one by Sagna (against Partizan) could be attributed to malicious tackles. They were just given because the defenders were the last men standing between the player and the goal. (Might as well disagree after watching Gary Neville against WBA :-)).
    To compare these incidents with the likes of Bowyer, Shawcross, Nigel de Jong (on Hatem ben Arfa) is just preposterous.

    On a different note, one reason for such malicious tackles is the lack of defensive technique. The coaches and some players alike believe that brute force is the only way a ball can be taken away from an attacker. worse still this is considered as a mark of valor, and not an infringement of footballing decency. Look at the legendary Bobby Moore tackling Jairzinho in the 1970 WC

    (Go to 0:40)
    I wish more coaches preached on similar lines.

    • desigunner says:

      Technique, or lack of it, certainly plays a big role in these issues. And I used to initially accept these horror tackles as purely technical issues but after watching the ‘thug’ teams’ performance United I get a more sinister feeling about this.

      And to answer an earlier question of your, sorry wasn’t able to respond to that comment, my name is Abhisar. You can address me by that name of desi or any other that seems comfortable to you 🙂

  4. press says:

    its been 3 days and FA has not said anything.BBC nor skysports havent bothered to highlight it.its typical of hw English players are protected..i wont be suprised if Bowyer is not charged at all

  5. azizi says:

    top post mate! you’ve analysed the issue like a professor. cheers to you desi, the ‘scholar-fan’.

  6. Gooner64 says:

    Excellent post Desi,

    I’m in total agreement with you on this. Really well thought out piece.

  7. Rash says:

    Desi you’re spot on and I support you in highlighting this everytime it happens. Hope other bloggers will do the same and put the heat up and get FA to charge. Most people just keep quite because Fabregas & Sagna was OK…what are you all waiting for? Another Eduardo case??

    Let’s fight this CRIME!

  8. djteeie says:

    Is it just me or did anyone not notice the stamp by jerome on koscielny?? That didn’t look like no accident to me!

    • desigunner says:

      While watching it live I thought it was accidental but I looked at it again after Walter’s review on Untold Arsenal and it seemed to me that Jerome could have avoided that stamp thus implying that it was deliberate. I left it out because it’s a debatable one whereas these two seem cut and dried.

  9. walter says:

    Great work Desi.
    I cannot add anything to this. Apart that I just wanted to say that the first tackle which was bringing Sagna down would have been good for winning an olympic medal in Judo. A clear leg sweep from behind. And the ref let this go… unbelievable.

    And djteeie, NO you are not the only one who saw it. But I think only a few have seen that this same player (Jerome) had a kick on the legs of Fabianski a bit earlier when Fabianski had claimed a low cross. It just was part of their game plan. I can imagine that on the pre game instructions was written on the chalkboard in the Birmingham dressing room: kick, kick and kick.

    • desigunner says:

      Agree with you Walter about the initial tackle. There were far too many of that type in this game that went unpunished. To be honest I’ve given up the hope of getting those kind of decisions away to such teams.

  10. Steve Palmer says:

    Good post Desi, you highlight the stamps and the studs up tactics used against us but in most of these tackles its plain to see and fouls and bookings are usually given, but its the foul from behind that bothers me, when Arsenal players receive the ball when their backs are against the goal, players come from behind with a shove in the back and a kick in the ankle or studs down the back of the legs,that infuriates me, yes in lots of cases the ref will give a free kick but very rarely a booking it appears that you can make as many of these type tackles without getting a booking, and i am sure that is why Arsene likes his players to pass the ball quickly to highlight this kind of tackle i watched a game against Utd, and all of their defenders used this attempted tackle to good effect without any of them receiving bookings, they can get away with this, surely it has to be stamped out.

    • desigunner says:

      Completely agree with your observation. Arsenal players, especially strikers, get ‘attacked’ from behind quite often. Those kicks are not leg-breakers but over a period they do make an impact on the players’ performance. It would certainly make them tentative while receiving the ball or going for 50-50 challenges.

      I guess someone who knows how to should make a video compilation of these tackles. I’d also like to see cameramen zoom in on such tackles so that we get a clear idea of what’s going on. Unfortunately, the broadcasters haven’t shown any interest in this.

  11. FinnGun says:

    The focus in England is too much on ‘intent’ or ‘trying to get the ball’. Shawcross is an excellent example. The rules clearly forbid ‘reckless’ challenges. The track record of Shawcross has clearly shown that he is either ‘malicious’ or ‘terminally clumsy’. In either case he should either clean up his act, if he can, or be thrown out of the game.

  12. Adeel says:

    Great analysis buddy. Unfortunately its a given that the FA, the English media and some of the other managers in the premier league will keep ignoring this until (i hope not) someone like Rooney, Gerrard or Terry gets seriously injured. This is one thing i loved about the Spanish authorities, they took action when a similar tackle went in on Messi. Its sad to be honest, the way the FA and the english media react to these incidents with such calm naivity. This is a major reason the English do not win anything on the international stage cause you can’t get away with this sort of football (unless you have an English referee; “Howard Webb” in the final of the worldcup and nigel de jongs’s chest high kick on alonso.

  13. Ajinkya says:

    i like to call them the manu group. It consists of manu, of course, sunderland, birmingham, and Blackburn(when sam was manager) and several officials(includind our faourite howard webb).
    Is there fulham also? They played fair, and so i think no.
    Is alex trying to add stoke to his group or is it already there?
    i’ve heard that alex is calling diouf back from
    Blackburn. Why? They are not useful to him anymore.
    Together these people spoil the game.
    These are indeed bad days for football.

    He shouldn’t have talked like that.

  14. Claver says:


    Ferguson is the hidden hand behind Pulis, Allardyce and other weak-willed men whose livelihood depend upon his say so.

    But Ferguson can say whatever he wants about Arsenal and Arsene. I refuse to be impressed by a man who spent some £700m in debt only to produce the kind of turgid, run-around they call football at United.

    Worse, copying Arsenal tactics and passing them as his own. Ferguson sat for years in his dugout, ManU fans singing obscenities aimed at Wenger, he never said a word til the Press picked it up.

    Anyway, they get what they deserve; that big fat blackhole where their money should be. Justice is a fitness fanatic!

  15. Bergkamps nephew 81 says:

    Ha ha ha hlebs plea 2 come back to Emirates? Priceless

  16. JB says:

    i think it is really interesting reading that extract that the rules in fact say nothing about “going for the ball” or even getting the ball. Simply the malicious and negligent nature of the tackle. Why is it then that any tackle that gets the ball is excused despite any potential failure in technique or malicious intent (as in the johnson tackle, which i might point out was no worse than wilshere’s earlier in the season, except he got a red for his…)

    • Manav says:

      “Why is it then that any tackle that gets the ball is excused despite any potential failure in technique or malicious intent”

      You got a point there.

      • desigunner says:

        I guess one of the reasons is that pundits tend to talk about this a lot. Once there are so many people in the public domain defending a poor tackle with the “he got the ball” excuse, it just seems like the law! Wonder how much the refs get influenced by such opinions.

  17. bob says:

    @Ajinka and Claver:
    Ok, I’m with you lads: Here’s what Klan Fergus gets away with. From the very bowels of the Burm crime scene, the capo brays Forth his master’s voice:

    “We accept the decision and will now have to move forward into the next three games without the services of Bowyer.

    “We have got a good discipline record at this club and stress to the players every week how important discipline is.”

  18. Manav says:

    Brilliant write-up!
    The pictorial analysis gives the whole discussion the kind of precision matched only by a laser-guided missile system. Your article is incisive and blasts the myth that every bad tackle is actually just a ‘mistimed, unintentionally ugly’ tackle.
    Lets hope the FA show some serious ‘intent’ and help make the best league in the world even better.

  19. Tee Song says:

    Whilst your argument is well framed and I have no doubt that behind closed doors, managers and players do plan to push the envelope of physical play beyond the boundaries of the rules, intent is not the issue. In general, the rules of the game do not specify intent as a necessary component in judging whether or not fouls are deemed bookable offenses. In fact, intent is only conspicuous by its absence. The pertinent guidelines from FIFA are as follows.

    “Careless” means that the player has shown a lack of attention or
    consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution.
    • No further disciplinary sanction is needed if a foul is judged to be careless
    “Reckless” means that the player has acted with complete disregard to the
    danger to, or consequences for, his opponent.
    • A player who plays in a reckless manner must be cautioned
    “Using excessive force” means that the player has far exceeded the necessary
    use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.
    • A player who uses excessive force must be sent off

    Determination of intent is a very difficult judgment and that’s probably why it’s not mentioned in the rules governing the game. The debate over intent is a red herring and meant to obfuscate the real issue which is that the ref has an obligation to protect players from injury. Certain types of tackles are INHERENTLY dangerous and are by definition “reckless” and “in danger of inuring an opponent.” The debate over whether a player is intending to injure is IRRELEVANT. The lack of intent should only be mentioned in the opposing players apology as he trudges off the field.

    • Claver says:

      @Tee Song

      I would contend that according to the rules you mention, at least one Birmingham player ought to have been sent off for using excessive force.

      Johnson’s tackle on Fabregas; he had both feet off the ground hence was not in control of his own weight. Johnson must have a mass of at least 70kg, plus his acceleration, all aimed at Fabregas’ ankle.

      It’s simple physics, if a player jumps into a tackle with both feet off the ground that player is using excessive force. Regardless of intent. Regardless of how sweet they are. Or the shirt on their back.

      In fact, I’d have thought intent is far much easier to establish than excessive force (force being a more technical term).

      We know the intent of the ref by reading the rules book. It is easy to establish intent. The rules are there to eliminate physical expressions of malicious intent on the football pitch. Of which using excessive force is one. Therefore, we judge a ref by how well he executes his ‘adopted’ intent.

      So also we know the intent of a player by the style of play he executes.

      Refs try to accomplish a kind of ‘flow’ to the game, which entails movement of players and ball. This is the intention of the refs. How can we tell if a ref is a good ref or a bad ref? If it is impossible to determine intent it would be impossible to separate excellent refs from awful ones.

  20. desigunner says:

    I agree with your observation regarding the rules and lack of focus on ‘intent’ within the rules.

    However, when teams deliberately set out to hurt the opponents intent is extremely relevant and important. In a perfect world the ref would be able to get all the decisions theoretically correct. But in practice we see home sides get some leeway, certain types of tackles being allowed, and so on. It is here that intent can make a difference. If there is enough public opinion about the malicious intent of these teams then the officials will be forced to view the incidents in a different light.

    Ideally, they should be able to judge all events on a football pitch neutrally and in accordance with the rules but in practice that doesn’t happen. I’m hoping if more people talk about this issue and understand how to identify intent from a honest mistake we might see some improvement over time.

  21. […] Birmingham City And The Definition Of Malicious Intent Arsene Wenger has talked a lot about tackling. Invariably the discussion gets hijacked by clueless hacks and pundits […] […]

  22. Claver says:

    These things are not hard to argue. Arsenal should have sued for loss ages ago. This nonsense would have stopped. It is easy to carry out a forensic analysis of the video footage and prove that a player committed an offence, not just in football. In a court of law, ignorance is a hard thing to use as a defence.

    In a system such as the Premier League, with unruly men like Allardyce and Ferguson, Arsenal really should have turned to the courts to ensure our players could be treated fairly at work. On the pitch.

    After all this time of playing pals with these other clubs Arsenal really should show some teeth. We should be allowed to compete without the fear of broken legs much like other top clubs in Europe. Why only Arsenal living in fear?

    Come on Arsenal, grow some guts and take these to the cleaners.

    • desigunner says:

      I think court cases get complicated and in order for it to be proven there has to be irrefutable evidence, something that won’t be easy to find because many so called experts will spout nonsensical opinions. Since they’ve played the game and all that, those opinions will have some weight. Can’t see this going forward in court as a scientific and logical argument unless the majority are in support.

  23. ugandan goon says:

    we have been set up by the media as the team that dont like it up em (who does?) and they have perpetuated this myth so that now it is the only way to play against us. Since wenger came to this league and won the double, did the invincible thing there had to be a way to stop what was in effect unstoppable, i will not be suprised if this idea’s genesis is in the north, in the manchester area but more than anything else it is the collusion of the media to frame perfectly rational statements of wenger’s into something whiny, emasculated and foreign in effect laughing him out of the room but the football always tells another story.

  24. […] this article I discussed the importance of understanding what a player is trying to achieve with a tackle. To me […]

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