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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.