Is Allardyce right about the dying art of tackling?

Sam Allardyce

West Ham manager Sam Allardyce spoke before his side’s 1-0 defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup, in the wake of controversy surrounding the dismissal of Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany in their 2-0 victory over Arsenal last weekend.

The irony that tackling is viewed, either way, as an issue that needs tackling is not lost on me. The issue of tackling isn’t really an issue so much as it is a conflict between traditionalists and modernists, at least in the English game.

Kompany received a red card last Sunday for his challenge on Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere – the youngster overran the ball just slightly as he charged towards the City penalty area. Kompany effectively jumped in on Wilshere – from some angles it’s clear he has both feet off the ground and from others it’s clear he gets the ball.

Allardyce then commented, in a far too reactionary manner for my liking,

“Do FIFA and UEFA want to ban tackling? Looks like yes, is the answer to that.

I am not aware that any footballing authority wants to ban tackling altogether – I was under impression everyone wanted to avoid serious injuries to talented professional footballers in the prime of their career. I’ve not met anyone yet who would disagree there.

Here’s where I get confused – Allardyce comments on the tackle, initially describing Kompany’s as a ‘perfect challenge’ then goes on to explain,

"We teach stay on your feet. We teach, pinch, nick, intercept. If you are going to ground try and be 100 per cent sure you are going to win the ball.”

I’m with the Hammers boss so far, so good – it seems the coaching of tackling as an art has its heart in the right place. They teach youngsters to try to stay on their feet unless they can be 100 per cent sure they can win the ball but here’s where I start to find it hard to comprehend.

There is a huge margin for error – I don’t believe any player who says he’s been 100 per cent certain of winning the ball any time he’s gone in to a 50/50 challenge. The numbers just don’t add up, for starters. How can you be 100 per cent sure in a 50/50 challenge? That’s just poor numeracy.

I’m also removing from the equation the ‘intent’ factor because I don’t believe it belongs in this particular debate around that specific challenge. The days when the Roy Keane’s of the world deliberately went into challenges with malice and malevolence are (hopefully) mostly gone.

When people say after a Ryan Shawcross versus Aaron Ramsey incident or a Martin Taylor versus Eduardo incident ‘he’s not that sort of player’ I don’t doubt them for a second.

Doubt creeps in to my mind, however, when it comes to this grey area – the margin for error – the 100 per cent sure in a 50/50 area – there is always a risk of mistiming, misjudging, and mistaking. That’s all part of being human.

Maybe the player is 100 per cent sure – Shawcross probably was 100 per cent sure he could win the ball but he was, unfortunately for Aaron Ramsey, mistaken.

Allardyce goes on to summarize the modern rulebook:

“Now they are saying that even if the tackle is a perfectly good one, if it's ferocious in their eyes or is done with too much force, then that is still a booking or a sending off. Well that's ridiculous."

Analysis is key here because the FA clearly states in Law 12:

“In the case of an uncontrolled jump at the ball from a distance and at speed, the tackle entails a large element of danger to the opponent and should result in firm, disciplinary action taken by the referee.”

Nowhere does it say mention the word ‘ferocious’ so let’s just ignore that bit. Surely any ‘jump at the ball from a distance at speed’ is uncontrolled by definition? That’s just common sense and to suggest anything to the contrary would insult the physics comprehension of a 4 year old.

It’s also important to note that winning the ball is not necessarily an indication that a good tackle has been made. Neither does winning the ball with a one-footed tackle. Law 12 also states:

“This tackle is carried out with one or both legs outstretched, and the same considerations as for the two-footed tackle apply. The player tackling in this way, whether or not it may bring the opponent down, should be penalised if the player connects with the opponent before the ball.”

Now you can clearly see form slow-motion replays that Vincent Kompany did in fact touch the ball before the man but the fact that he does have two feet off the ground as he goes in means he is no longer in control of where he lands – luckily he gets the ball, not Jack Wilshere first. If the mistimes that or mistakes where the ball’s going at the last split-second, he gets the player. He didn’t.

Kompany has now had his red card rescinded by the FA who released a statement saying,

"An Independent Regulatory Commission has upheld a claim of wrongful dismissal regarding Manchester City's Vincent Kompany. The defender was dismissed for serious foul play during his side's match against Arsenal on Sunday 13 January 2013.”

I don’t agree with the assessment that Vincent Kompany’s challenge was not reckless (it was just very slightly) and I don’t agree that he didn’t endanger the safety of his opponent (he did, just a little bit) and I don’t agree that he was in control of the challenge completely. As mentioned before, you are not in control once you are airborne.

Sam Allardyce goes on to explain something that I think underpins everything else he said in that press conference – and illuminates where the uncertainty comes from.

“Unfortunately it will detract from the entertainment value of the game. Football is a collision sport and while you want to protect your players as best you can the Vincent Kompany tackle was a perfect tackle.”

Yes, football is here to entertain but, for me, seeing players with their legs snapped in half, writhing in pain, is not my idea of entertainment. This type of entertainment belongs back in Ancient Rome or in films with Russell Crowe in them where people are pretending to hurt each other and other people are pretending to enjoy watching it.

Kompany was unlucky to get sent off, but it was the right decision. Players have to be protected just as much as the art of defending does.

image: © Ben Sutherland

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