Any player who lunges at an opponent when challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent, is guilty of serious foul play.- Fifa Laws of the Game, Law 12(1), Page 10
Manchester United defeated Liverpool 2-1 on Sunday following a pair of controversial decisions by referee, Mark Halsey. First he showed Liverpool midfielder, Jonjo Shelvey a straight red following a challenge on United’s Johnny Evans.
Halsey later adjudged Glen Johnson to have fouled United’s Antonio Valencia inside the Liverpool box, leading to an 81st-minute penalty to give United the win. Replays indicate that both calls were erroneous, with the Shelvey sending-off attracting the most criticism.
It was a poor call on the part of Halsey, not that Shelvey did himself any favors with his reckless challenge. If there is one part of Shelvey’s game which needs addressing, it’s his tackling, which is generally of the agricultural variety.
Replays seem to indicate that both players went fully committed into the 50-50 challenge, both with studs showing. Evans delivered a crunching, two-footed challenge on the ball, while Shelvey went in one-footed, involving his trailing leg after the fact.
At worst it should have been red cards on both players, at best a yellow on Shelvey alone, although equitable principles would seem to require the same punishment for both players.
I was disappointed. It was silly and when he looks at himself he may apologise and he may not, it doesn't matter. But it was a reckless challenge that could have caused damage.
One would assume that candor would mandate of Ferguson a similar tongue-lashing for his own player as well, a point picked up on by Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, who was very unhappy with the decision:
If Jonjo is booked or sent off for both feet leaving the ground then Jonny Evans has got to go as well. It is a tackle both players have to go for but the Liverpool player then can't get sent off and the Manchester United player stays on the field.
On the issue of tackling, The Guardian’s Jacob Steinberg had a wonderful quote from former Liverpool great, Xabi Alonso, discussing its celebrated role in the English game:
I don't think tackling is a quality. It is a recurso, something you have to resort to, not a characteristic of your game. At Liverpool I used to read the matchday programme and you'd read an interview with a lad from the youth team. They'd ask: age, heroes, strong points, etc. He'd reply: 'Shooting and tackling'.
I can't get into my head that football development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play. How can that be a way of seeing the game? I just don't understand football in those terms.
Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn't a quality to aspire to, a definition. It's hard to change because it's so rooted in the English football culture, but I don't understand it.
Because this is so rooted in the culture, and that it seems so deeply-ingrained a part of Shelvey’s game, it may be difficult to wean. Think of Paul Scholes and his infamous “red mist moments”, as described by Ferguson.
It very well could be that Shelvey has started developing a similar reputation for reckless challenges and as such cedes the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the officials. It could also be that the habit may plague him throughout his career until he takes affirmative steps to change.
Either way, Liverpool were made to pay a steep price for the challenge on Sunday, and it is something that Rodgers will have to address in the short term by juggling his midfielders in Shelvey’s absence, and certainly in the long term as the young player continues to develop.