Challenging in the 21st Century: When a Tackle and a Foul Become Interchangeable

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Challenging in the 21st Century: When a Tackle and a Foul Become Interchangeable
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

So when is a tackle deemed a foul?

In an ideal world, it would be when the tackling player doesn't get the ball, but gets the man. In the mixed-up, referee deceiving, ritually embellishing, wouldn’t-stand-for-this-nonsense-in-a-Sunday-League-game that is the Premiership? Alas, the distinction is not quite so clear. 

The grey area was muddied even further this weekend when one incident involving Vincent Kompany and another featuring Jay Rodriquez which had experts, players and commentators scratching their heads. 

With the game heading towards the inevitable result, Jack Wilshire gave it one last go and surged forward right at the heart of Manchester City’s defense. Vincent Kompany saw the ball (after Wilshire had slightly overran it) and dived in, winning the ball (as replays showed) cleanly and single footed. He was shown a red card. 

Both players limped away from the carnage, but as Kompany later tweeted: “About the tackle: If the ball is overrun by the opponent and a 50/50 challenge occurs, collision is inevitable”

While most tackle rules are there to protect players from errant studs, the simple virtue of a player getting injured does not make it a foul. 

In the referee’s defense, the speed and strength shown by both players must have made him wince, and Kompany’s follow through appeared to involve two feet. After appeal, the red card was overturned on Tuesday afternoon. Also, a quick tip of the hat to Jack Wilshire who was kicked, fairly and foully, throughout the match and got up every time to come back for more. 

Evidence of a single footed challenge. From Kompany's twitter feed.

At the other end of the spectrum, does there have to be contact for a challenge to be a foul? You would have thought so. 

So what about Neil Adkins' claim at the weekend that if Rodriquez hadn’t moved his foot, there would have been contact, and therefore the penalty his team was rewarded was justified? If a player is about to get clouted and then jumps out of the way of the tackle, is that a foul as the defender is impeading the attacker, or is it not as the attacker is wimping out of a challenge?

In this case, Rodriquez moves his foot because he doesn’t fancy taking a knock, but he makes sure he plays the pass he was trying to play. As a result of standing on one leg he loses his balance and goes to ground, never appealing and purely focused on whether Rickie Lambert gets his shot away. Not a penalty, but also not a dive for me. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, it can be a foul and a dive (as in the NHL) or neither a foul nor a dive. 

 

You can’t write 500 + words about tackling and not mention Gareth Bale at the moment. The Welsh winger has more booking for diving than any other player this season. Yes, sometimes he dives. Sometimes, because of the speed he runs a slight knock that wouldn’t bring down a slower player will bring him down.

His booking against Sunderland was a prime example of everything. Pundits were endlessly trying to work out if there had been maybe a bit of contact on the knee and how fast he was traveling. Contact is not the same as a foul. Just ask Vincent Kompany. 

We all admire the grace and skill of the world’s best players, and while there is little doubt that Messi could indeed do it on a cold, wet Tuesday in Stoke, he wouldn’t have been allowed to ‘do it’ in the days of, for example, Don Revie’s Leeds United side. 

While everyone enjoys watching some of the world’s top athletes being allowed to display their skills under the protection of the referee, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of rough and tumble? The Premier League is the most watched league in the world precisely because it has that added physicality lacking in the other top leagues. 

Pundits, managers and players are united in calling for consistency. If this call is met with a more uniformed approach from those in charge we must hope they consistently allow good tackles to go unpunished.

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