After Arsene Wenger's pointed comments about protecting players prior to the Blackburn Rovers-Arsenal game a few weeks ago, both Tony Pulis and Ryan Shawcross of Stoke City hit back with a vengeance, accusing the aforementioned Arsenal manager of "having something against" their team and Shawcross in particular.
Two weeks ago, amidst the controversial Stoke-Tottenham fixture that ended in a Spurs win, Wenger highlighted the rough treatment received by Tottenham goalkeeper Huerelho Gomes.
"It is rugby on the goalkeepers more than football. The referees cannot go on and accept that. When you see how Shawcross kicked Gomes, how (Robert) Huth pushed Gomes in the goal, you cannot say that is football any more."
"If the referees allow that, you cannot accept it because that has nothing to do with the game."
Wenger may have used hyperbole in highlighting the events, even going so far as to incorrectly accuse Shawcross of kicking Gomes, but the intent of his comments was clear. He wanted just a little extra protection for his players, particularly his goalkeeper, for the Blackburn game and gave the referees just a little more food for thought.
To be fair, it appears that Wenger did not get a good, clear look at the game or the goals, although for Stoke's second "goal," observers can be forgiven for believing that Gomes was pushed by Huth's outstretched hands, but even that is arguable.
Almost immediately after those comments were made, Stoke manager Tony Pulis rushed to the defense of his side and player, claiming that "What (Wenger) has said about Ryan is very, very poor," even going as far as reporting the Arsenal manager to the FA.
Following his manager's lead, today the Stoke defender has decided to defend himself while attacking Wenger for his comments, telling the Sentinel, "I don't mind people having their opinions, but if it's not a game involving his players then I don't see the point of bringing up me and (Huth). I've watched the video again and at no point did I go anywhere near Gomes.
"I didn't think I had, but I didn't want to say I hadn't touched him before looking at the whole video to make sure.
"He's obviously got something against me. It's just weird. He brings my name into it. He always seems to have a problem with Stoke, our manager and certain players. Criticism doesn't bother me, unless it's a false accusation like this one."
In one of the more testy encounters in the English Premier League, during a fixture at the Britannia Stadium in February last season, Shawcross' horror tackle on 19-year-old Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey caused a compound fracture to his right leg in two places.
Immediately following that incident, Ryan Shawcross was sent off and walked off the field with tears in his eyes, seemingly showing regret and disdain for his own actions. Calls from all corners of England came to the young Englishman's defense, with claims that "he isn't that type of player" and that the red card and three match ban, as well as his own guilt were punishment enough for the young player.
Buoyed by the support of his teammates and backed by most of England, Shawcross vowed not to change despite all of that.
But what observers seem to have missed is that Shawcross has proven time and again that he is exactly that type of player, showing seemingly little remorse for breaking ex-Arsenal player Francis Jeffers' ankle with another horror tackle and injuring another ex-Arsenal player Emmanuel Adebayor with a studs up challenge on his ankle out of the field of play.
Even if he did not mean to injure these players, he committed those tackles with firm intent and plenty of venom, with the knowledge that going in with that amount of force could hurt or even badly injure another player.
Did he have any malicious intent when he injured Ramsey, Jeffers or Adebayor? Probably not.
In fact, after Stoke lost 2-1 to Wolves, Shawcross criticized Wolves defender Jody Craddock for a similarly "firm" challenge that injured new Stoke signing Kenwyne Jones. Of course, it looks worse if the tackle happens to teammates.
But what he did, especially during the Ramsey and Adebayor tackles, were especially robust. If nothing else, he came in with a "message" and in these cases, that message was duly delivered.
Worse yet, he came in with seemingly no intent to truly win the ball. After all, going that hard and scything Ramsey would never have actually won him the football, and tackling Adebayor, who was on his way out, would not have done anything substantial for Stoke.
So why does he continue to do it?
Making a Point
Neither Wenger nor most other managers in the Premier League have any real problems with the tactics most other teams play or the physicality of the league. It is when the line that separates physical play and dangerous or malicious play is crossed that football starts to resemble rugby, where the intent to hurt and to play appears blurred by courage and toughness.
The issue with Ryan Shawcross and Stoke City is symptomatic of the way that lower-skilled teams and players treat their more skilled counterparts in the English Premier League.
It seems that the mantra of players who play pretty football "don't like it up them" is circulated throughout the Premier League and lower leagues of English football, particularly outside of the top half of the EPL.
Teams who cannot compete with dazzling play, searing pace, and quick passing resort to scything down, grabbing, pushing, pulling, and bullying their opponents to prevent them from passing or scoring, and to instill a certain level of fear through intimidation.
Conventional wisdom pushes them to straddle the thin line of legal physical play and playing to hurt or intimidate their opponent; they play rough for the sake of playing rough, with no tangible benefits seen on-field.
After all, in Ramsey's case, what would going in with a kick that hard do for Stoke? In all likelihood, Stoke wouldn't have won the ball back had Shawcross reached the ball first. In fact, if he had won the tackle cleanly, his kick would have propelled the ball away and it probably would have sailed far out of bounds, leaving Arsenal with the throw-in.
Arsenal players face these tactics week-in and week-out, as do most of the teams in the top half of the league. But whereas Chelsea have a makeup of strong, robust players, Arsenal have a reputation for being soft and opposing teams are taught time and again to rough the players up, even at the expense of a foul or with the very distinct possibility or hurting another professional.
The big issue here is whether these types of dangerous physical plays should be allowed to happen and to what extent. Unlike "American" football, tackles are not meant to inflict pain or hurt another player. Their sole purpose is to win the ball back.
But it appears that players will go that extra mile and use excessive force to ensure that the other players know that they're there.
Many other sports place these types of plays in a different category, with fines and further penalties as a deterrent. In basketball, unnecessarily hard fouls or ones that don't attempt to get the ball are considered flagrant fouls. In "American" football, unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary roughness penalties are assessed on players who use excessive force or have malicious intent.
In the bigger picture, all these professional players are working and earning their pay. These horror tackles pose a serious danger to these players' health and career prospects. In any other career, if someone were to try to destroy body parts essential for doing ones job, that person could be taken to court and would be lucky to escape punishment. At the very least, they would receive a verbal bashing.
In football, when so-called unskilled players try to match up to their more skilled counterparts by "getting stuck in" and unleashing horror tackles, they get a red card, maybe a two match ban, and are comforted for breaking another promising professional's leg because they "[aren't] that type of player."
So as long as rough play that is done for the sake of intimidation and with half a mind to hurt other players continues to be allowed, tackles like the on made my Shawcross on Ramsey will continue to occur. But if the referees don't put a stop to these tackles and this type of play, why should players stop? After all, players only do what referees allow them.
So referees need to protect players, and usually, the more skillful a player, the more protection he needs. Many may consider it whinging or softening up the game, but it also protects the health and careers of greatly skilled players that ultimately make the beautiful game beautiful.