There is a difference between physical play and reckless play. Arsene Wenger, Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce have been outspoken on this topic in recent weeks as it seems to hit the headlines on an almost weekly basis. Arsene Wenger has claimed that he is not trying to eradicate the physical side of the game. Rather, it is the reckless challenges that he wants to see outlawed and punished more severely. And this seems to make sense.
Nobody wants to see the physical side of football go away. Nobody wants to see it become a non-contact sport. However, the growing number of serious injuries means that something needs to be done. Already in the Premiership, we have seen broken legs for Bobby Zamora, Adlene Guedioura, Hatem Ben Arfa and Antonio Valencia, as well as a cruciate ligament injury for Frazier Campbell. There has also been a spate of reckless challenges as players push the line a little too far on occasions.
Many teams employ a "destroyer" type player in a holding midfielder role. Their job description involves screening the defence by breaking up opposition attacks, and to get in and amongst the opposition players. Often, they are the ones involved in making hard challenges to make their mark early on. These are the players that often seem to be involved in these reckless challenge incidents.
The most recent example was the challenge by Nigel De Jong against Hatem Ben Arfa yesterday. He will argue correctly that he did get the ball. However, he went in with his studs raised and brought his other leg scissoring around the leg of Ben Arfa, leaving him with a double fracture. The comments today from Holland manager Bert van Marwijk were interesting. He has dropped De Jong from the Dutch national squad. The reasoning that he gave was “I have a problem with the way Nigel needlessly looks to push the limit.” He also said that “It was a wild and unnecessary offence. He went in much too hard.”
It is not the only time that De Jong has been in the headlines for reckless challenges. Nobody will forget his chest-high challenge on Xabi Alonso in the World Cup Final, but he was also involved in a similar incident to the Ben Arfa one last season on international duty that left Stuart Holden with a fractured right fibula.
Karl Henry is another that has been getting a lot of negative headlines in recent weeks, particularly following the match against Newcastle, where his tussle with Joey Barton was featured on Match of the Day. A number of reckless challenges in that match went unpunished, but in the following match, a tackle on Bobby Zamora left the Fulham striker with a broken leg. Ironically, that incident was actually a good challenge. Danny Murphy admitted after the match that there was nothing wrong with the tackle and it was simply an unfortunate accident.
However, his challenge on Jordi Gomez on Saturday was not a good tackle. Whilst Gomez was fine after the incident, it was a typically rash and reckless challenge, and the type of challenge that Arsene Wenger argues should be punished more strongly. Henry was looking to go in hard and mark his dominance early on. However, there is a difference between going in hard and going in recklessly.
There are a number of other aspects to bear in mind when looking at the reasons for the spate of serious injuries this season. Whilst it may seem as though there are more and more serious injuries happening, it is not necessarily the case. Statistically, there has been no real increase in the number of serious injuries over the past decade. It is the fact that these have all occurred within the space of a couple of weeks that is catching the headlines. If it continues at this rate throughout the season, then there may be a serious concern. However, it is perfectly feasible that we could go a couple of months without a broken leg now.
At least for players now, the advances in medical technology and care mean that a broken leg is no longer a career-threatening injury. Even the horrific injury to Eduardo did not prevent him from returning, albeit not the same player as before. It is only a decade ago that Roberto Di Matteo was forced to retire with a triple fracture. Only a decade ago that Luc Nilis broke his leg and never played again. Arguably, the most horrific leg break in English football came back in 1996 for Coventry defender, David Buust. It took 15 minutes to clear Buust and several pints of blood from the pitch. After 26 operations, he never played football again and still bears the scars of that horrific event. Whilst none of these players ever set foot on a pitch again, players these days almost always return to play.
However, there are a number of other reasons that have been mooted for the apparent increase in serious injuries that deserve a look. The first of these is the increasing level of speed and power involved in the modern game. Players today are fitter, stronger and faster than they have ever been before. Whilst this is usually seen in a positive light, there is an argument that this is contributing to the problems in the game as well. With players being so fast, the timing required for completing a successful tackle is minute. If you are even the slightest fraction of a second out, the ball is gone and there is a risk of getting the player.
This argument could help to explain why Arsenal seem to get a disproportional number of broken legs and serious injuries. Arsenal’s style of play revolves around quick passing and fast movement. They are probably the fastest team in the Premiership. As a result, tackles need to be timed better against Arsenal than against any other team. Meaning mistimed challenges are more likely. And with these mistimed challenges, the risk of injury increases.
In previous times, players were less fit and the play was a lot slower. Timing was easier. With 22 ultra-fit professionals rushing around, colliding at full-speed, it is only natural to expect injuries.
However, another argument looks at the type of footwear that players wear in the modern game. Boots are a lot lighter and more flexible now compared with even 10 years ago. It is no surprise that we have seen an increase in broken bones in the foot, given that there is less protection from the boot itself.
However, there is also a school of thought that looks at whether the move toward blades rather than studs means that there is a greater tendency for feet getting stuck in the turf. Clearly, both blades and studs are designed to give good grip in the turf to prevent players from slipping whilst playing. However, there is also the issue that when the leg or ankle is hit with a tackle, rather than going out from under the player, they are getting stuck in the turf and thus taking far more of a damaging impact.
Antonio Valencia’s broken leg came from getting his studs caught in the turf. Fraizer Campbell’s cruciate ligament injury came from a similar incident. Eduardo’s injury was made worse by the fact that his foot was securely planted and unable to give as the impact came. Whether there is a link between the new footwear and an increase in serious injuries is uncertain. However, clubs have noted a possible link. A few years ago, Manchester United banned their players from using bladed boots on the basis that players could be more likely to get injured.
Whatever the reason, the issue of reckless tackles should be looked at more closely. Arsene Wenger has received a lot of criticism for an apparent desire to remove the physical aspect of football, although he claims that it is the reckless challenges that are the problem. And in that, he is 100 percent correct. It is important to note that playing the ball in a tackle does not necessarily make it a fair challenge. A foul can be given for recklessly endangering the opposition player, even if the ball is played.
So what can be done to try and improve the situation? Longer bans depending on the tackle would be one option. It seems ridiculous that you can be banned longer for a silly incident than a leg-breaking tackle. For example, Rio Ferdinand was banned for four games last season for slapping Craig Fagan, whilst the previous season, Danny Guthrie had been banned for only three games for a horrific hack on the same player.
The situation where after a referee has seen a challenge and acted, and no further punishment can be imposed afterwards is ridiculous. At full speed and in the heat of the moment, it is difficult for a referee to be 100 percent certain of how bad a challenge was.
Often, we have seen tackles that don’t look too bad at first viewing, but when we see them in the replay, we realise how bad the tackle was. A suggestion from Andy Townsend is that a referee should have the power to nominate an especially bad tackle for a disciplinary panel of ex-referees and ex-professionals to decide whether it is worthy of further punishment. If a challenge is deemed overly reckless or dangerous, the panel can impose a longer ban if deemed necessary.
The disciplinary panel has precedent for handing out extended bans. The best example was the horrific challenge by Ben Thatcher on Pedro Mendes several years ago that left the Portuguese midfielder unconscious on the side of the pitch receiving oxygen. The FA disciplinary committee landed Thatcher with an eight-match ban, with a further 15-game suspended ban for two years.
If a player knew that they could receive a longer ban post-match for a particularly reckless challenge, they may be more retrospect in deciding whether to lunge in for challenges. It is important to take each case on its own merits though, rather than setting a rigid framework. Some challenges are worse than others, even if the injured player is left better off. The Ryan Shawcross challenge on Aaron Ramsey last year would probably not have received a longer ban, as there was little intent in the challenge—it was more a matter of mistiming that led to a horrible accident.
A simple example of a challenge that would likely receive an extended ban would have been Michael Ballack’s foul on Carlos Tevez last season. He only received a second yellow card, resulting in a one-match ban. However, if the referee could have retrospectively referred the challenge to the disciplinary panel, it would likely have been extended to at least three matches, as it would have been for a straight red. Similarly, the Liam Ridgewell lunge on James McCarthy last season went unpunished as the referee had seen it at the time. Had he seen it again on a replay afterwards, he could have referred this.
The power of retrospectively referring bad challenges would give players second thoughts about lunging in recklessly. The mix of former referees and players on the panel would hopefully enable them to distinguish between simply mistimed challenges and reckless and dangerous challenges.
Mistimed challenges can end in injuries, but there is no malice if injuries are simply accidents. Recklessness is something that needs to be forced out of the game. Otherwise, we may continue to see some of the top players sitting in the stands with serious injuries rather than out on the pitch demonstrating their skills.