Unsurprisingly, this week’s hot topic has been reckless and dangerous challenges, an aspect of the game that seems to be a particularly English problem.With generally no malice, only sheer commitment bringing about the condemned tackles, it begs the question of where the problem stems from.
For decades strong physical encounters have been valued highly by the English paying public, a fact that has possibly led to the current generation lacking technical ability. In the early stages of their development, players have tactical discipline and organisation instilled into them at the expense of creative freedom and expression. From a young age players are accustomed to relying on their natural attributes such as pace, power and strength to prevail in the pursuit of victory under the constant emphasis placed upon winning. This deep-rooted element of their psychology comes to the fore when challenged by more technically gifted players, and possibly explains the spate of rash challenges perpetrated by Englishmen.
Certainly, England’s exits from the recent international tournaments have been accredited to a lack of technique in some areas of the media. The most obvious example of this is the exit from the 2006 World Cup at the hands of Portugal after Wayne Rooney’s sending off left England chasing shadows. Rooney’s red card was attributable to his fiery temperament and the petulance of youth rather than a dangerous challenge, but the subsequent defeat was symptomatic of the wider problem. A more technically gifted team would have made the most of their superiority up to that point, making the ball do the work. Instead they struggled to maintain possession and continued to chase the game, emphasising their numerical disadvantage meaning that they tired badly before ultimately succumbing to the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
This should not be read as part of a wider attempt to sanitise the game – in fact the problems created by the mentality also has its advantages. Continental nations long to ally their technical ability to the commitment and desire of English teams, yet this mental trait is not so easily transferrable as coaching methods have proven to be. Education appears to be the way forward and a starting point is the lost art of tackling. Martin Samuel writing for The Times in 2006 stated that: “Diving is an irritation; deliberately rash and dangerous tackling is a cancer.” The phrase still resonates now as it did then, and eerily the assertion came almost precisely two years before Arsenal’s Eduardo suffered an horrific injury at Birmingham City and four years before Aaron Ramsey’s injury. The furore over the former’s alleged dive against Celtic in this season’s Champions League qualifiers – resulting in an albeit overturned UEFA ban – is laughable when compared to the injuries suatained by players as a result of mis-timed challenges.
Inevitably, Arsene Wenger has been the standard bearer for the push to clamp down on dangerous challenges, yet he has found an acolyte in Wigan manager Roberto Martinez: “A tackle does not have to be malicious to be dangerous. If it is mis-timed, you can still put someone’s career on hold for nine months, which is a big price to pay… Paying the price of a broken leg because you are trying to be a creative player is too much of a risk. The rules should be a bit stricter.” Wigan’s James McCarthy narrowly avoided joining Ramsey in a long injury lay-off after a two-footed lunge from Birmingham’s Liam Ridgewell, an incident largely overshadowed by the injury to Ramsey. As it was, the youngster jumped to evade the challenge, leaving the linesman as the only victim, taking a stray corner flag to the forehead. Martinez went on to identify that: “The hardest thing in football is to be constructive and creative, and to produce the kind of attractive play that everybody wants to see.”
He and Wenger are graduates of the same school of football; one dedicated to the pursuit of the beautiful game – a class that is only coming into session in England of late. Today’s players are scarcely recognisable when compared to those of only a decade ago, with their training methods and diet having been revolutionised by foreign approaches. A similar lesson needs to be taught in terms of challenging. The referee in Arsenal’s match with Stoke, Peter Walton, looked almost apologetic in the face of the remonstrating Arsenal players, having brandished the highest punishment available, yet feeling as though he had not done enough. Similarly, Ryan Shawcross’ reaction displayed genuine dismay as events unravelled and a lengthy ban does not seem entirely appropriate and certainly is of scant consolation to Ramsey.
As such, prevention looks to be the best cure, and this can only be brought about by a change in mentality. To a country so firmly steeped in tradition, this will be no mean feat.