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English Premier League pandering to namby pambyism

The laws enforced in the saga of Kompany's sending-off threaten to rob the British game of its trademark physicality

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 January, 2013, 5:20am

Of all the things we fans enjoy when watching soccer, now is the time to count the number of tackles and savour them.

The Vincent Kompany red-card saga that has raged this week means tomorrow's clashes between Chelsea and Arsenal, and Spurs and Manchester United, could prove timely barometers and will be scrutinised to see if the scourge of modern society - obsessive attention to health and safety - has wriggled its corrosive ways into the game we adore for its physicality.

In the wake of Kompany's dismissal last weekend - he was sent packing for a two-footed tackle on Jack Wilshere during City's 2-0 win over Arsenal - many now fear the intrinsic characteristic which makes the English game so special is under threat. Latest statistics support concerns that EPL trademark tackling is a dying art form. The data shows that since the 2009-10 season, the number of tackles attempted during EPL fixtures have plummeted.

Meanwhile, other European top-flight leagues have been toughening up and are increasing their tackles in an attempt to offer the same rough-and-tumble, excitement as the British-style game.

So far this season, EPL games have averaged 38 tackles, compared with 43 three years ago - and the trajectory is downwards.

The stats support the increasing claims that EPL players - especially defenders - are holding back because they believe refs are becoming more inclined to issue a red card for putting a foot in.

Germany's Bundesliga, by contrast, has recorded just shy of 47 tackles a game in the same period - up from 43. Italy's Serie A records a similar number.

The big surprise is Spain's La Liga, known more for its masters of tiki-taka artistry than its watchable hard-men reducers. There, tackles spiked last year at 46 a game and now stand at just under 44.

The English game is undergoing a worrying sea change. Kompany's sending off has confirmed fears the governing bodies have declared war on tackling and wish to introduce namby-pambyism.

Referee Mike Dean's decision to dismiss Kompany was undeniably harsh. But due to a rash of subtle changes to the rules and interpretation of them, his decision seemed correct.

Ironically, it was in the wake of Kompany's sending off last season against Man U for a similar tackle that all EPL sides were issued with a DVD that many claim sparked the clamp on traditional challengers.

The Professional Game Match Officials body, the Professional Footballers' Association and the League Managers Association compiled the contents, which highlight some of Kompany's tackles as examples to study as to Rule 12 of the Laws of the Game, where foul challenges are broken down into three sections.

The organisations sat down to deem which were careless, reckless and excessive - namely those challenges that see a defender go in at speed and with intensity towards an opponent and with two feet off the ground.

Guidelines were drawn up to "better" interpret the rules.

Of course, no one wants to see players injured and guidelines are required more than ever given the athleticism of the game.

But there has been an over-interpretation of the guidelines by already-under-pressure referees and the balance has tilted too far in favour of mollycoddling. Now, good, hard tackles are unduly punished for being dangerous.

"As defenders, we run the risk of being sent off with every tackle," summed up Kompany's teammate, Pablo Zabaleta.

From the terracing and TV screens, it is clear defending has become more collective and pressing in style. The centre back is less an individual as in the old mould of Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, et al - let alone the prototype hard men, Norman "bite yer legs" Hunter and Ron "Chopper" Harris. Maybe this explains why so many back lines are leaking so many goals this season - the usually watertight Man U being a case in point.

The crunching tackle is part of the theatre we pay to watch. Such challenges pit attackers against defenders, artistry against brawn. They provide the sacrosanct universality that there is more than one way to win a game.

Think Ferdinand flooring Luis Garcia a few minutes into Spaniard's debut for Liverpool. "I flew a few metres into the air and when I landed, Ferdinand came over to me and said, 'Welcome to the Premiership'," recalled Garcia.

Yet the art of the direct challenge, that of letting your opponent know you are there, is under threat of extinction.

Thankfully, Man City successfully appealed against Kompany's sending off because his tackle on Wilshere was one of perfect control - a tip-top professional challenge from an expert who will play today against Fulham.

But his and similar reversals recently have caused anger, dismay and confusion among refs who claim such remote, meeting-room decisions set a dangerous precedent and increase the chances of players being seriously injured. What is a dangerous tackle and how do you punish them, refs are asking.

Those trying to wrap our beloved contact sport in cotton wool should listen to experts such as Kompany and West Ham manager Sam Allardyce, a former central defender.

"Tackling was an art and a technique . It's almost dead. We have to say we don't coach tackling any more. That's rather sad. We now teach stay-on-your-feet. We teach pinch, nick, intercept," he said this week. And he made a request of the sport's suits to butt out.

"Listen to an expert. Fifa and Uefa are not experts in tackling. It was my job to tackle," he said

You can hear the boardroom chairs scraping as the occupants dive for cover to avoid a crunching challenge.