Monday, March 3, 2008

Residual Image: Tackling the Tackle

For the past couple weeks, the tackle that broke Eduardo de Silva's leg (and then some) has been on the minds of not only Arsenal fans, but all who follow the English game.

One of the most interesting observations regarding Martin Taylor's tackle comes from International Herald Tribune columnist Robert Hughes, in his article "A Shocking Tackle Raises Questions of Intent". He writes:
It is instructive to recall that in his younger days, when Taylor was with Blackburn Rovers, his then team manager, Graeme Souness, said of him: "For Tiny, being physical is an area where he is short. With a body like he has, I want him to be a bully. But he is too nice - he is perfect son-in-law material, but I don't want a team of son-in-laws!"

Those comments seem to encompass the ethos of the British approach to the sport it gave to the world. The emphasis on physical aggression comes at a cost of ball skills, and is a reason why England is not going to the European championships. It was eliminated by Croatia's quality, and by Eduardo's goals.

Hughes suggests that we might see this bad tackle - between a big English player and a lithe, quick Brazilian player - as an image which captures a larger problem, one with no easy solution. This clash of style is behind the more recent flurry of remarks regarding Man U's perspectives on refereeing.

Cristiano Ronaldo's complaints that he can't play his game because he's afraid of getting hurt may sound like the whining of a primadonna. And Fergie's complaints that the ref's aren't protecting his star player lose all credibility when made on the heals of the loss to Portsmouth. Wenger's uncharacteristic diatribe about the viciousness of the tackle was eventually retracted.

The fear of injury, however, is a very real and even defining part of being a competitive athlete in any sport, especially at this level. It is also a big part of getting older. CR is 23, Wenger's team is famously youthful - one has to wonder if the unfolding stories of outrage and upset aren't in part about maturing, and confronting the consequences of one's place in a football system that is notoriously brutal. This isn't to diminish the seriousness of their critiques of the brutality of the English game. CR is right to think perhaps this isn't the league for him - not because he's a wimp, but because he has a right to want to play as deep into his 30s as he can.

Hughes suggests in his article that Taylor's mistiming was not a reflection of a lack of skill, but a reflection of Eduardo's unusual speed and talent. By the time the tackle is executed, Eduardo isn't where you expect him to be - the confrontation of this one type of player (fast, ingenious, unpredictable) with this other type of player (physically intimidating, militarized) tears the game apart. If CR wants to be free from anxiety about taking physical challenges from larger players, he might do better in a different setting. That said, what league would free one of the top strikers alive from physically aggressive challenges eludes me.

This is one of football's biggest challenges at all levels - we all prefer watching players with magical footwork. But when we face opponents with those skills, we want to see those players shut down - with a tight and fearless back line. Consider the sometimes dramatic differences in the physical presence of players, and the strange vulnerability of the football player (unarmored, often running at full speed, flying, even) and you have a couple of the main ingredients for the thrill of the game. A great tackle is a thrilling thing to watch - when executed well, it is a sign of respect. (e.g. Japan's Hiromi Ikeda trying to fight off Germany - the eventual World Cup Champions - I am not sure Ikeda got the ball from her opponent here, but the image is great!) Being on the receiving end of a good tackle makes you raise your game. Being on the receiving end of a bad tackle makes you wonder if it's worth it.

Great defense is a relatively unheralded art (as in this attack from Man U's Wes Brown, on Sunderland's Kenwyne Jones - I think I've ID'd them right). Try a google image search for "tackle", "great tackle", or "slide tackle" in soccer and you'll find more images of bad tackles, violent tackles, and hair-raising injuries than you will of hard, effective, smart attacks on the ball. For example - "best soccer goals" yields 269 pages of 20 images of great goals; "best soccer tackles" yields no pages at all. Youtube is a bit better, thanks to the likes of "Chris-Ronaldo7" who puts a few of his fave's to Green Day (I think). Even here, though, youtube's "related videos" bar is basically a casualty list. It's unfortunate - a great goal makes for a great photo. A great tackle, though, is much less interesting to the lazy eyes of the mass media than a brutal assault.

A bad tackle breaks the spell cast over the beautiful game to reveal the fragility of everyone on the field. Great distress was written across the faces of all of the players and fans that day. The fear in everyone's hearts was for more than the safety of player - it was, and is, fear for the integrity and health of the game itself. Seeing a brilliant player like Eduardo brought down for what looked like forever (and is perhaps 'only' a year) puts a good deal of anxiety in everyone's hearts. Nobody wants to see injuries of that magnitude become routine.

But do we have the heart to really explore the ugly side of football culture in the UK and Europe? Like the mass impulse to brutality which underwrites ugly fan chants? Like the demand that one win at all costs? Like what it means to treat the game more like a business than an art?

Ultimately, I suppose it is the referees who must keep the horrifying image of that tackle in their heads. But it shouldn't be only up to them. If an event like this doesn't force the people running and watching the game to question where it's going, well, then we've all really gone off the rails.


  1. Your blog is most excellent! Keep up the great work!

  2. Perhaps the iconic image of the great tackle is Bobby Moore's whisking of the ball away from (I think) Pele in Mexico 1970. Look at that tackle: precise, orderly, crisp, elegant, above all gentlemanly. Thinking about it, is not the lost art of the tackle a metaphor for the lost art of gentlemanly manners (the ability to intervene without gratuitous offence; the ability to intercede while maintaining a levelness of tone), those manners and that poise and self-contol Moore represented to an extraordinary degree? Can this analogy be pushed further: does the fact of Moore's testicular cancer mean that the proper tackle may only be executed by those with less tackle? I only ask.

  3. i can't comment on the last bit - but i would love a link to any footage of bobby moore in action.

    it is indeed tempting to see the change in tackle culture as a symptom of a larger problem - the demise of the gentleman. but, i think, too, perhaps part of it is that we don't celebrate the beautiful tackle as we should. here's to changing that!

    thanks for reading & posting spursboy!

  4. Interesting as always, Jennifer. As a 5'2" defender and keeper, I cannot tell you how many times I was told that it was okay to "throw my body into a tackle" and "not be afraid to go down and take her with you." The expectation, of course, was that I would do it cleanly and go for the ball, and I was certainly never encouraged to hurt anyone, but the instruction clearly mandates the use of force to compensate for size. In my case, I had to make up for being small and not particularly speedy with skilled tackles, thoughtful passing and distribution, and full commitment with no hesitation. But that was many years ago in a much less competitive environment. I don't know how a girl of my strengths and weaknesses would be coached today.

    With regard to your post, I think that a big media buzz-phrase of the last couple of seasons was "horror tackle," which was bandied about even before the Eduardo incident but certainly peaked there. It's sensationalist language that only escalates tensions, adds drama, and villanizes the tackler who may have meant no malice. In the Eduardo-Taylor case, I don't think there was malice so much as a massive skill gap and some bad advice on how Brum should approach the match. When you take Eduardo, a small-built world-class Brazilian-Croatian striker with great speed and technique (and the most clinical finishing in the biz) and a rising star who is playing for the most artful team in the Premier League, and you match him with Martin Taylor, a big defender brought up on the physical English game and playing for lower-tier and relegation teams... well, that there was a rough tackle done was inevitable. That the tackle was a bad one isn't at all surprising; it's the severity of the break and the gap in skill and class and method that caught us all.

    Intent, whether it that of a novel's author or a football team's defender, is always difficult to determine with certainty. And surely the game has ramped up as stakes are raised and cash flows and patience wanes. All involved are responsible for their behavior; they are skilled professionals who are supposed to be experts of the craft. We need to hold players and managers accountable for sure. It is by no means acceptable for Taylor to use such bad judgment on timing his tackle, nor is it acceptable for McLeish or any other coach to look at a team like Arsenal and encourage players to match the Gunners' skills with brute force. But let's also examine the media's role in this and how they sensationalize these "horror tackles" that they turn into paper-selling front-page drama.


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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