Having not seen the Manchester Derby live, I read about Vincent Kompany’s “controversial” red card before I watched the match. When I saw the incident, I was astonished at how uncontroversial the decision was, at least in my eyes. Kompany launched into the tackle with both feet off the ground.
As soon as I’d realised that (and it was very obvious: ITV commentator Clive Tyldsley mentioned the two-footed nature before the referee had even blown his whistle) I wasn’t concerned whether he won the ball, whether he was particularly high off the ground, or whether his opponents complained. The two-footed tackle is a pointless, pitiful method of attempting to win the ball, which should have no place in football.
The Laws of the Game sets out the description of a challenge that should be penalised with a red card. “Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play.” A two-footed tackle almost perfectly fits the ball here – it’s clearly a lunge, using excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent.
Jumping into a tackle with two feet is a very deliberate action. It is a completely different situation to being ‘late’ – which can be very dangerous, but could be mistimed and accidental. It’s also very separate from being ‘high’ – which is often a case of poor technique. To make a tackle with two feet, especially in a situation where the ball and player are coming towards you, it requires a completely different action and body position to a one-footed tackle. You cannot accidentally make a two-footed tackle, you are doing so deliberately and aggressively.
Depressingly, Kompany’s tackle has been used as propaganda for the idea that slide tackling is being outlawed. In fact, it wasn’t a slide tackle at all: at no point between Kompany taking off and getting the ball is he near to sliding along the ground. The concept of a slide is crucial – it means the player’s body weight is being supported. If there is no contact with the ground, it means the player’s entire body weight is directed towards his opponent – had Nani not jumped out of the way, he could have been seriously injured.
This is presumably what Kompany refers to when, in the Facebook ‘note’ he posted after the appeal was turned down, he said, “I wonder though, if we are now going to see an unprecedented wave of red cards on match days because we sanction ifs and maybes?” Let’s hope so. We shouldn’t have to rely on the attacking player to jump out of the way of these tackles, we should be penalising and therefore discouraging the defenders from diving in so foolishly. Kompany is an excellent defender and seemingly a bright chap – he should learn from this, tackle more intelligently, and become a better defender.
Tackling is an art, they say. Well, it can be – it can also be brutal and dangerous. There is nothing artistic nor enjoyable about seeing a player dive in with two feet. A measured, controlled slide tackle is one of the best things you can see on a football pitch, as seen throughout Alessandro Nesta’s masterful display up against Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp earlier this season, for example. Nesta continually went to ground – he had to, since he was unable to keep up with Messi – but he did so with grace and style.
Of course, not everything in football has to be graceful and stylish. The argument that some fans love the physical side of the game is legitimate, but it’s unclear how this extends to the two-footed tackle. Even in boxing or rugby—sports based around physicality more than anything else—there are rules in place to prevent the physicality from being violent. Restricting tackles to one foot improves player safety considerably, and makes minimal difference to the defender’s chance of winning the ball. Who loses?
As it happens, one of the sides who will benefit most from this strictness is Manchester City. They make more short-passes-per-game than any other side in the Premier League and therefore are constantly vulnerable to opposition challenges, whilst they make the fourth-fewest tackles in the division. Stricter refereeing will protect the likes of David Silva and Sergio Aguero, technically gifted footballers who should be able to dribble the ball forward without the threat of a defender jumping towards their ankles.
Incidentally, I didn’t see the game live because I was in Madrid, watching Sevilla’s trip to Rayo Vallecano, focusing upon Jose Antonio Reyes’ return to Sevilla. Reyes is the best example of someone kicked out of the English game, unable to deal with the brutal challenges dished out by opposition defenders. Much of that was his own fault – the joy of football is that it blends technical, physical, mental and tactical skills, and Reyes struggled with both the physical and mental sides of the game in England.
Some say Reyes never recovered from the match against Old Trafford in October 2004, when Gary and Phil Neville made a succession of heavy challenges on the Spaniard. Gary Neville admitted he targeted Reyes. “I knew that above all I had to get tight, get physical. I had to makes Reyes lose his confidence – it’s the only match when I’ve ever been accused of brutalising an opponent,” he said in his autobiography. “I’m not going to deny an element of intimidation – he couldn’t handle the rough and tumble.”
But even here, the most obvious example in the Premier League’s 20-year history of a player being overawed by the strength of tackles, Neville knew there was a line he shouldn’t cross. “That didn’t mean going over the top,” he said. “It didn’t mean reckless two-footed challenges.”