It is something that occurs in every game of football played. It is essential but so often unloved. It is replete with symbolism. Some revere it as an essential part of competing, the thing that gives you the right to play. Others revile the kind of deification that elevates an act of prevention above an act of creation. Attitudes to it run deep, threaded through so many of the clichés that spring readily to even the most wary of commentators. Get stuck in. Earn the right to play. Let the opponent know you are there. A little reducer. Keep your foot in.
It’s all about the tackle.
Differences of opinion about the role of the tackle go back to the very roots of the modern game. When football and rugby parted company in 1863 after a long debate that culminated in the famous meeting at the Freemason’s Tavern in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields, disagreement over the use of the hand to carry the ball is often cited as the reason for the split. But it was the argument over hacking – kicking opponents in the shins – that was at the centre of the controversy. One of those present remarked that: “If you do away with hacking, you will do away with all the courage and pluck of the game, and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice”.
That comment reveals so much about how ideas of good play and concepts of Englishness were bound together with the idea of physical strength and prowess in early attitudes to the game in the British Isles. The vestiges of those attitudes lingered long in the English game, stunting its growth and almost ensuring it became an irrelevance. As the ebb and flow of style and tactical preference continues into modern times, well-worn debates about those attitudes resurface in new guises. And at the heart of so many of those debates is the attitude to the tackle.
In England, much of the discourse around tackling is tied up with ideas of strength, hardness, power. The tackle is an essential component of the game being “a man’s game” and changing rules and attitudes around tackling are often viewed with suspicion and blamed for making football ‘a non-contact sport’. The worry about ‘doing away with hacking’ persists. While it would be wrong to say that this set of attitudes is peculiar to the English game – the idea of the hard man defender crunching into challenges is a valued part of the approach to defending in the Italian game for example – it is interesting to consider how the attitude to the tackle has fed in to wider perspectives on how the game is played in England.
If one word was at the centre of early attitudes to the playing of the game in England, it was ‘direct’. Early tactical approaches centred on a robust physical approach to getting the ball into the opponent’s net. “Tactical approach” may be an overstatement. The eleven players on each team pretty much chased the ball and the formation, such as it was, was either 1-2-7 or 2-2-6. Jonathan Wilson, in his history of football tactics Inverting the Pyramid, notes the challenge to the early mindset within the English game posed by the early Law Six, specifying that passes had to be either lateral or backward. “For Englishmen convinced that anything other than charging directly at a target was suspiciously unsubtle and unmanly,” wrote Wilson, “that would clearly never do”.
Law Six was changed in 1866 to permit a forward pass provided at least three members of the team defending were between the player playing the ball and the opponent’s goal when the ball was played. But the emphasis on physicality and directness continued, as Wilson again points out by referencing the exhortations of leading early English player Charles W Alcock in 1870 to players to “back up”. Alcock described backing up as “following closely on a fellow-player to assist him or to take on the ball in the case of his being attacked”. Wilson puts that into perspective, writing that “even a decade after the establishment of the FA, one of the founding fathers of the game found it necessary to explain to others that if one of their team-mates were charging head-down at goal, it might be an idea to go and help him”.
A different approach was adopted in Scotland, with emphasis from early on in the game’s development on a passing game. The reason for this is often traced back to the first international, a game between England and Scotland in 1872. The Scottish team was over a stone a man lighter than the English and so took the decision to try to pass the ball around their opponents rather than enter a direct man-to-man contest. The 2-2-6 formation they adopted that day represented a challenge to what had become known as the dribbling game – one that relied on the power and prowess of individuals running with the ball – introducing what was termed the combination game – one in which passing between various members of the team as individuals worked together in a unit prevailed.
The passing game was already a feature of the way football was played in Scotland but it was that first international that brought the two styles head to head. The resulting 0-0 draw was a major upset, for the English in any case, further sharpening the debate and arguably laying the foundations for debate about the game that has continued in one form or another ever since. As alternatives to the early physical approach developed, so the 2-3-5 formation emerged as the ‘the way the game was played’. How that differed from 1-2-7 or 2-2-6 was that it dropped a forward back into the position of centre-half and it made that position key. The centre-half had responsibilities to defend and attack, to lead from the middle, to break up opponents’ play and instigate the plays of his own side.
Ironically, the emergence of the concept of defending outraged the traditionalists who saw the essence of the game as attacking. Why ironic? Because the traditionalist attitude has tended, in England, to manifest itself in the more recent past as extolling the virtues of stopping rather than creating – hence the iconic nature of the tackle. Think of the hard men of more modern times, a breed regularly lamented as dying out. Norman Hunter, Ron Harris, Tommy Smith, Billy Bremner, Andoni Goikoetxea, Claudio Gentile, Stuart Pearce – not one attacking player among them.
Attacking was originally about direct power, with attacking plays described as “rushes” and physicality at the heart of the approach. But as the game developed it became more complex. Passing, combination, possession, defending, running off the ball, tactical complexity, the development of offside – all these things and more plied layer upon layer onto the simple game. And in doing so added to its simple beauty.
The tackle, with its essential elements of clash and conflict, has remained at the heart of the debate about how the game should be played, and about what its real values are. But, as so often is the case, those English traditionalists who see it merely in terms of its destructive power undervalue what they claim to extol. Because the tackle can be a thing of beauty, an exhibition of skill every bit as pleasing to the eye as a crossfield pass to feet or the use of an instep to control the momentum of a high ball before changing direction.
In the Wikipedia definitions of tackling, only the association football tackle is defined as something that exclusively involves taking control of the ball from an opponent. In the rugby codes and in American and Australian football, tackling is defined as physically interfering in some way with the progress of a player with the ball. In Gaelic football, there’s more focus on gaining control of the ball, but the word “wrestling” is deployed, as it is in all other sports except association football, to describe how this can be achieved.
The football tackle has been ill-served by its reputation as a thing solely of destruction, solely about hard men and earning the right to play. Think back to the night of 5 November 2006. At White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea are drawing 0-0 when, late in the first half, Michael Ballack lobs a high ball from just inside the Blues’ half. Arjen Robben takes off like a sprinter to get in behind the Spurs defence and is one-on-one with Spurs goalkeeper Paul Robinson, pulling his left foot back to slam the ball home. Then Ledley King arrives. He made up fifteen yards on one of the quickest players in the league, moved goalside of him, and stretched a perfectly-timed foot across the Dutchman to knock the ball out of play. “A quite magnificent tackle” purred the commentator.
There is a special place too for the well-executed sliding tackle. Not the one that follows through to take the player just to make sure, but the one in which the defender slides in, recovers the ball, and then recovers his footing to take the ball away. Taking control of the ball from an opponent. Think Philip Lahm on Ivan Rakitic in 2010. But let’s not denigrate the art of the sliding block either, lest it be thought Bobby Moore’s famous challenge on Jairzinho in 1970 was being disregarded. For impudence and sheer ‘how-did-he-do-that’ rewind action, it’s hard to beat Fabio Cannavaro’s back-heel tackle on an in-full-flow Andriy Shevchenko in 2004. Or sit back and watch a show reel of Paolo Maldini’s finest tackles, a masterclass in the art of tackling and staying on your feet, and of choosing just the right moment to pick the opponent’s pocket.
The tackle can display what is best about this most beautiful of games, and that is what is so depressing about all those conversations about how the tackle is dying out and how football is becoming a non-contact sport. Because in that conversation is an echo of the attitude that threatened to stunt the growth of English football and consign it to the status of international sideshow. The fault lines generated by the early divergence of styles between the direct physical game and the more guileful passing game remained for years.
Jimmy Hogan is generally acknowledged as the great teacher of the passing game, an approach he brought to Southern League Fulham with great success in 1906 and 1907. But he was rapidly attracted to work abroad as he encountered resistance in England but saw a willingness to learn in mainland Europe. Hogan was credited by Gustáv Sebes, coach of the great Hungary team of the 1950s, as the man who shaped his approach.
By 1912, the Scot Peter McWilliam was developing similar ideas at Tottenham Hotspur, and he would finish his second spell at the club in the late 1930s by influencing Arthur Rowe and Vic Buckingham. Rowe went on to build the first great Spurs push and run side, while Buckingham developed an early form of Total Football at Ajax. Rowe coached in Hungary and in turn influenced Bill Nicholson and Alf Ramsey. Their ideas drew much from those developed in the coffee houses of Vienna between the wars, were devotees of the game would gather and debate the way the game was played, developing new approaches and analyses.
The percolation of these ‘foreign’ ideas into the English came was viewed with suspicion in some quarters. This was born partly of the attitude that the English, as the inventors of the modern game, needed lessons from no one and partly due to the long-lingering suspicion that anything other than a direct physical rush on the opponent’s goal was a bit suspect, a bit sneaky and clever-clever. The resistance to new ideas led England to decline to take part in early World Cups, and led the football authorities to forbid English clubs to take part in European competition. English football could have become an irrelevance but for the determination of people such as Nicholson, Matt Busby and Harry Potts to take on and learn from the best of the rest of the world.
Thankfully, such insularity has long passed. But the old suspicions linger. And the debate about the tackle is often a cipher for them. It’s not uncommon to hear people bemoaning the fact that ‘you can’t touch anyone now’ or, a classic of the genre, ‘the game’s gone’. But arguably the biggest rule change of modern times on tackling, the outlawing of the tackle from behind in 1998, came about largely because of the punishment endured by Marco van Basten. The Dutchman is one of the finest strikers the world has seen, but his career was cut short by the sheer volume of terrible tackles he was subjected to during his career. The rule change was introduced to stop tackles “which endanger the safety of an opponent”. That is a long way from “If you do away with hacking, you will do away with all the courage and pluck of the game”.
Despite the popular line that is peddled, the current laws of the game do not outlaw physical contact. The FA’s Law 12 covers fouls and misconduct. And it includes this section. “Impeding the progress of an opponent means moving into the opponent’s path to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction when the ball is not within playing distance of either player.
“All players have a right to their position on the field of play; being in the way of an opponent is not the same as moving into the way of an opponent.
“A player may shield the ball by taking a position between an opponent and the ball if the ball is within playing distance and the opponent is not held off with the arms or body. If the ball is within playing distance, the player may be fairly charged by an opponent.”
The physicality is still there. The interpretation of what is or is not dangerous play, the judgement of intent, the ability to see whether the ball or the man has been played are all contributory factors in the continuing debate over the tackle, as is refereeing inconsistence. (Although who would be a referee these days, when decisions that must be made in the blink of a eye are endlessly re-examined in order to achieve a degree of perfect judgement no human can possibly live up to.)
The tackle remains at the heart of the game, and of our attitudes to how it should be played. And for that reason alone, we should give it more love.