Joe Butterfield on a worrying trend that needs stamping out.
I’m currently watching replays of Jason Puncheon’s horror tackle on Kevin De Bruyne. In the immediate aftermath of a saved penalty from Ederson, a penalty decision, I might add, which was about as soft as a pillowcase stuffed with marshmallows, De Bruyne initiated a counterattack. Rather than shutting this down with a usual grab of the shirt and a cynical drag back, Puncheon decides this would be best stopped by flying into De Bruyne’s legs at full speed. Manchester City’s and possibly even the Premier League’s player of the season is confined to a stretcher due to an utterly needless and reckless challenge. Puncheon leaves the ground as he goes into the challenge, his feet are high and he makes absolutely no attempt for the ball, which would largely explain why he got absolutely none of it. Perhaps this is the kind of aggression we should expect from a man due to appear in court this week on alleged assault charges.
I’m now watching replays of Jacob Murphy’s challenge on Ilkay Gundogan, in which Murphy goes in incredibly late with a challenge. Were it not for Murphy pulling out at the last minute, an already injury-prone Gundogan would be looking at another year out of football with a broken leg. Murphy’s foot is high, he follows through needlessly and his studs go straight into Gundogan’s calf.
I’m now watching replays of the media’s golden boy, England captain, Ronaldo’s understudy, the mouth-breathing Messi (and did I mention England captain?), Harry Kane’s challenge on the media’s whipping boy, the diamond-encrusted sink owning, Gregg’s frequenting, Poundland shopping, Liverpool rejecting Raheem Sterling. As the ball bobbles free on the edge of the City penalty area, Kane commits to a slide tackle he’s never going to win as Raheem Sterling knocks the ball away. At the very last moment before impact, Kane extends his leg and his 2017 Golden Boot suddenly finds itself making acquaintance with Sterling’s ankle. Kane is very late, he leaves the ground as he jumps into the tackle, his feet are high, he’s looking at Sterling all the way and he’s lucky Sterling doesn’t come away with a broken ankle or leg.
I’m now watching replays of BT’s poster boy, Premier League Young Player of the Year 2016/17, England’s bright future and beloved Tottenham Hotspur player Dele Alli’s disgraceful stamp on Kevin De Bruyne. Much like Paul Pogba the week before, Alli goes over the ball in a similar fashion, only Alli follows through with a solid stamp on De Bruyne, eyes watching the contact all the way. His studs clamp down on De Bruyne’s extended foot, twisting his ankle and planting him to the ground. Manchester City’s Belgian talisman is lucky to come away from the challenge unscathed. Dele Alli, whose petulance when things are not going his way can only be matched by his wild inconsistency this season, goes into the challenge with high feet, makes no effort to pull out of the challenge and clearly endangers his opponent.
Each of these challenges received red cards, surely? This is a highlight reel from the course of an entire season of horrible, yet random and somewhat inevitable, tackles any team in the Premier League faces over nine months of football. Each of these were correctly punished, nothing to see here, right?
If only this were the case. All four of these incidents have taken place over the course of less than a month and the harshest punishment received was a yellow card (Jacob Murphy’s challenge on Gundogan wasn’t even given as a foul). Many blues will have seen this trend over the course of the season – opposition teams getting physical because attempting to match Manchester City for pure technical ability and tactical nous is folly. City are a well-slicked machine with the game’s greatest innovator at the helm. Why would you try to take them on tactically when you can just rough them up a bit?
What makes each of the aforementioned incidents all the more infuriating is the manner with which referees are dealing with them. Sure, fouls are given (Murphy is the exception) but the offenders are only receiving yellow cards instead of reds. When other teams look at these tackles and the consequences, or lack thereof, it doesn’t deter them, it encourages them. This type of challenge becomes the norm within the match. Then the next match. Pretty soon it becomes the norm for Manchester City.
One bad tackle which escapes a red card isn’t a big deal, certainly nothing close to a problem. There is a human element to the game and referees do only get one look at the incidents (or in the case of the Harry Kane tackle, no look at it, as Craig Pawson was looking literally the opposite way as the contact was made). When four incidents happen within the space of a single month, however, opposition players start to think that officials have a huge blind spot which can be exploited.
But what is making referees so unwilling to give red cards as punishments? Is it the speed with which Manchester City play? Do referees like to give opposing teams the benefit of the doubt when it comes to physical challenges to “even the odds” with City’s dominance? Is it general refereeing inconsistency and incompetency which is affecting the entire league? Or are comments made by opposition managers, such as Wenger’s claims that Sterling is “very good” at diving and Jose Mourinho’s assertion that Manchester City players go down very easily, starting to creep into the minds of officials? One would certainly hope it isn’t the latter, but is it mere coincidence that these tackles have all taken place since Mourinho went out of his way to make this point in his press conference?
Playing a “physical way”, within the limits of the law of the game, is perfectly acceptable. Going into a couple of rough 50/50 challenges, imposing your physicality on Pep’s relatively diminutive players, making the most of set-pieces and exploiting height and strength, all completely fine. There is no tactically “wrong” way to play football. Sam Allardyce’s solid defensive unit with the hoofball over the top to the striker is no less feasible, although it is objectively a lot less pleasing on the eye, than Pep Guardiola’s Cruyffian total football.
It seems, however, that numerous teams are taking the idea of physicality to a new level, exploiting the inconsistency or unwillingness of referees when it comes to these red card decisions. The worst offenders so far this season are Tottenham Hotspur, led by Jacqui Oatley’s nominee for the Human Being of the Year, Mauricio Pochettino. A team backed by most neutral fans and not-so-neutral media alike, a team which has received plaudits for their embrace of the beautiful game, sought to make the whole thing a rather ugly affair. One must wonder whether Pochettino issued any instructions at all in the dressing room before the game or simply showed them a compilation of punditry from Roy Keane, Martin Keown, Robbie Savage, Danny Murphy et al spouting little-Englander garbage such as “get stuck into them early” and “let them know you’re there”.
When teams come to the Etihad Stadium to park the 192 to Hazel Grove, fans are naturally frustrated but accept that it is inevitable. Whilst opponents may not be able to go toe-to-toe with them offensively, attempting to stifle Guardiola’s offensive tactics is normal. However that understanding does not extend as far as watching players try to hack down Pep’s men, deciding that rather than trying to subdue the likes of Kevin De Bruyne’s influence on the game it is simply easier to try to remove them from it altogether.
During the height of Alex Ferguson-era United much was made of Ferguson’s attitude towards the referees, which often bordered on disrespect. However, he wasn’t afraid to call out paid professionals when they made blatant errors in their game and he commanded a level of respect and fear from officials. It’s no coincidence that United received a lot of favourable decisions throughout this period, the likes of Howard Webb and Graham Poll feared Ferguson’s signature stomp down from his seat in the dugout, ready to berate a poor fourth official who was just following orders.
Guardiola’s reluctance to blame referees, with a couple of notable exceptions last season, is admirable to an extent. How often do we criticise the Mourinhos and the Warnocks of the world for pinning their own team’s failings on officials? This desire to take full responsibility as a team for any failings within the match (after all truly great teams shouldn’t be affected by refereeing decisions) is commendable but also naïve. Pep has mentioned in press conferences this season already that his players need protection, yet no referee in the league seems interesting in giving them any. Going on the offensive publicly with the officials may not be ideal, but Ferguson proved that it was effective.
When it was announced that Guardiola was coming to the Premier League, much was made of the idea that he would “change English football”, leaving his mark as he has in both Spain and Germany. He certainly seems to be changing the way teams are approaching games, though maybe not in quite the fashion any had predicted. Rather than encouraging the swashbuckling, high-pressing, attacking football which now encompasses the majority of the Bundesliga and La Liga, Pep has turned his opponents into cowards.
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