The Prem Goes On The Attack….Against Thug Life

Joshua Wells makes, of course, a triumphant return to TSG

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There has always been a conflict between keeping athletes safe in college and professional sports and preserving the excitement of the game.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt felt it was necessary to step in and reform the way college football was played.

A year earlier, eighteen players had been killed on college gridirons.  Rules were added to the college game making it safer, including extending the yards needed for a first down to ten from five, adding a neutral zone to the line of scrimmage, limiting the number of running backs, legalizing the forward pass, and increasing penalties for personal fouls.

In the 1990s, the NBA went through a series of rule changes designed to limit physicality in the game and increase scoring.  While player safety wasn’t at the core of the NBA’s motivation for changing the rules, the evolution was positive for the sport.  The eliminating of hand checking in 1994 and using a forearm on players facing the basket in 1997 allowed for the current resurgence of the NBA on the back of a faster paced game with increased scoring.

The NFL is going through its own series of controversial rule changes designed to protect players, especially skill players, from concussions and other major injuries.

Youch!

The league eliminated the horse collar tackle after Roy Williams brought down Terrell Owens with the back of his shoulder pads, breaking his leg.  Defenders were no longer allowed to tackle at the knees of a defenseless quarterback after Bernard Pollard took out Tom Brady’s knee in the first week of the 2008 season.  A series of rules of been instituted to protect defenseless receivers from the brain rattling hits that formerly defined the league and made SportsCenter worth watching.

Each of these rule changes had a major impact on how their respective sports were played.  You could argue that these rule adaptations changed the sport into something entirely different than they were before.  The NBA has gone from a game dominated by post players to a game that is dominated by athletic guard play.  Gone are the days when a Tree Rollins could eke out a 15-year career just because he was huge.  Similarly, in the NFL, the Patriots are the Super Bowl favorite over the New York Giants despite having the lowest ranked defense to ever make it to the NFL’s biggest game.

As we near the end of the January transfer window, it seems that the Barclays Premier League is going through a similar transition.

Long known as the domain of hard men, harder tackles, and a pace that makes La Liga and Serie A look like their players are playing in a bog, this season has seen a trend that may slow the pace down and eliminate the value of some of the enforcers who have long been considered essential to football in England.

Through 22 matches this season, referees have handed out a whopping 19 straight red cards.  In the 2010-2011 season, referees brandished the straight red a massive 40 times.  In comparison, in 2009-2010, referees awarded only 26 straight red cards.  The 2008-09 and 2007-08 seasons saw 34 and 35 straight reds handed out respectively.

While a leap from 34 or 35 straight reds in a season to 40 (and potentially more in 2010-11) may not seem statistically significant, it is actually quite huge.  This means that in 5-6 matches per season, a Premier League team will play a man down where they might not have in previous seasons, not to mention the multi-game suspensions that accompany a straight red.  In a league where a Champions League spot means approximately $30 million and relegation means a loss of approximately $46 million, five to six more red cards could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue lost or gained.

There have been multiple controversial straight red cards this season.

A perfect example is the straight red handed out to Vincent Kompany in Manchester City’s F.A. Cup clash against Manchester United on January 8, 2012.  In the match’s 12th minute, Kompany lunged in for a masterful tackle on United’s Nani.  He clearly took the ball and in years past the tackle would have been lauded as a thing of beauty.

Referee Chris Foye, without hesitation, fanned the straight red at Kompany and effectively changed the course of the match.  The only explanation for the straight red was that, in Foye’s eyes, the actual outcome of the tackle was irrelevant as to whether it warranted a red card.

Peruse the laws of the game and Foye’s decision appears to be spot-on.

Referees have the authority to award a player a red card when he has engaged in serious foul play, amongst other things, under Law 12.  Serious foul play is defined as follows:

» A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play.

» A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play.

» 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.

As you can see, the definition of serious foul play leaves much to the interpretation of the match official.

The Laws do define “excessive force” as “exceed[ing] the necessary use of force and [] endangering [an] opponent,” but even this definition leaves much to the eye of the beholder.

For example, one could argue that Vincent Kompany’s challenge on Nani was a use of the perfect amount of force.  Despite the fact that he went in with two feet and studs raised, Kompany skillfully and cleanly dispossessed his opponent of the ball.

In past seasons, the subjective nature of the “excessive force” language led referees to impose something of a “no-blood-no-red-card” rule.  When Martin Taylor went in high and broke former Arsenal starlet Eduardo’s leg, he was sent off.

If Taylor had not injured Eduardo, it is likely that no red card would have been given.  The same for Jonny Evans’ studs up tackle on Stuart Holden.  Had he not gashed Holden and ruptured something in the Bolton midfielder’s knee, Evans likely would not have gotten the straight red.

The problem with this type of application of the red card rule is it does not eliminate the type of play it was meant to eliminate.  If two-footed or studs-high tackles are only punished by a red card on those rare occasions when they lead to actual injury, then there is no real deterrence and players are not adequately protected.

The importance of eliminating excessive force from the game becomes apparent when we consider the incredibly high stakes.

John O'holden....

Take the Holden example.

Holden, even after missing nearly a third of last season with Bolton, was voted by the fans as the Wanderers’ most valuable player.  He was first on the team sheet and was generally considered the engine that made the Bolton machine go.  Evans’ high tackle on Holden was the pebble that sent rings cascading towards and impacting the entire league pond.

Holden himself may never be the same player he was prior to the injury impacting his earning ability.  In addition, Bolton, who were sitting at seventh in the Premier League and challenging for a Europa Cup spot, are now 8-1-23 since Holden’s injury and currently sit a point above the relegation zone.  If Bolton are relegated, they can expect to lose the aforementioned $46 million in Premier League earnings.  In addition, they are obligated to pay Holden’s salary this season to a player that cannot contribute on the pitch.

Eduardo’s career was essentially destroyed by Martin Taylor.  He went from being one of the Premier League’s top goal scorers to playing in the Ukrainian Premier League in just two short years.  Some may argue that eliminating two footed or studs up challenges will effectively change the type of game played in the Premier League.  While this may be true, I’d rather have a fully fit Eduardo or Holden in the Premier League than a bunch of heavy tacklers.

While it appears that over the past two seasons match officials have begun to be more liberal with their use of the straight red for excessive force tackles, there is still inconsistency throughout the league as to what kind of tackle deserves a red card and what is just good hard physical play.

Just a few weeks ago, Sir Alex Ferguson noted the issue stating “…these inconsistencies are confusing to everyone. Referees have to be given direction about what are the laws of the game and what should be permitted in terms of tackles.  (Referees’ chief) Mike Riley has to be given the rope to say this is not allowed, two-footed tackles are not acceptable, whether you take the ball or not.”

While Sir Alex is not the best source for unbiased opinions on the state of refereeing, he does have a point.  If the Premier League is serious about protecting its players from Martin Taylor-like “reducers,” it would do well to give a clear directorate to its match officials and the league stating that studs up and two footed tackles are going to be straight red cards.  This would take the onus off of the Chris Foyes of the world.  Players would then know where they stood and it would be on them to eliminate those types of tackles from their repertoire.

For now, the increase in straight red cards for excessive force tackles is an overall positive step.  The hope is that Mike Riley and the Premier League will draw a line in the sand and make match official’s lives all that much easier.  As players adjust to the rules, the number of straight reds will decrease to normal levels, and we’ll not have to see sights like Eduardo’s leg bending in the wrong direction anymore.

Do you like watching Swansea City in the Premiership this year? Is their style exciting no matter who they play? Three years ago Swansea City doesn’t survive in the Prem and in all likelihood nor do some of its players.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent piece. Explicitly stating that two-footed lunges will go some way to helping referees, but at the end of the day they’re still human. The only way to completely eradicate this behavior from the league (diving too) is to review all matches and hand out punishments for fouls that the ref may not have caught during the course of play, or saw and got the call wrong.

    An old coaches axiom immediately jumps to mind “it’s not cheating unless you get caught.” The truth in that statement is further exploited in a sport like soccer where the officials per player ratio is one of, if not the, lowest in all of sports. On top of that you have personal interpretation. Post-match reviews and handing out of suspensions would remove much of this inconsistency; though, it does open up a Pandora’s Box with respect to the actual results of the match – e.g. Mario Balotelli against Tottenham recently…

    Reply

    • Posted by cmac on 2012/02/02 at 3:29 PM

      here here. And let’s not forget about fines. 25k per dive, after post match reviews, puts an end to all of that nonsense faster than you can say, “La Liga”.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Josh on 2012/01/31 at 8:11 AM

    I agree. I especially agree with the “too few refs” part. It makes no sense to have one ref trying to keep track of the game on a massive pitch with 22 players. I think they need to put at one more ref on the pitch and expand the linesmens’ role.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Kevin O' on 2012/01/31 at 8:32 AM

    Does this mean DeJong will be put back on a train to Holland immediately?

    Reply

  4. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/01/31 at 12:35 PM

    The FA also need to initiate this at youth / grass roots level. I grew up in a time / culture where heavy tackles where ok as long as you won the ball.
    Protecting every player’s welfare is in everybody’s interest, but please don’t outlaw tackling. I still haven’t come to terms with a red card AND penalties for certain offenses…

    Reply

  5. Posted by Jake on 2012/01/31 at 1:12 PM

    The other thing to consider is the art of the slide tackle has been lost. Tackling so your legs (and body) are behind the ball (preventing the attacker from going where he wants) is usually a legal tackle. Sliding AT the ball, from any direction is what leads to problems. Had Kompany’s body stayed between ball and goal he would have been fine even with contact. The fact that he went through the ball into the player makes the challenge serious foul play. I like that the EPL is getting a way from all challenges winning the ball are fair, makes a better game that can still be played with high intensity, emotion, and speed.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Rico on 2012/01/31 at 3:14 PM

    Long over-due in EPL! Watch a game and compare to La Liga or Bundesliga. EPL plays boom-ball. Especially Wigan, Bolton, Stoke and similar teams in bottom rung. Little in intricate pasing and moving. Just boom and chase. This requires strong, big, powerful players. The type who prefer to tackle than to position themselves properly; to not anticipate well because they don’t read the game or care to. They react. Even my U13 son says if he ever made it to pro, he doesnt’ want EPL because breaking legs is part of the game.

    Reply

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