AARON RAMSEY’S horrific leg break suffered during Arsenal’s win over Stoke last week under a challenge from Ryan Shawcross has ignited a nationwide debate about the state of tackling in the modern game.
Ramsey’s manager, Arsene Wenger, speaking in the aftermath of the incident, insisted it was no coincidence that three of his players – Eduardo and Abou Diaby before Ramsey – had suffered bad breaks at the hands of reckless challenges.
Wenger claims his players are deliberately targeted, and he is right. If you are not Manchester United or Chelsea, then you know the best way to knock Arsenal off their stride is to, well, knock them off their stride; just a few reminders that you’re not going to let them pass the ball around without hitting a few hurdles.
There is a difference, however, between the odd robust tackle and the over-the-top lunge that is starting to creep into the game more and more.
A nudge in the back; a firmer than usual shoulder barge; a subtle trip off the ball - these are all fouls but there is nothing malicious in them and are widely accepted as a part of football.
Shawcross’s tackle doesn’t even fall into this bracket. After losing control of the ball he went for a head-on challenge with Ramsey and simply mistimed his tackle. It was clumsy at best and desperate at worst. The injury resulted because the Welsh midfielder had already planted his leg, so any firm contact was going to put him in trouble.
The defender’s reaction after being sent off told you everything you needed to know about the lad. He was distraught. His record states that he is simply not that type of player, either.
In fact, you could argue that Shawcross’s tackle was one of the softer red cards we have seen this season.
Wenger’s players do not swan around the pitch with halos above their heads, either. William Gallas was guilty of a reckless studs-up tackle on Bolton’s Mark Davies when the Trotters visited the Emirates back in January.
Undoubtedly, there was no intent on Gallas’ part, but it was a potential leg-breaker, and Davies had to be substituted as a result of the challenge. As the player escaped without serious injury, there was no uproar over the incident. But these are the exact sort of tackles that cannot be tolerated.
It is very rare that a player goes in to a challenge with the intention of causing an opponent serious harm. But that is irrelevant. As long as the players know they can get away with going in two-footed, leaving the ground or with their studs showing then they will continue to do so.
Granted, there has been a clampdown by referees this season, but the officials often find it difficult to distinguish between a real potential leg-breaker and tackles that look far worse to the naked eye than they are in reality.
The referees cannot be blamed entirely for missing the odd poor tackle or indeed for over-reacting to another when their guidelines on such challenges are so strict.
The one thing that is lacking is consistency. And the only way to permanently stamp out these career-threatening tackles is to ban offenders retrospectively.
Take Gallas, for example. The referee missed the incident and so there would have been no mention of it in his match report, therefore no further action will be taken.
That approach is ludicrous. We have television replays at the ready and we have a board of control in place to administer punishment so let’s get these challenges under the microscope and kick them out of the game for good.
One might argue that every tackle in a game would have to be analysed if such a system was introduced. That is not the case. This system would focus only on tackles whereby players have either left the ground, lunged in recklessly or come in with their studs showing – the very tackles that referees have been ordered to clamp down on.
So, in Gallas’ case, a three-game ban would be imposed. The same would apply to Birmingham City’s Liam Ridgewell, who was also guilty of a needless lunge at the weekend. The worse the tackle, the longer the ban.
Any specially-appointed board of analysts would need to contain ex-professionals who have played the game and will be able to provide valuable insight into a player’s mindset in approaching a tackle. As we have seen on numerous occasions this season, referees have been guilty of applying the rules too literally, by punishing players for offences any footballer could tell you were perfectly legitimate parts of the game. Young talents like Ramsey, with the world at their feet, cannot afford to be stolen from the game so young. Fortunately, the early signs suggest the Wales international will make a full recovery. But others will not be so lucky if these tackles are allowed to continue unpunished.
It cannot be one rule for one and another for the rest. Everyone must be part of the same rigorous process to root out these tackles and suitable bans, applied retrospectively, are the only way to get rid of the problem once and for all.