Monday 22 January 2018

Sorry Sam, hard but fair tackles break bones too

HAD Alanis Morissette been at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, the urge to add another few verses to her most famous song might have been too great to bear. The most creative performer on the pitch, the babyface on whom England's future rests and the one who seems to define what Arsene Wenger wants in a player, launched himself towards the leg of Nikola Zigic and got a straight red card.

Ironic, don't ya think?

After a week in which Stoke, Blackburn and Wolves defended their players in the face of criticism from Danny Murphy, nothing was more certain than that somebody was going to be sent off for a lunging tackle at the weekend.

There would have been long odds on it being Jack Wilshere, who seemed as though he was trying to take a few inches off the 6' 8" Zigic.

In fairness to Wenger and Wilshere, neither sought to defend it, while Alex McLeish reckoned Wilshere "is not a dirty player". Maybe he is the new Paul Scholes after all.

As is his wont, Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce produced stats to refute Murphy with the ever-present bit of self-publicity thrown in.

"I think I've reduced the bookings ratio to about one and a half a game from just over two under previous managers and our sending off ratio is very, very good indeed," he said.

Presumably 6' 3" Sam also knows that Westlife had the same number of UK No 1 hits as U2 and the Rolling Stones combined, or that 43.9pc of the German electorate voted for Hitler in March 1933. Sometimes stats don't tell the full story.

The three clubs Murphy accused, naturally, defended themselves from the accusations that they were "pumped up" before games, which resulted in dangerous tackles, and they did so using the same tired nonsense that everybody else would have in the same situation.

"One of my players would never deliberately go out to injure a fellow professional"; "I've never told anybody to go out and break somebody's leg"; "We're being victimised by referees" are three standard-bearers in the case for the defence -- even if Murphy never accused them of "deliberately" trying to hurt anybody.

But while footballers aren't always the sharpest knives in the drawer, even they can read between the lines of the not-so-subtle hints that have been dropped in almost every dressing-room before a match.

"Let him know you're there"; "Put everything into the first tackle"; or "Lay down a marker" don't require much in the way of translation, but just in case you don't speak Football Dressing Roomish, they each mean the same thing: "Win the ball, but whack your opponent as hard as you can as soon as you can."

No manager advises players to break an opponent's leg or snap their ankle ligaments, but if the opposition's star player could be put out of commission for the remainder of the game without the manager's own player being sent off, that would be perfectly acceptable.

Players, though, rarely need to be told.

In every tackle, there is a fraction of a second when one player knows he is going to get to the ball first and he usually has two choices: take the ball or take the man and the ball.

Seeing a tricky winger knock the ball just too far ahead of himself will set off a sort of bell-ringing noise in a defender's head, as though he has just won the jackpot. He will normally attempt to put the winger into one of the first five rows, in order to "put down a marker". The crowd cheer, the commentator compliments a hard, but fair tackle and, other than the bloke checking all of his limbs, everybody is happy.

Most creative players have been kicked enough times to know when to get out of the way and those that don't end up like Hatem Ben Arfa, who is now rehabilitating his broken leg.


Like Ben Arfa, Bobby Zamora also suffered a broken leg this season after a tackle from Karl Henry, who, like Nigel De Jong, will become familiar with referees notebooks this season partly because of his inability to time a tackle, and partly because of the subsequent publicity.

Yet, other than the injury that resulted from the tackle, what links the Zamora and Ben Arfa incidents is that both of the bad guys actually got the ball, unlike Joe Cole in the first game of the season or Wilshere on Saturday. Yet they are excused because, you've guessed it, they are not that kind of player.

Had the unfortunate Ben Arfa gone flying through the air rather than crumpling in a heap and De Jong been sent off, there would have been an outcry that a player so clearly winning the ball could be shown a red card and a lament for the lost art of tackling.

Maybe English football really wants to clean itself up or maybe it is just short of something to talk about because it's been a few weeks since a linesman or referee didn't spot that a ball crossed the line and cost a team points.

The goal-line technology debate, we haven't had that one for a while.

Irish Independent

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