Watching Match of the Day 2 late on Sunday night, catching up on the weekend’s action after returning from a weekend abroad, one particular part of the Arsenal v Everton highlights gave me the chance to write about what I perceive as our country’s biggest blind spot in the game; the obsession with tackling. Arsenal’s new signing Gabriel Paulista was shown to make an outstanding last-ditch tackle on Everton’s Romelu Lukaku to deny him a clear shot on goal. As a replay was being shown, the commentator remarked: “that’s the way to win over fans quickly when you move to a big club, tackling like that.” It perfectly captured the perceived importance attributed to tackling by people in football whom I have come across. It was a brilliant tackle and a superb piece of defending, but unfortunately most people in the ground who witnessed it won’t be able to set it apart from any other successful tackles by footballers they’ve seen before. Any tackle at full-stretch that wins the ball is always going to be met with that kind of reception from the crowd, but the same can’t be said for more subtle bits of defending which actually require more skill to execute and do more to contribute to a team’s defensive performance.
Fans will tell you that the minimum they want to see from a player is 100% effort. What this actually means is that they want to see a player ostensibly trying, as ridiculous as it sounds. Even if the player isn’t very good, his effort softens most fan criticism. So why is tackling such a sure fire way for players to endear themselves to supporters? Because it’s very easy to notice.
The game moves too quickly to be able to analyse everything happening off the ball in real time, whereas a player making a tackle is something that you see straight away, without needing to think about what someone hasn’t done or could have done better. If a player loses a tackle in the build-up to a goal, it’s easy to pin the blame for conceding on this, with the justification that the goal wouldn’t have happened if the outcome of the tackle had been different. This is true – if a player wins a tackle, he wins possession for his team meaning the opposition can’t score. However, simplifying football to this extent dangerously overlooks other areas in the broad spectrum of defending and creates an imbalance in levels of importance assigned to different aspects of it.
In truth, tackling is a relatively unimportant part of defending. If you watch a football match for its duration, it should become clear that most turnovers in possession don’t come from tackling. Teams defend by closing down the opposition as a team or keeping a solid shape to contain them. These are the basics of defending – pressing vs dropping – teams will do both during a game, their coaches will have a preference for one of the two and build the team’s approach without the ball around that. Anyway, using these basic principles, which first and foremost require the understanding of when to press or drop off, followed by awareness of the rest of the pitch and the ability to take up the right positions, a team most commonly wins the ball from its opponents by intercepting a pass, or forcing them to misplace a pass or even play the ball out of play. You don’t need to be a strong tackler to do these things. Look at this video of Sunday’s Carling Cup Final, watch the first 10 minutes of the game (it kicks off at about 19mins 45):
The only turnover in possession in this period through a direct tackle comes after 4 minutes and 54 seconds of the game (about 24:45 on the video), with at least 10 turnovers in possession having happened before that. Tottenham’s Eric Dier also makes a sliding tackle on Chelsea’s Diego Costa, however possession does not change hands as the ball goes out for a corner to Chelsea. Otherwise, the closest change in possession to a direct tackle comes after about 1 minute and 20 seconds of play where Eden Hazard anticipates a pass out to Tottenham’s fullback on the touchline (Kyle Walker) and chases it down, backed up by two other Chelsea players, forcing Walker to mis-control the ball and lose it. If you also look at goals scored, the vast majority of goals don’t come from a player failing to make a tackle, rather players being caught in the wrong position or making the wrong decision without the ball, leaving his team more vulnerable.
Xabi Alonso, expanded on this very well in an interview with the English press just over three years ago: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2011/nov/11/xabi-alonso-spain-england-interview. The point he makes, which people responsible for young footballers’ development have failed to understand, is that tackling is a last resort rather than a true footballing skill. A successful tackle by a player on an opponent, especially when close to his own goal, very often occurs after a mistake elsewhere has allowed an attack to progress. Players may be getting a team-mate out of jail by covering across at the last moment, or even attempting to atone for their own error (such as being caught in the wrong position or giving the ball away) by desperately lunging for the ball. In the example given at the start of this piece, Gabriel’s challenge on Lukaku – taking nothing away from it, as it was perfectly executed and showed excellent anticipation and awareness – was a last resort, borne out of necessity. It came about due to an error from his central defensive partner – Laurent Koscielny, who got his positioning and body shape wrong after being tempted out by Lukaku to intercept a pass. The more important parts of the game are summed up neatly if you continue to read Alonso’s answer.
From a personal point of view, I remember being told in my youth to be braver and more aggressive in the tackle. This caused me to unsuccessfully charge after the ball at times in games, forgetting the rule that the ball moves faster than the player. If I did win it, I would receive applause and shouts of encouragement, just like the other lads playing. If not, there would be praise for at least trying, so we continued with this approach. What I didn’t realise is the damage I was doing to the team by breaking our defensive shape and making it easier for the team in possession. When you consider that millions of other kids nationwide receive similar advice, and those that don’t follow it are often seen as not good enough (and may therefore drop out of the game), the effect of our love of tackling has on the failings of English football becomes obvious.
Again using Arsenal as an example, it’s why Mesut Özil is so under-appreciated by not only his team’s supporters, but by plenty of followers of English football, as he isn’t the player to chase after the ball without using his head. Much of his good work isn’t as conspicuous on the field as that of Alexis Sanchez, for example, who has already struck up a greater rapport with the fans. His assist for Arsenal’s second goal on Sunday was an equally impressive piece of play, yet commentators (from the highlights I’ve seen) barely acknowledged it. It’s easy to notice tackling and be impressed by it, and it’s easy for managers and coaches (much less so at the top levels of football now, but it’s still to completely filter down) to shout “win your tackles!” to their players as a line of encouragement to ensure competitiveness. But there is so much more to anything than what meets the eye, and it’s time we started picking up on this.