Sunday, March 7, 2010

Let's put a bow on this package

It's old news now. Still, the world needs to know what I think. I was going to avoid adding more pixels to the burgeoning mountain that grew over the week but I need to have my say. Are you out there world? It's me, Colin.

Aaron Ramsey, the fantastically talented 19 year old midfielder for Arsenal, broke his leg last weekend after a poor tackle from Stoke's Ryan Shawcross. It's never easy when someone gets hurt playing the game they love and the game we love watching them play. There is, though, a deeper cut when the player is coming into prominence as Aaron Ramsey is or indeed as Eduardo was in 2008 when he suffered that horrible injury against Birmingham. It's not fair but the emotion feels, for its part, more raw and more out of your hands. Then, Eduardo was shipping buckets of goals for Croatia in qualifying for the European Championships. He was among the reasons we gave Slavan Bilic the nickname, The Man With All The Answers. Bilic was a Golden Boy and Croatia looked a real threat, particularly when led by Eduardo and that fantastic little pixi Luka Modric. On top of it, Eduardo, it seemed, was finding his pace in the Premier League and had begun to transfer his natural ability to picking up those scrappy goals from those impossible angles that Arsenal had lacked for as long as I can remember (editor's note: my memory is poor). Move ahead to the Arsenal match last weekend at Stoke and football loses an incredibly promising youngster. Aaron had, in his second season with Arsenal, forced himself into Arsene Wenger's first team. He was already featuring for his Welsh national side where, last fall, he scored one of the most magnificent goals I can remember. I'll be damned but I can't find the thing anywhere online. For my part, it'll end up as a true fish story - better with age. I swear he beat three defenders, letting the ball run for some 20 yards without a single touch before he converted. He's one of those players, like Cesc Fabregas or even little Jackie Wilshire, who you get excited about not because of the tools or physical attributes he possesses but because of the way he sees the game. It's the difference between an artist and a painter. They're using the same tools, the same medium yet one completes while the other soars.

To the issue, there are tackles to win the ball and there are tackles to take the body out of the play. Neither, I think, are generally malicious. No one wants to hurt someone else, or boasts and dreams of violence unless you've fully lost the plot and no longer have touch with reality. Or if you're Sir Alex Jintao and just by opening your mouth you hurt people's very soul but that's beside the point. The tackle from Shawcross was not a ball-winning tackle. It was a tackle to disrupt body and psyche in the hopes that it would influence the further outcome of the game. Like a war attrition, the man who delivers such a tackle does so in the hope and assumption that that particular space will be his later in the game. Deliver tackle. Pound chest. Pee on ground. Space. Mine. Rar.

Unfortunately, there are often consequences. And, much like punching someone in the face to take ownership of the center of the pitch, it should not be allowed.

Disagree with me if you will, and I'm quite sure many of you will, but I strongly believe an inferior team reverting to tackles like that in an effort to discover whatever small tactical edge they may is wrong. And, disagree with me if you will, but I firmly believe that there are teams that accept that as a tactical approach in an effort to salvage what is indeed a very precious point in their battle for survival in the top flight. As my counterpart Jim very rightly pointed out yesterday in our first contribution to the new Soccer Saturday radio show, the terrible injuries suffered by Arsenal players in the last four years have come against just such opposition. Sunderland, Birmingham and now Stoke. While they are teams that carry qualifications for their own part, it's certainly not as if they are school boys. They can play the game and compete to the point where they win points (trust me, it happens, take a look at the results). Still, they approach contests with Arsenal as a lumberjack approaches a tree or like Patton approached Sicily. And it's all in a clear attempt to throw the team off of their game through fear-inducing violence. Not through football.

What's wrong with this? Surely teams should be allowed anything at their disposal to try an beat their opposition. Right, but the problem for me comes when tackles that are clearly conceived to attack the body are allowed to rest at 'their disposal.'

To finally get to my point, the more officials allow players to pour in with such reckless tackles, the more likely it will be that people will continue to suffer terrible injury. And we surely need not point to further evidence that teams do indeed target Arsenal in such a way. Look, people get hurt in sport and football is a contact sport. Still, there comes a point when the degree of that contact must be measured and the officials - be they the governing bodies or the arbiters of any given match - must be prepared to put a halt to such a tactical approach when it's clear what the intent is and that the intent is well and truly there.

Now this is a big point ...

The intent is not there to hurt. That is clear. However, the intent does exist to throw in a reckless tackle that is precisely designed to disrupt rhythm and to frustrate. Disrupt and frustrate to your heart's extent, oh opposition, but we must find a way to eliminate those who attempt to disrupt and frustrate with tackles that are quite clearly reckless enough to end in a horrific injury. If you need to put 10 across the back to stop a team that "plays the ball too quickly" then by all means please do so.

And don't tell me about nostalgic hard men and hard tackles.

In the National Football League in America, there's a great lust for the "big hit". Time was, linebackers would clothesline the opposition, nearly ripping their heads off. Time was, the defensive backs would clobber wide receivers, leading with the crown of their helmets and spraying concussions all over the field. Oh, those grand old days, right? Hardly. The laws of the game have been adjusted and hits of that kind are no longer allowed. In fact they are looked down upon. A last straw that should never be clutched.

This isn't a woe is me and woe is the Arsenal thought. It happens everywhere. I'm not saying you need to take good firm tackles out of the game (and that Arsenal have themselves been guilty is beside the point here, there are no "yeah buts" in this argument, it goes both ways). What I am saying is when it is quite clear that a team is consistently flying in and through players with destructive tackles, and it is quite clear that it's not a one off incident, it is very much time that the leaders of the game stand up and say enough is enough. And yes, it is very well the point also that officials take heed in advance of such matches that this will happen. When you see a Stoke or a Blackburn line up against Arsenal or Manchester United, the official should be prepared to recognize the situation and address it as the unique entity that it is.

The approach must be stopped.

To close I'll direct you to rational and reasonable comments from Cesc Fabregas here and Abu Diaby here, who suffered just such an injury in 2006.

1 comment:

Kuba said...

Well said for the most part...but how will this affect Ryan Shawcross? Will he be o.k.?