Andrew Leci: Tough to Tackle

ESPN Star Sports' Andrew Leci shares his two cents on modern day refereeing of "tough tackles"
By Andrew Leci

It’s been a while, so I thought it time to lay into referees again. Sort of.

While I’m in the process, I thought it might be fun to have a go at administrators as well – those whose reactionary tendencies seem to make them so averse to change that their relationship with it is as dysfunctional as mine with technology.

A couple of decisions made last weekend in the game between Arsenal and Manchester City have provoked a veritable torrent of debate, and there should be no surprises.

Laurent Koscielny was sent off for a ‘tackle’ on Edin Dzeko; Vincent Kompany also saw red for a tackle on Jack Wilshere. The first decision was correct, the second was not, and the FA has overturned it.

Leaving aside the suggestion that referee Mike Dean was somehow trying to ‘balance things up’ – let’s not go there – it’s interesting to note that it took an independent panel some time to be able to make the call on whether Kompany’s tackle “exceeded the necessary use of force”.

They had access to video footage, and a variety of camera angles, and they could replay the incident over and over again before passing judgment.

Obviously, Mike Dean didn’t have that luxury, and when we saw the incident in real time, even those with whom I was watching the game (accomplished ex-professionals to a man) were split.

20 years ago, Kompany’s challenge would hardly have raised an eyebrow, let alone elicited a card. Wilshere had slightly overrun the ball, and it was the defender’s responsibility to try to win it.

The problem is, the game has become so fast, and players are such supreme athletes these days, that an instant judgment on the use of excessive force is almost impossible to make (and do bear in mind that reputations are, strictly speaking, not supposed to be taken into consideration). Dean did his best (we all have to believe that); but he was wrong.

While many in the game have been clamouring for goal-line technology, the argument for video replays and a ‘5th official’ up in the stands has been gaining momentum.

Scenario: Kompany makes the challenge on Wilshere, the referee blows the whistle, and instantly calls upon the man upstairs with access to the video. Wilshere is receiving attention, play has stopped. Within a minute, the decision from on high comes back, confirming what all of us (having watched the incident over again) know: there was no malice, no intent to cause injury, no use of excessive force. Wilshere benefits from the effects of the magic sponge, and play restarts – probably with a drop ball – this aspect may need some fine tuning.

Has the game been slowed down, as many detractors of video technology have suggested it will be? Not really, but if it has, just a little, and the right decision is arrived at, could we not all grin and bear it?

The bottom line here is that referees would be under a lot less pressure, and players and managers would have a lot less to feel aggrieved about at the final whistle if they feel that certain decisions did not go their way. And that has to be a good thing. To a certain extent, it would also take referees out of the spotlight’s glare, and I think we’d all like to see that.

It’s interesting to note that this latest round of debate has come about over what most people now agree was a perfectly good tackle, and plenty of former players are now weighing in with the suggestion that tackling is a lost art.

It’s fascinating to look at archive footage of games played in the 1970s and 80s, in which, were modern rules applied, games would have to be abandoned due to too few players remaining on the pitch.

Players these days are bigger, stronger, fitter, and faster than they used to be, and while that does mean that they can inflict more damage, opponents have similar attributes if we want to get into the physics of a challenge.

According to Opta, in the 2006-7 Barclays Premier League season, an average of 47.50 tackles were made per game.

The average so far this campaign is 38.28. Players are tackling less, and clearly Kompany’s red card on Sunday is one of the reasons why. One simply doesn’t know what the referee’s interpretation is going to be.

With administrators dragging their heels even over goal-line technology, I don’t expect there to be any changes soon, so we’re all just going to have to soldier on. But it’s something to think about, isn’t it.

Catch Andrew Leci on The Verdict at 8pm on ESPN, and during the live match presentation of the Barclays Premier League.