Explained: What is tactical fouling in football?


Tactical fouling has been frowned upon by managers in football, with figures in the industry describing it as an unfair technique.

But what exactly is tactical fouling, how is it used and is it officially illegal? Goal takes a look.

What is tactical fouling?

Tactical fouling happens when a team loses the ball in the opponent's half and, before the counter-attack is even launched, commits a foul to immediately stop play.

The referee then awards the team given the opportunity to counter-attack with a free kick, to be taken where the foul was committed – nowhere near the threat of goal – while the player who committed the tactical foul is punished with a card. It can be a yellow or red card depending on where the foul occurs. 

Tactical fouling is usually committed by attack-minded teams who drive players forward, leaving them potentially vulnerable in defence. Then, before the team gets to counter-attack with the ball that has been given away, a tactical foul stops the momentum and slows down the game, abandoning the counter-attack.

It reduces the chance of a player giving away a penalty or receiving a red card when they attempt to clear the ball or quell the counter-attack inside the box.

What has been said about tactical fouling?

Former West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini has accused Manchester City of committing tactical fouls, after his side were defeated 5-0 at the London Stadium in August.

"Every time we tried to arrive in their box they committed fouls, 13 to our five," Pellegrini said at the time.

"I think we were a little bit innocent. We must be intelligent to know when to use tactical fouling. If you review the game today, the reason we didn't create too many chances was because all of our offensive ways of attacking resulted in a foul."

Rodri also spoke about using tactical fouling as a method to suppress the counter-attack, telling ESPN FC: "We have lots of offensive players and many other teams try to counterattack you and a lot of the time you're alone but it's good for me.

"I am learning new things, how to go, when to stay, when I have to do a tactical foul, when I have to jump. It's good for me to learn these things. And for the team it's good because we need those offensive players to be able to play our game."

After Guardiola accused Liverpool forward Sadio Mane of diving, Jurgen Klopp retorted with his thoughts on Man City's tactical fouling.

Pep Guardiola Manchester City 2019-20

“I couldn’t really believe it to be honest and then I saw it," the German manager told reporters when he read Guardiola's comments. “I am not sure if Pep spoke in that moment about Sadio or the team – both is not too nice to be honest. I am not too sure if I want to put oil on the fire. I am not interested in these kind of things.

“And I promise not to mention tactical fouls. That is maybe already too much, but that is the only thing I say about it.”

Guardiola has denied that he tells his side to prioritise the tactical foul, saying in 2018: "We are a team that try to play and, of course, when there is a counter-attack sometimes the contact, the action is a foul but as a team we don’t think about that.

“Never have my teams been focused on doing something wrong against the opponents. Sometimes situations happen but we are a team that always try to attack, to defend well, to try to play our game but never having to think about making actions like that.

Brendan Rodgers' Leicester side, who have contended the 2019-20 season as Premier League title challengers, have also mastered the art of the tactical foul.

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Is tactical fouling legal?

There is no set rule against tactical fouling, and though it may be frowned upon by managers or teams who have been on the receiving end of it, they are not illegal.

However, as with any foul, a punishment is nevertheless meted out.

As mentioned before, players who commit such fouls are often given a yellow card, with the other team awarded a free-kick in the midfield – not a dangerous area to score from.