This column was hoping to discuss some of the interesting results from the Premier League this weekend, but unfortunately an event on Sunday afternoon emphasized a serious problem in England’s top flight that urgently needs addressing. Tomas Ujfalusi’s assault on Leo Messi was clearly dangerous and thoroughly worthy of a sending off – and hopefully will result in a very long ban.
While this happened about a thousand miles from British shores in Madrid, Ujfalusi’s lunge (for it was certainly not a tackle) was the type of reckless play that occurs in the Premier League with shocking frequency. When a player dives in with his boot at or above the level of his opponent’s ankle, he is endangering the health and livelihood of a fellow professional, and there is no excuse for playing in this way – the only reason to lunge at an opponent like that is to injure him.
Of course, had this happened in England there is a good chance that Quique Sánchez Flores would have made the point of saying that Ujfalusi is “not that kind of player, ” TV pundits would tell us that it was a “fifty-fifty challenge” and that he “had the right to go for the ball.” Needless to say, this is all utterly false. The line between a good challenge and a dangerous one is not fine at all, it is extremely clear. If a player goes in using both feet, lunges in with no chance of winning the ball, or charges into another player with enough force to cause injury, he should be sent off. There is no excuse for putting someone else’s safety on the line, and if players can’t time or judge their efforts they should not be playing professional football.
Football is not, contrary to what many people believe, a contact sport. The objective is to put the ball in the opposition’s net and prevent them from putting it in yours. Of course, contact will occur, but it is not the basis of the game. Some good tackles will result in contact with an opponent, but players who know how to tackle and time their challenges can avoid injuring others.
A culture of bad tackles is allowed to fester by inappropriate coaching and lax refereeing – both problems that are clearly present in English football (the latter also applies to MLS in much greater measure). Players don’t usually think of smashing into goalkeepers at set pieces – they’re usually much more concerned with actually trying to score. When that happens, it’s the fault of the manager for telling players to do that, and it’s the responsibility of the referee to spot the offence and penalize the offending player. The only way that Aaron Ramsey’s leg gets broken or that Wolves are able to kick Joey Barton out of a match is the confluence of managers telling their players to disregard the health of their fellow professionals and officials not clamping down on dangerous behaviour; even if players can’t time their tackles, good coaching and refereeing will protect other players.
The results of this culture of dangerous tackles are plain to see – broken bones and a culture of low-level or latent violence that discourages teams from playing good football and discourages players from keeping the ball on the ground (if it’s in the air the chance of getting one’s leg broken is significantly decreased). It’s also very important in shaping the play of the four British national sides, and the Premier League emphasis on physical play over technique puts the English in particular at a severe disadvantage at the top level of the international game.
Lax refereeing also results in the development of lazy defending – players smashing into others, tugging shirts, pushing, and generally engaging in foul play because they know they can get away with it. A good defender knows how to claim the ball without fouling, how to win a header without elbowing his opponent in the face, and play without injuring his opponent. This real defending is strikingly missing from much of football in England and America, and is also important to the success of national sides. In this respect, something that FIFA uses as an absurd rationale for not adopting video technology has merit – if you wouldn’t make that challenge while playing football with friends, you shouldn’t make it in top-level football.
Chelsea roll over more mediocre opposition
Chelsea’s four-nil victory over Blackpool was surprising in just one respect – they only scored four goals. The champions have looked very good in their start to the season, with six wins from six in the League and Europe, twenty-five goals scored, and just two conceded. We certainly can’t fault them for the potentially illusory nature of their start as they can only play the teams in front of them, but it would seem far too early to be crowning them champions so early. They have yet to beat a good side, and lost to every quality opponent they faced in pre-season. We’ll learn a lot more about them in the next two weeks as they have to travel to Eastlands and then host Marseille in the Champions League and Arsenal in the Premiership.
Arsenal’s draw with Sunderland a point gained, not two lost
While it was certainly gutting for the Arsenal players to concede a last-gasp equalizer at the Stadium of Light, the result needs to be put in the context of the match and Arsenal’s record in the north-east. The Gunners have conceded important points in Sunderland, Newcastle, and Middlesbrough over the last few seasons, and lost one-nil to the Black Cats in 2009-10. Arsenal also played most of the match without Cesc Fàbregas, looked surprisingly composed in defence, and created enough chances to win. Like Chelsea, though, they haven’t confronted top-level opposition (they drew with Milan in pre-season and Liverpool have not played like contenders), so the match against Chelsea will be their first significant test against a fellow contender.