13 January ~ Manchester City fans will no doubt be asking this particular question right about now. Vincent Kompany's red card, dished out by referee Chris Foy, for such a challenge on Manchester United winger Nani in last Sunday's FA Cup thriller – and the defender's subsequent statement on the matter – have opened up another one of those fun debates the football world (i.e. television pundits) love to wring dry. It seems like every week we're supposed to be concerned about a different burning issue in the game. This week it's tackling.

Pouring a tank full of fuel on the already burning fire, Liverpool and England (I wonder if that's relevant?) full-back Glen Johnson made a similar, probably worse, tackle at the end of City's very next game, in the League Cup semi-final first leg. Having just gone out of the FA Cup, City's defeat to Liverpool leaves them in danger of exiting a third knock-out competition in two months.

City fans are not talking about their side's lacklustre performance – probably their most low-key home display since Roberto Mancini's side threw off the defensive shackles of last season and set about swatting aside almost anyone who lined up against them at the Etihad stadium – but Johnson's tackle and the injustice that their man was dismissed for possibly less.

Even Liverpool fans will be scratching their heads and wondering how midfielder Jay Spearing could be sent off for his tackle on Moussa Dembele at Fulham in December, while Johnson's didn't even warrant a free-kick according to the referee Lee Mason. Spearing's red card and subsequent three match ban for his tackle were quickly followed by the same player being on the end of a horror tackle from Newcastle's Johan Cabaye. The challenge went unpunished by referee Lee Probert and was not deemed worthy of sanction by video replay.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter: consistency. Those that believe Kompany's dismissal was correct have cited "the letter of the law". United defender Rio Ferdiand took to Twitter to express surprise there was even a debate about the sending off. Wayne Rooney joined him in his amazement, perplexed at Mancini's assertion that his reaction had influenced the official's decision to reach for his pocket.

Rooney is no stranger to a red card, or indeed an appeal – having had a three-match ban for kicking a Montenegro defender reduced after the FA ignored their own stance on "frivolous" appeals (one of which led to Rio Ferdinand's ban for striking Hull's Craig Fagan being extended to four games a couple of years ago) to ensure that Rooney will be able to represent England in at least one game in this summer's European Championships.

Referees are proving to be inconsistent, the FA likewise. Of course fans, players and managers will always be inconsistent depending on whether their team has been on the right or wrong side of the decision. Mancini criticised Rooney, but when Martin Skrtel fouled Yaya Toure in City's recent league game against Liverpool, the manager ran along the Eastlands touchline waving an imaginary card.

Mancini's assertion that Johnson should have been sent off, as Kompany was, has been met with resistance – first in the tunnel after the final whistle and later in a television interview – by Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool captain said Mancini shouldn't criticise Rooney for demanding Kompany's dismissal, while also demanding equal punishment for Johnson.

Neither tackle in this particular saga led an injury to the player on the receiving end, and the defender can claim to have won the ball in each case. Both of these arguments have been put forward by those, Kompany included, who believe the decisions (or at least his) to be wrong and also a sign that tackling is being eradicated from the game of football. Former Liverpool defender, pundit and self-assumed hilarious deadpan comedian Mark Lawrenson, voiced this opinion during the BBC's live coverage of the semi-final.

In the light of horrific injuries to the likes of Arsenal's Eduardo da Silva and Aaron Ramsey, there has been a clamour to outlaw the two-footed tackle, or any challenge that could cause similar injury through excessive aggression or recklessness. It may or may not have escaped City fans' minds that their own midfielder Nigel de Jong went unpunished for a challenge that left Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa with a broken leg in October 2010, after which de Jong was dropped from the Netherlands squad.

The phrase "won the ball" should be obsolete when discussing a tackle's merits and potential danger. The fact that it isn't is partly due to an old-fashioned view of football held by fans and pundits alike, but also because of the inconsistency of officials – be they holding a whistle or sitting on an appeals panel.

After Kompany's red card, a friend said to me that referees are banning these tackles for a reason – the damage they can do to the player. My response was that only some of them are being banned. I didn't think I would be proved right only three days later. The profile of the players and teams involved is of course the only reason the pundits are currently dissecting the issue (me too, maybe?). But when the furore dies down and we move onto another issue, we'll be left with the same inconsistency between the letter of the law and interpretation of it. By the way, my mate would say that anyway, he's a United fan. Stephen Adams

Comments (12)
Comment by autumnstone 2012-01-13 15:15:24

the fact is Kompany was playing against Manchester Utd therefore the rule book is out of the window, anything that can be done will be done to aide manchester utd. we all know its true

Comment by PRB 2012-01-13 15:53:04

None of these tackles would have registered a free kick 20 years ago. Now I know football evolves and changes -- the players look more like middle distance runners than footballers and look so prone to snapping at the sign of physical contact -- but the game I grew up loving was a game that included a physical edge and sadly that's all but been wiped out. I don't know the last time I seen a good 50/50 full blooded challenge between two players going for the ball. And I don't just mean two footed, I've seen free kicks given for what appears to be tackling too hard. I reckon this view will be quite controversial, but if you're going for the ball and end up getting the ball, then you should be allowed to go in to win it. The referee should take it as they see it. If someone missed the ball then start throwing around the cards, but otherwise players have to remember there should be contact in the sport and with that sometimes comes the risk of injury.

Comment by JWarke 2012-01-13 16:06:30

I agree with the slow and disappointing removal of the physical aspect of the game, but it seems that some criticism is over the top. Had the events not occurred in consecutive games to the same team, there wouldn't be as much uproar. The difference was that one challenge almost ruined the match at an early stage, the other was an excuse for a poor performance. As for the united comments, thank goodness it was Kompany at fault as I'm sure we would have heard a whole lot more had the tables been turned, with big Rio revising his expected, byist, 'by the law' tweets. Football is a short remembered and fickle game.

Comment by Dalef65 2012-01-13 17:34:36

Does this article move the debate on in any meaningful way...?
The answer is probably not,to be honest....

One thing I did note was the reference to the Eduardo injury....
As far as I can remember,that didnt come from a two-footed tackle so no real need to mention it here....

Comment by geobra 2012-01-13 17:58:18

Forgive my ignorance, but I don't see how a two-footed tackle can be anything but a dangerous foul worthy of a yellow card at least. It only needs one foot to win the ball, so what is the other one doing?

Such tackles can threaten careers, and the sooner they are outlawed the better. Even without them, football will always be a contact sport.

Comment by Spadams96 2012-01-14 10:17:07

Thanks for the feedback folks, always appreciated.

I was slightly concerned people might be tired of the whole debate, the article isn't meant to change the world, just throwing ideas onto a page.

As for the Eduardo injury, fair point well made, maybe I got a bit too bogged down in the definition as two footed rather than just dangerous.

I realise players can pick up injuries at any time - Henrik Larsson's sickening leg break wasn't even the result of a tackle - but I do believe a bit more consistency from the refs and powers that be would at least leave us knowing where we stand; at the minute I don't even know if a red card is just or not, because as seen, another similar incident will quite often go unpunished.


Comment by geobra 2012-01-14 11:35:05

Recklessness should have no part even in a contact sport. Two-footed tackling is reckless. Pleas that the perpetrator did not intend to hurt his opponent are ingenuous. If you launch into a two-footed challenge, you are responsible for the consequences, whether you intended them or not.

Comment by G.Man 2012-01-14 14:42:30

"the fact is Kompany was playing against Manchester Utd therefore the rule book is out of the window, anything that can be done will be done to aide manchester utd. we all know its true "


Comment by johntheface 2012-01-16 11:48:10

As a City fan I think both of them should have been red cards. You simply can't lead with both legs, studs up (and rightly so). I also think the scuffle between Gerrard and Mancini is 100% the fault of the BBC interviewer. Mancini never once said he thought Johnson should have been sent off. All he said was that it was worse than Kompany's, which it was. He also apologised for waving the imaginary card at Skrtel immediately after the Liverpool league game and, when talking about Rooney, his comments we more along the lines of "when I did it I apologised and still got loads of stick. Rooney's got nothing".

I also still cannot fathom how Skrtel wasn't sent off. There was very little contact and it probably wasn't a penalty. These aren't the mistakes that wind people up (apart from Wenger). But in giving the penalty the ref has stated that he thought it was a foul and therefore it should have definitely been a red. It's these inconsistencies that drive people insane, especially as there is a ready made solution...

Comment by santos_l_halper 2012-01-16 15:57:07

Lots of interesting and thoughtful comments here. I think I'm intuitively closer to Geobra and a couple of others, and its true that a contact sport (and that must be retained) has no place for tackles that could wreck someone's career.

Having said this, there are a number of problems. The article points out the fact that fans are as confused and frustrated as players and, I dare say, referees.

One problem is that of interpretation and definition. What's the definition of "reckless" here? If it means "a two-footed tackle", then Geobra offers nothing more than a tautology (albeit a useful tautology). So it must be defined as something like endangering an opponent, being out of control, etc. But then if we're to avoid inconsistency we need definitions of these terms too. What does it mean to be "out of control"? Clearly Alan Hutton was out of control when he crunched into Shane Long a while ago. But was Vincent Konpany out of control too? Maybe. Maybe not. How should I know? For me, it was a red card only according to current definitions.

Again, we seem to think that it's obvious, but the confusion over what's a red or a yellow or a fair tackle just shows that we can't agree. And if we can't agree, how can we expect different referees to interpret different events in the same way, i.e. as a red, yellow, or nothing?

I might be wrong, but if Johntheface is suggesting that video technology might help, he's wrong (sorry if I misunderstood you), because in many of the situations discussed (especially the Kompany red card) the interpretive problems just get shifted from an on-pitch referee to a ref in the stands. It doesn't remove the ambiguity here, and doesn't remove the fact that different people interpret these things differently.

By offering definitions, i.e. by having the rules clarified, we don't thereby remove the difficulties of interpretation. Just think back to changes in the off-side law in recent years. It's possible to interpret "interfering with play" in many different ways. Defining certain instances of off-side in that way didn't help fans to know definitively what that even means or what was off-side and what was on-side.

Comment by geobra 2012-01-17 13:36:04

@ santos_l_halper

To clarify my comments about recklessness, I said that it has no place in football and that two-footed tackles are reckless. I did not say that they are the only forms of recklessness that footballers can perpetrate. I am sure that there are others. For example De Jong in the 2010 World Cup Final. I would define recklessness as any action that is likely to endanger the physical well-being of an opponent. Obviously we'd all have different ideas about exactly which actions to include, as no doubt do referees at the moment. So perhaps the law-makers could do some clarifying. After all, none of us wants to see Messi's career brought to a premature halt as Maradona's so nearly was 30 years ago.

I do think that there are an awful lot of ridiculously aggressive challenges in areas of the field where no immediate danger threatens, and I can't help feeling that the reason for a lot of them is simply to intimidate. Referees should perhaps also take this into consideration. But it's hard to be optimistic when so many of them blatantly ignore the instructions on tackles from behind, which couldn't be clearer.

Comment by santos_l_halper 2012-01-20 19:45:40

@ geobra

Everything you say, and have said, is entirely reasonable. I don't think any right-minded football fan could disagree with you.

My only issue is with the ability of football authorities to offer clarification and definitive guidelines to eliminate different interpretations of similar tackles.

There are some tackles, whether two-footed or otherwise, that are dangerous and reckless, and are pretty much universally recognised as being so, referees included (i.e. it's a red card, and everyone is united in condemning the tackle).

But there are tackles that we disagree on. I think that the problem is that football is the kind of game for which definitive clarification can't be had on such issues, pure and simple. The line between legal and illegal is too blurred, and it's all a matter of interpretation.

So managers calling for consistency are wasting their time, because referees (and fans and commentators) are all human beings, and there are as many interpretations of an event as there are observers of the event. Having guidelines and clarifications doesn't help, because they're just as open to interpretation as everything else.

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