Ken Jones: Pace of change leaves players unable to tackle fundamentals

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Even within the laws this was a prevailing image. Coaching manuals of the day portrayed two players in identical postures tackling each other in an identical way: weight on the tackling foot, head over the ball, shoulder to shoulder, looking down, grim in their application.

More than 50 years ago, Walter Winterbottom, who combined the roles of England team manager and director of coaching, wrote: "When an attacker is approaching, the defender makes his tackle to block the ball at the moment the attacker is playing it. If he attempts to block the ball, he must have his body weight well over it so that the tackling foot can be used forcefully."

A time long gone. As Duke Ellington said, there have been some changes made. Fifteen years on from Winterbottom's studious instruction, Malcolm Allison identified the most important in his celebrated book Soccer for Thinkers. "Today everyone, not only defenders, is expected to to be able to tackle," he wrote.

What Allison had in mind was the increasing speed of the game and a growing emphasis on athleticism. When you add the nervousness imposed by the introduction of yellow cards, and Fifa's apparent failure to realise that there is a line so fine as to be almost indistinguishable between the viciously callous and the coldly competent, it is no wonder that proper tackling has long since gone out of fashion.

"How much does Nobby Stiles weigh?" Alf Ramsey was asked before a match between England Sweden in Stockholm. "About 10 stones," came the reply, "10 tons when he tackles." Wasn't he just? But how long would Stiles remain on the field today?

An incident from the opening day of the Premiership got me off on this theme. It involved the Blackburn Rovers attacker Paul Dickov, who was sent off after coming on as a second-half substitute against West Ham at Upton Park. Dickov was dismissed for a two-footed lunge at Paul Konchesky, no innocent himself, that could have resulted in a serious injury. Seeing this at first hand I winced, not only at the wildness of Dickov's challenge but his probable fate in a bygone era. A few days later I put this to a legendary hardcase. "In my day it would have been a broken leg," he said. Not Konchesky but Dickov.

On television I saw Steven Gerrard launch a two-footed challenge which, astonishingly, did not incur the wrath of the referee.

Gerrard is an aggressive player but correct tackling is not one of his strong points which may explain why he picks up injuries. Maybe it stems from the fact that Gerrard runs on his heels and his feet are at 10 to two. I could be wrong in this but it strikes me as a reasonable theory.

One of the best ever tackles was made by Bobby Moore when England met Brazil in a group game during the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico. Isolated on the left side of England's defence, Moore halted the muscular, hard-running Jairzinho with a perfectly delivered challenge; it had the lot, expert positioning, balance, power. If not the quickest, Moore conformed to the lessons of his youth. He was seldom off his feet.

Because of the pace of modern football, players frequently find themselves in desperate circumstances, caught up in foolhardy commitment, chasing lost causes, ignorant of tackling fundamentals.

"Most of them don't have a clue," an old pro said this week. "They chase back, fling themselves in on the ground and complain that they got a foot to the ball. Tackling is a lost art." He was speaking of another time, maybe better, maybe not, but different.

There are few better players of his type, that of an all-purpose inside forward, than Paul Scholes of Manchester United. But as a tackler, Scholes is a liability, as was Eric Cantona. Sir Alex Ferguson might as well tell him not to bother. He is zealous by nature and tackling is not in his technical compass.

As to the educator referred to at the beginning of this column, he was a great believer in establishing numerical advantage. "If we can get one of them off injured, things will be easier," he'd say. "Get two off and the game is ours." When substitutes were introduced he threw up his hands in despair.