Paul Swalwell is a journalism student and football fanatic. You can catch him on Twitter at @pjs2712
A walk around the Sunday league pitches confirmed a nagging doubt. Managers shouting at the midfield strong men to ‘get stuck in,’ ‘Be brave,’ and when an injury occurs ‘get the deep heat.’ Though a cure for most things, deep heat certainly isn’t a cure for an issue riddled throughout the British game, an issue currently occupying Mark Hughes’ thoughts. Namely, tough tackling and its fallout.
Despite Hughes’s cries this weekend that his Fulham side would have been in the top 10, had hit man, Bobby Zamora, not broken his leg. The furore and the war of words surrounding hard tackling and brutally strong teams appear entirely misguided. In recent years the same criticism that Hughes and his Captain Danny Murphy waged against Mick McCarthy’s Wolves has been levelled at Bolton, Stoke and Sunderland. The underlying complaint is that these teams are bringing the level of football down to that of a base bar-room brawl, where the strongest, most aggressive teams survive to the detriment of the game and, to a certain extent, players’ careers.
Now this is not the time or the place to discuss neither the beautiful game’s merits nor the arena to discuss whether sexy football is a virtue in itself, yet the argument brings up two clear and contrasting agendas. The first is whether it is justifiable to play such a strong game in the English Premier League, and the second, is whether such a tactic is engrained in the British game from an early age.
To try and address the issue facing the Premier League and its current contingent is not particularly difficult. The league currently sees a sparkling mass of brilliant footballers playing superb football and consequently cementing the Premiership’s position as the most entertaining league in the World. This is supported by the vast sums of money brought into the game and the huge worldwide audience the league commands. A corollary of this is that the game often has an electric speed in comparison to our continental neighbours’ more studious approaches. As such the teams who wish to survive have to optimise any strategy and advantage which may improve their position. An ideal example of this is Stokes heavy reliance on Rory Delap’s long throws. This set piece has enabled a very ordinary side, under an extraordinary manager to stay in the top flight for a lot longer than many footballing aficionados would have expected.
The antonym of this was West Bromwich Albion under Tony Mowbray. The current Middlesbrough boss has a penchant for fine football, the kind Arsene Wenger often advocates. His ethos is to play thoughtful and cultured football; he often succeeds in significantly raising the quality of his players’ output. The problem with this is that when you are in a dog fight, it helps to have some teeth. Far too often under Mowbray West Brom suffered defeats because of their style of play. If the Baggies had a hard man in the midfield, and a strong defence the team would have stood a better chance of survival. As it happens, the current plight of the Baggies under Roy Hodgeson sees them in a relatively comfortable mid-table position, a position obtained due to a mixture between better defending, and quality football.
As such I see Fulham’s complaints surrounding Zamora’s unfortunate leg break as poor form. Recently promoted teams often lack the fiscal backing to obtain skilled midfield maestros who can go toe to toe with Xavi and Messi, but they do have brutes who command the centre of the park and will give their heart and soul to a game. Obviously I would prefer better quality football, as would most, hence the plaudits Charlie Adam has received at Blackpool, but needs must and Premiership survival is highly sought by fans and chairmen alike.
With that in mind let us challenge the second issue, notably whether this type of game is embedded in British football? The formative years of any life are crucial, it is where we learn most, harness our skills and prosper as individuals. The British game on the other hand seeks a mentality that is profoundly different from many other nationalities. The Italians learn control and the importance of a well regimented defence, the Spanish learn about space, fluidity and movement and we learn dynamism, strength and bravery. These are not mutually exclusive national traits; it is just more often than not this stereotypical portrayal of our youth is true.
As a youth player I sat in central-midfield trying to control the movement of my team with commands, through balls and proficient positioning. This was to make up for the deficiencies of my game that are so uncommonly British. I was often in awe of the 6ft plus opponent who could win a towering header from a goal kick, who could run the length of the pitch at great speed and who bravely went into dangerous challenges with added gusto. This was not the side of the game that pleased me, but was far more prominent than controlled possession, swift movement and quick feet.
Tough tackling will persist as a national trait if, and only if, it remains a solid fixture in our footballing education. New initiatives such as futsal have curbed the physicality of the game, yet have not transcended the whole. At youth levels we learn more how to be brave in a tackle, rather than how to pass with both feet. The game is changing, and with the ever-increasing continental presence in the professional game we will see a change in the way we admire different skills and different footballing ideologies. Hughes should take a look across London, to Arsenal, where their Youth programme is bearing the fruits of years of investment and a specific influence. Players like Jack Wilshire will change the British game for the better, they show a development away from traditional tough tackling, and yet they still know how to stick a boot in.
I don’t think the two positions I extol in this article are conflicting. In line with a Hegelian philosophy I believe there to be a profound dialectic at work. The youth system must change to incorporate a more skilful, thoughtful and cultured footballer, and yet there is a justification for playing hard, physical football. The cyclical nature of football will mean that such changes to the game take time to manifest. I look forward to seeing the results.