Has England’s movement away from tackling done more harm than good?

In Depth

We’re seeing less and less tackling in the English game, but with the national team now struggling at the back and no more dominant in possession, has the change in approach done more harm than good?

“I can’t get into my head that football development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play. How can that be a way of seeing the game? I just don’t understand football in those terms.”

Those words belonged to Xabi Alonso. They were uttered in response to questions of his impression of the English game, spoken at a time that much of the world – certainly England – was looking at how they could emulate Spain’s style and subsequently their success.

While Spain were dominating, winning World Cups and European Championships, England were failing, having been humiliated in South Africa in 2010, a fate they only avoided at Euro 2008 by not bothering to qualify.

We were getting something wrong – many things, probably – and a large part of the problem, according to Alonso, was one of the obsessions “so rooted in the English football culture”: tackling.

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It isn’t just Alonso who has questioned this supposed quirk of the English game. Our appetite for a tackle, the more thunderous the better, has been queried by equally cool observers Pep Guardiola and Paolo Maldini, too.

“I’m not coaching tackles. I’m not training for tackles…what’s tackles?” Guardiola asked after Leicester City had out-fought his team at the King Power last year.

Maldini, one of the world’s greatest ever defenders who averaged less than one tackle per game throughout his career, gave an insight into his approach: “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.”

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Rio Ferdinand, perhaps the most graceful England defender of the last decade, echoed Maldini’s thoughts: “Last-ditch tackles are often about making up for a mistake.

“When I was a kid I had a coach kid who would tell me that if my shorts weren’t dirty at the end of the game then I’d not played well. In my mind, it’s the opposite.

“Ideally, I want to come off the pitch with spotless shorts. I think sometimes you can judge how good a defender is by the colour of his shorts at the end of a game.

“Intercepting the ball is far more effective than tackling. It’s not as flashy, though, so often it goes unnoticed.”

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England’s change in approach

Six years on, you might say Alonso’s words were heeded. Most involved in watching, playing or coaching the game are firmly focused on the more pure elements of the game, such as possession, passing and attacking, rather than the dirty work of defending and tackling.

The FA’s ‘England DNA’ report, which outlined the playing and coaching philosophy for all national squads, does not mention tackling once in reference to how we should be defending, instead preaching the virtues of ‘pressing, denying, delaying and dictating’.

It is a passive approach that represents a huge shift from our traditional approach, but one that has served other nations just fine.

 

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Not everyone has lost their appetite, though. There are still few things that get fans off their seats or raise the tempo of a contest quite as much as a crunching tackle – whether the ball was played or not – and that is one of the aspects of our game that is always likely to be used a selling point.

Physicality and assertion remains a legitimate and often successful method of nullifying an opponent, but more and more it is being scorned and sidelined.

There were 916 fewer tackles in the Premier League last season, a drop of six per cent on 2015-16. The difference in the number of tackles between 15-16 and 14-15 was a mere five.

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READ: English scout in Spain on technique and tactics over physicality

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You might think that drop could be attributed to the modern preference of interceptions as a preferred method of winning back possession. But you would be wrong to assume that – there were 2724 fewer interceptions last season compared to 2015-16, a drop of 21 per cent.

Aside from tackling simply being unfashionable, it is also viewed as risky, in the view of authorities keen to keep players healthy, but also in the tactical mindset of coaches.

In the modern game, teams are set up to deny space, rather than deny possession. Managers drill home to their players the importance of shape, allowing their opponents the ball, but not being penetrated by it.

To tackle is to commit, and if that action fails then immediately the security of a defensive line is compromised. Even if the tackle is successful in diverting the ball’s path, its destination is so often unpredictable, and if there’s one thing modern managers hate, it is an uncontrollable factor.

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READ: Michael Beale interview: The problems with English youth football

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The expectation upon most managers to attack and the more fashionable formations also leaves teams more susceptible if tackles fail.

In the 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, there was cover in every area, with units of the team split into twos and threes. Full-backs now, though, often get little cover from those ahead of them, in which case, denying, delaying and dictating is by far the less risky option if there is any doubt over whether the ball can be won.

Not only are managers expected to attack, but so too now are defenders. Just as important to many coaches as the ability to stop attacks is the capability of his defenders to start them.

Change in youth coaching

This has led to a dramatic change in how and what players throughout the age spectrum are taught, with defending almost now a lost art, as Gary Neville commented in 2014.

“With old school coaches, 60-70 per cent of your training ground work would be defensive,” he wrote in The Independent. “I started off with a high defensive base. Players now are starting out with a high technical grounding and learn the defending later.

“My era of men who retired around 2009-2010 were the last crop of predominantly defensively-trained players. Coaching has shot off in another direction, towards the technical. I’ve had that confirmed by people at academies.

“The technical and attacking work is now around 80 per cent with 20 per cent reserved for defensive skills.”

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Like any skill, tackling has to be practised to be refined. Just as with passing or any of the more glamorous technical aspects, a successful tackle relies on the combination of flawless timing and correct body shape.

Jamie Carragher believes it is one of the first things a youngster should be taught: “Coaching for tackles? That’s something you do with seven-year-olds, when you show them how to stand and when to make a block. It is one of the basics of the game.”

But, as Neville suggested, kids in academies are not working as much on defending or tackling, however managers like Guardiola and Arsene Wenger expect the groundwork to be done before players reach senior level. Or in Granit Xhaka’s case, certainly by the time he costs £25million.

“He’s not naturally a great tackler,” said Wenger of Xhaka after his second red card of last season. “It’s more the way he tackles that is not really convincing. He doesn’t master well the technique.

“I would encourage him not to tackle, to stay on his feet. Tackling is a technique you learn at a young age. You can improve it, but when you are face-to-face with somebody, it’s better you stay up.”

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READ: Steven Gerrard vows to teach Academy players ‘the other side of the game’

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If what Neville says is true, then the modern player is getting barely a third of the training their predecessors had on the defensive side of the game. And in changing their approach to coaching, England have arguably lost their greatest strength without actually catching up with other nations in terms of ball retention.

Gary Cahill was last week labelled the worst one-on-one defender one qualified observer had ever seen, while £50million centre-half John Stones is already being discussed as a midfielder going forward.

Tactical cautiousness and disciplinary concerns make for considerable mitigation for players being reluctant to commit to one-on-one challenges. But like Carragher says, it remains one of the game’s core principles.

Perhaps English football was too preoccupied with winning the ball, rather than focusing on what then to do with it. But have we not gone from obsessing about tackling to ignoring it almost entirely?

Like all great defences and midfields, there is a balance to be found, and defensively, English football again seems to be lacking it.

By Ian Watson

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