Tactical fouling is spoiling football - time for the rulemakers to stamp it out
Football is often considered conservative with its rule changes, but in recent decades there have been various subtle but crucial alterations to the Laws of the Game, which are often overlooked.
The back-pass law in the early 1990s, for example, forced goalkeepers and defenders to become more technically skilled, encouraging passing football. Stricter tackling laws, meanwhile, protected attackers from brutal challenges. Revisions to the offside law meant defences could no longer step up and stop, because players in an offside position were not automatically interfering with play, allowing the game to flow better and preventing sides playing stifling defensive lines which restricted midfield space. Overall, technical players have benefited, high speed football has prospered and football has improved enormously.
Now, however, it is time for the International Football Association Board to make another crucial change. They've been in relatively revolutionary mood recently: fourth substitutes in extra time, kickoffs being played backwards, even Video Assistant Referees. So how about addressing football's main on-field problem -- the scourge of tactical fouling?
It has become widely accepted in modern football. It generally occurs when one side is launching a dangerous counter-attack and an opponent is so desperate to halt the break that they deliberately foul the player in possession, usually in the midfield zone. The counter-attacking side are compensated for the loss of an excellent attacking opportunity with only a free kick in a bad position. The culprit is penalised with a mere yellow card.
It is entirely obvious the yellow card is not significant compensation for the offence. After all, that's exactly why the player commits the foul -- they have essentially decided it's better to be cautioned, "taking one for the team" rather than allow the break to continue. But this is the problem: there should never be an incentive to foul the opposition, to deliberately commit an offence. In that situation, the laws are inadequate.
Tactical fouling breaks up attacking moves by breaking the rules, and it's increasingly leading to wild, desperate tackles that endanger the safety of the opponent too. See, for example, Joe Bennett's recent horrible tackle on Leroy Sane, which leaves one of the Premier League's most exciting players injured for a couple of months. Bennett's tackle was not intended to be violent -- he wasn't deliberately trying to injure Sane. But he was deliberately fouling him, and launched himself with such force that it become a dangerous tackle.
Regardless of the severity of the tackle, there's too much incentive to make fouls like this. So why not simply introduce a rule where if a player deliberately fouls an opponent, making no attempt to play the ball, they are shown a straight red card?
Since 2016, differentiating between a genuine attempt to play the ball and a deliberate foul now contributes to whether a referee shows a yellow or red card, in one particular situation: denying a goal-scoring opportunity. To avoid the "double jeopardy" situation whereby teams were previously punished with both a penalty and a dismissal for so-called "last-man" fouls in the box, it's now one or the other.
If it's outside the box, it's a free kick and a red card. If it's inside the box, it's a penalty but only a yellow card -- on the condition, crucially, that "the offence was an attempt to play the ball." In other words, if it's a deliberate foul, it's a red card offence.
So why not extend this to all deliberate fouls, regardless of where it takes place? For example, when Atletico Madrid launched a three-on-one counter-attack in the dying stages of normal time in the 2016 Champions League final, one of their best opportunities of the game, prompting Sergio Ramos to make an incredibly cynical foul to halt that break. Why not dismiss him? It was three-against-one and almost certainly would have resulted in a clear goalscoring opportunity. Atletico's plan was all about counter-attacking. A yellow card is clearly not adequate punishment for illegally disrupted their attacks.
The obvious retort is one of football's familiar cliches: "If you did that, you'd have to send off three players a game."
But this completely misunderstands the basics of crime and punishment, and players would adjust: the same way they adjusted to the back-pass law or the revisions to tackling from behind.
Besides, all that would be asked of players is that they make a genuine attempt to play the ball when tackling, which doesn't appear an unreasonable request.
There was a minor outcry when Arsenal's Granit Xhaka was dismissed against Swansea last season for tripping Modou Barrow. Under the current regulations, it was a hugely surprising decision.
Similarly, Leroy Fer's red card for Swansea against Wolves in the FA Cup last month, for an even subtler clip to break up a counter-attack in midfield. It seemed incredibly harsh, and his ban was overturned on appeal. But why? If the players had been aware they would be dismissed, they would have made genuine challenges for the ball instead.
In Chelsea's 1-1 draw at Anfield this season, Eden Hazard was repeatedly fouled by Liverpool players without any punishment, which completely negated Chelsea's attacking strategy and eventually resulted in the Belgian, arguably the Premier League's most exciting player, becoming injured after yet another foul. You want to stop Hazard? Fine. But you have to try and get the ball.
Tactical fouling isn't a new concept. But it's become particularly prevalent over the last couple of years, probably for two reasons. First, due to the increased speed of counter-attacks. Second, more significantly, because of the rise of pressing -- which, if it fails, means midfielders find themselves the wrong side of the ball, and are forced to take drastic action. Ultimately, we are being denied attacks, excitement and goals by football's tolerance of foul play.
Initial confusion would be very limited under this proposed law change: things would settle down within a couple of weeks. We'd quickly wonder why, for so long, we tolerated big matches being disrupted by players deliberately fouling opponents, safe in the knowledge the punishment simply doesn't fit the crime.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.