Out-of-touch pundits should be more concerned about leg-breaking tackles than castigating players for earning allegedly ‘soft’ penalties
It’s certainly a strange old world, football.
It’s a world where trivial issues can be amplified, given prime-time prominence and endless air-time, while other, more serious matters are left alone, brushed under the carpet, to be kept there until someone is brave enough to shine a light.
Witness, for example, the ‘Spygate’ scandal at Leeds United last week; the story of Marcelo Bielsa instructing a member of staff to covertly observe a Derby County training session. The reaction to that bordered on the hysterical, with talk of ‘moral codes’ and quaint notions of ‘respect’ between clubs and managers.
The point missed by the likes of Martin Keown, Jermaine Jenas and Stuart Pearce, all of whom voiced predictably strong, indignant opinions on the matter, is football’s fiercely-competitive nature, the fact that any advantage, be it financial, tactical, physical or psychological will be sought by its participants.
Observing rivals’ training sessions is not new, nor it is a breach of the sport’s ethics, certainly no more than, say, a player texting a friend at another club to find out their likely starting XI. Believe me, they both happen regularly.
The issue of diving is another which is guaranteed to bring football’s moral arbiters to the table, and they’ve been queuing up of late to have their say on the latest ‘storm’. At the eye of it stands – or falls, if you prefer – Mohamed Salah.
It is one of those curious statistical quirks that since Boxing Day, Liverpool have been awarded four penalties in four Premier League games, with Salah responsible for three of those. Prior to that, the Reds had been awarded just one spot-kick in their opening 18 league matches. Salah, of course, won that one too, against Saturday’s opponents, Crystal Palace.
Last weekend’s penalty proved decisive, settling a tense encounter with Brighton at the AmEx Stadium.
Afterwards, with little else to discuss after another clean sheet and an 18th league win of the campaign for the league leaders, the debate centred on the Egyptian, and whether he was in danger of ‘making a name for himself’. And not the good kind.
“I think he’ll have to be careful,” said Andy Gray, the former Everton striker and one-time Sky Sports commentator. “I’m a little concerned how easily Mo Salah is going to ground these days, especially in the penalty area.”
Richard Keys, his partner in crime at Sky and now BeIN Sports, agreed, adding “I think he’s getting into the habit of making the most of challenges.
At the AmEx, the Brighton supporters booed Salah until the final whistle, chanting “1-0 to the referee” as Liverpool sealed the three points.
Their ire really should have been directed towards their own player, Pascal Gross, whose naivety and lack of defensive instinct proved so costly.
Gross, just as Mamadou Sakho, Paul Dummett and Sokratis Papastathopolous did earlier in the campaign, paid the price for allowing Salah to get behind them, reacting in a panic by making contact with the forward. In this day and age, it’s a game not worth playing.
And that, really, is the rub.
Pundits such as Gray and Keys – or ESPN’s Craig Burley, who labelled Salah “pathetic” after he tumbled against Newcastle on Boxing Day – belong to a different era, to a sport with different rules.
They criticise Salah – or Harry Kane, or Raheem Sterling, or Jamie Vardy, or Wilfried Zaha – because they don’t understand the way the sport has evolved, and is continuing to do so. They see things in black and white, with nothing in between.
Funnily enough, there seems to be none of the same outrage when, let’s say, a defender facing his own goal ‘waits for contact’ from an attacker in order to win a cheap free-kick and relieve the pressure on his side, or when a full-back tells the referee he got the ball when the world can see he did anything but.
In both cases, the aim is the same; to force the officials into a decision, to gain an advantage for their side. We can take it further, too. Compare, if you will, the reaction to a ‘simulation’ incident to that of a potential red-card tackle.
Which damages the game more, a player going to ground when having his shirt pulled in the penalty area, or a 13-stone defender flying, studs showing, into another player’s ankle, shin or knee?
Witness how those same pundits, brought up in a world where ‘leaving a bit’ on an opponent was to be applauded – encouraged even – make allowances for such challenges. ‘Part of the game’ they’ll say; aggression is to be admired, but winning your side a ‘soft’ penalty is not, even if the aim of both is the same.
This is not a Liverpool moan, although the Reds do currently have a player, Joe Gomez, sidelined after a ‘ball-winning’ challenge from Burnley’s Ben Mee last month. “A fantastic tackle,” Sean Dyche called it. Presumably, the Clarets boss would be equally impressed if it was his player on the receiving end?
Rather, this is a debate which cuts to the core of football in this country.
Going to ground under a foul – and Gross’ challenge on Salah was a foul, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – can ‘earn you a reputation’, yet endangering the safety of an opponent can be excused, accepted.
“You can’t take tackles out of the game,” Mee said. His views will be echoed across the sport, no doubt.
And yet we have seen rule changes designed to do exactly that. The ‘tackle from behind’ was outlawed in the 1990s, with rules tightened further before the 1998 World Cup. It was a sensible decision, even if it made life tougher for defenders, who were forced to modify their game, to stay on their feet more, to be less reckless as a result.
In this correspondent’s view, the same sort of clampdown is needed on challenges which ‘take the ball’ but at such force that the follow-through puts the opponent at risk.
We know the type, and it would be nice to see managers, players and pundits begin to accept that tackles which break bones, rupture ligaments and split shins are as much ‘part of the game’ as terrace racism, crumbling stadia and the Cup Winners’ Cup.
The game has changed, the rules have changed, and it is time attitudes changed.
As for Salah, his job is simple; to keep doing what he’s doing. And if defenders refuse to learn the lessons of Sakho and Dummett, Sokratis and Gross, then more fool them…