Every now and then, someone posts this video of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira squaring up to each other in 1999, or perhaps this bunch of hard men/dirty players (the most recent of whom was Mr Keane himself). It usually leads to comparisons with incidents such as these or these* which are used to suggest that today’s footballers are less “manly” than those of the past.
Or to put it another way, that football has gone soft.
It can’t be denied that there are few players like Ron Harris, Billy Bremner and Graeme Souness in the modern game. Those who still go hard for tackles (Joey Barton, Martin Skrtel and Carles Puyol spring to mind) are often branded “dirty”and penalised, even when they win the ball, but also take out the man.
There is good evidence that the art of the tackle is a dying one. Lee Dixon consistently bemoans the problem and provides evidence that, particularly in England, the number of tackles per match dropped sharply between his retirement and 2012.
Certainly, there have been campaigns to rule out what are perceived as “dangerous” tackles, such as the tackle from behind, two-footed lunges and any tackle with studs up. One does wonder how many of the tackles featured in his official England biography film, Stuart Pearce would have got away with in 2015.
Defenders are having to learn new tricks and, as Martin Keown states, they are finding ways to beat the referee by hiding in a crowded penalty area. If Keown is right, and defenders are beating the system in this way, perhaps it is not surprising that we are seeing more over-reaction (or, less charitably put, diving and faking injury) as a counter-measure.
Perhaps that is sometimes the only way that attacking teams now have to draw the attention of foul play to the referee, especially as, unlike with dangerous tackles or violence, there is never any post-match punishment for unfairly blocking your opponent in the box, no matter how blatantly.
This is distasteful, but in my view, it could be considered an acceptable price to pay if the moves to outlaw “dangerous” play have in fact done so, and resulted in fewer serious injuries caused to players by other players on the field.
The vital question, therefore, is has there been a reduction in such injuries over the same period?
The only careful analysis I can find of this question is this study by UEFA (and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine) into injuries in the period 2001 to 2008 across Europe.
This report does refer to injuries “due to foul play” (which accounted for 21% of all injuries) and does comment on trends over time, but does not combine the two. It does say, however, that “The incidence of severe injuries and muscle injuries did not differ significantly between seasons.”
On the evidence available, it seems the outlawing of “dangerous” tackles has led to more diving, more cheating and no reduction in injuries.
* Although the clips involving Jens Lehman and Thierry Henry have clearly been horribly fabricated.