Danny Murphy and The Business of Tackling

October 8, 2010

A spate of terrible tackles in the Premier League is angering those on the receiving end. As Fulham midfielder Danny Murphy puts it “the fact is the managers are sending out their players so pumped up there are inevitably going to be problems.” He also named names, adding that “You get managers who are sending their teams out to stop other teams playing, which is happening more and more – the Stokes, Blackburns, Wolves.”

Or, as Arsenal’s Samir Nasri argues, “There are sometimes accidents and there always have been, considering the commitment levels. But are we protected enough in England? I don’t think so.”

Such comments are understandable, coming after Manchester City midfielder Nigel de Jong put Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa out of the game for months with a broken leg, and after Wolves’ Karl Henry launched into Wigan’s Jordi Gomez with a stunningly ill-timed and aggressive lunge.

Nigel de Jong "tackling" Spain's Xabi Alonso during this year's World Cup Final

Murphy sees this aggression as the product of desperation, saying of managers that “They can say it’s effective and they have got to win games.” He’s right – and that is the reason why cracking down on individual players and managers can have only a limited effect on cleaning up the sport.

Since the inception of the Premiership in 1992, English football has been subject to intensifying commercial pressures. With great riches, in the form of television, prize and sponsorship money, came ever more intense competition. The pace of the game rose, and with it developed methods to stop pacy, skillful teams. Not every team could play like Arsenal – but most could play like Blackburn, given competent management.

This has changed the game utterly. As Stuart Pearce says, while the game was “ludicrously physical” when he played, it was less dangerous. Along with the injection of pace to the game, he says, “the pitches are that much firmer, you don’t have mud on the pitches any more and one little nick (of the ball) away from somebody, you are a second late and it can be horrific.”

The situation has become so acute, that even FIFA’s chief doctor Michel d’Hooghe claims that “Some players come on the field simply to provoke injuries in other persons – to break a career” adding that “I have two eyes, I can see what happens – how some acts are really criminal.”

These brutal assaults, legitimated by their occurrence on the football field, mirror the competitiveness at the core of neoliberal Britain. They are the product of a game that has subjected itself totally to the force of commercialisation – making clubs dependent upon every pound of prize money and frantically paranoid about relegation.

It’s eerie to note the similarities between the violence seen on the field, and the malaise experienced by the British economy. A game loaded with debt, seeks to make efficiency savings by enlisting its own form of management consultants – the De Jongs, the Henry’s of the football world – who have the effect of nullifying quality players, allowing teams to succeed with cheaper teams reliant upon strength and discipline.

The creation of the Premiership was supposed to lead to a rejuvenation of British football. In some ways it has, but in others (financial management, reckless tackling, player behaviour) it certainly hasn’t. Instead of beauty and artistry, although at times both are joyfully in evidence, football tends towards pace and power (to paraphrase Alan Hansen).

While England struggles to produce a reflective play-maker in the mould of Wesley Sneijder and, indeed, barely seems to produce players with a flexible mind at all, much is explained by the imperatives created by the very economic structures behind the game. It is no accident that Danny Murphy was the man to speak up. As a playmaker himself who is drifting towards retirement, he can see the way the game is heading. But without a radical overhaul of how clubs are funded, promoting economic parity and diluting economic competition, it is hard to see from where a new era of footballing beauty will emerge.

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