The Art of Tackling: Rodwell’s derby challenge fair or foul?

Yesterday’s Merseyside derby highlighted a major issue in the modern game when Everton’s Jack Rodwell went in to challenge Liverpool’s Luis Suarez in the first half.

It was a classic footballing scenario that saw the ball running loose and into a position which presented the famed ’50-50 challenge’ situation. Rodwell who had a slim head-start on Suarez to win the challenge slid in strongly and robustly, cleanly taking the ball and avoiding major contact with Suarez. It was a fair challenge and one that hardly deserved punishment, why then was Rodwell sent off?

Looks like a safe challenge for my money

Well, with the modern game being played at such a high velocity and on such pristine pitches the chance of major injury is heightened. In-keeping with this players are rightly protected by the laws of the game with some of the slightly more tasty challenges of yesteryear now outlawed from the rule-book. Referees are encouraged to act strongly in response to any challenge that is deemed to potentially endanger the safety of opposition players. Therefore two-footed challenges, tackles from behind, high tackles and tackles that lead with the studs are treated more severely.

In the case of Rodwell’s slide tackle there is a justified concern about the presentation of the studs if you are to follow by the laws of the modern game. However, the fact that his boot wasn’t raised from the floor and that he made little to no contact with the opposition player whilst taking all of the ball before Suarez even got there should have saved him from anything more severe than the concession of a free-kick. Another major talking point was the outrageous reaction of Luis Suarez to the tackle which was almost certainly a contributing factor in the referees decision, as it suggested that he had been caught by Rodwell’s studs, when actually he wasn’t. Sadly overreaction is a staple of the game now and such acts of simulation are often regarded as simply taking evasive action.

Going exactly by the letter of the law there is fuel in the argument that Rodwell did indeed break the rules by showing his studs in the challenge, but circumstantial evidence suggests that referee Martin Atkinson was way over-board in dismissing the young Scouser. There is of course a circumstantial grey area that comes with instances such as this and as such an outrightly correct decision is hard to muster. The only clear thing with Rodwell’s challenge is that it wasn’t worthy of receiving a red card.

It is easy to blame Atkinson for what seemed a rash and irrational decision but under the pressure of a huge derby match and the unclear guidelines for such challenges it is hard to place all the blame upon his shoulders. Everyone who has seen the tackle will tell you that it wasn’t worth a card let alone a red, but the initiative to try and stamp tackles using the studs out of the game is much to blame for this match-spoiling decision. If you compare Rodwell’s stud-first challenge with the quite rightly praised finish of Mario Balotelli for City yesterday then it is clear to see that they are both challenging for a ball by leading with the studs and in my eyes both challenges were a huge success. Problem is though that due to circumstance Balotelli’s challenge made him one of City’s success-stories whilst on the other hand Rodwell’s challenge made him Everton’s sob-story.

At times the world of football can be incredibly cruel. Jack Rodwell is one of the finest young talents in the English game and it was distressing to see one of the most formative days of his budding career tainted by an entirely undeserved sending off. He and his manager must have wondered what on earth they had done to deserve being dealt such a rotten hand yesterday at Goodison, and now Everton’s brilliant manager must once again dig deep and try to raise the glum spirits in the blue half of Merseyside.

Final Verdict: Maybe a foul for leading with the studs, but certainly no more than that. Poor decision from the referee and who knows what might have happened had the impressive young Rodwell been treated more fairly.