Rewind to the start of the 2019/2020 Premier league season: on a mild and clear day in East London, a remorseless Manchester City team demolished West Ham United 5-0. To the casual observer, the scoreline reflected the fluidity and dynamism of the Manchester City players, something that comes from the tactical virtuoso of their manager, Pep Guardiola.
However, for West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini, Guardiola’s tactics were deemed illicit. The Chilean argued that every one of his team’s offensive moments “ended in a foul.”
Pellegrini’s comments continued a pattern of criticism directed at Manchester City for what is called ‘tactical fouling’, the process of disrupting opposition attacks using well-timed fouls. This pattern has emerged once again in recent weeks, the criticism this time coming from Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
A commonly cited figure is the number of fouls committed in the opposition’s half, as this is usually the area of the pitch where tactical fouls take place. For Guardiola’s side this figure stood at 58% for last season, the third highest in the league behind the notoriously rough Burnley and a high pressing Liverpool side.
The deeper you look into the statistics, the more culpable Guardiola’s team seem. Look at Fernandinho, a combative and aggressive player who sits in the base of Manchester City’s illustrious midfield. Last year he committed 40 fouls, the highest in the team. This figure seems even greater, considering Manchester City’s exceptionally high possession share in most games.
Such a player is a crucial component of Guardiola’s system, as the attacking inclination of his fullbacks leaves the defence vulnerable to swift counterattacks. It has been argued that Guardiola has manipulated the role of a defensive midfielder such as Fernandinho to purposely commit fouls and break up opposition attacks. However, is this purposeful fouling, operating beneath the euphemism of ‘tactical’, really a wider problem for the Premier League?
The problem may lie with the perception that these fouls are not punished adequately by Premier League referees. Last season, Manchester City players were only booked 13.5 per cent of the time they committed a foul. For Arsenal, another top six side, that figure stood at 17.5 per cent and for Manchester United it was 16.9 per cent.
It is hard to quantify whether the reason Manchester City get away with more fouls is due to tactical fouling not being punished harshly enough. If there is enough of a consensus that this is occurring, Premier League referees should be trained to judge a foul on its severity, not its perceived intention.
Another case in which ‘tactical fouling’ can be perceived as a problem is that it places unnecessary risk on the wellbeing of the players. Take the events that occurred at Goodison Park last week, in the game between Everton and Tottenham.
Approaching the eightieth minute in a tense affair, with Tottenham defending a narrow 1-0 lead, Everton’s Andre Gomes broke forward with purpose. To prevent him from slipping the ball into a more advanced area, Tottenham forward Son Heung-min slid in from behind, bringing Gomes down and causing him to slam into the onrushing Serge Aurier, something that resulted in the Portuguese midfielder dislocating his right ankle.
Even though Son was subsequently red-carded (a decision that was rescinded upon review), it displayed the dangers of players being ingrained with the mentality to commit tactical fouls.
It could be argued that fouling is inherent to football and that it has existed since the very origins of the game. However, only recently has the term ‘tactical fouling’ been coined and synonymised with excessive unsportsmanlike behaviour. Whilst all evidence points to Guardiola’s team engaging in these fouls, it is not a problem that is localised to his side: it occurs regularly throughout the Premier League.
Steps should be taken by referees to stop these fouls from curtailing the flow of the game. Although the problem of ‘tactical fouls’ is solvable, without a restructuring of refereeing standards, it is one that will persist for the foreseeable future.
Image: Football.ua via Wikimedia Commons