The old saying that rules are meant to be broken is usually used to justify some sort of misdemeanor or blatant cheating. I think we’d all agree that cheating is rampant throughout football and are fed up of seeing a player throw themselves to the ground in complete agony only to discover in a nicely presented slow motion replay that nobody touched him. Yet that old saying rings true in football.
Players often know that a foul will be called and yet will commit the act anyway because fouling is an important part of the game of football.
I am not talking about dangerous tackles. I stand firmly on the side of seeing them eliminated from the game even at the cost of making it less physical and losing certain kinds of tackles. But it has a place tactically and in the flow of the game.
Diego Chara, energetic midfielder to the Portland Timbers, is a master of such acts. It’s a well known statistic to Timbers fans that Chara committed the most fouls in the MLS last year. Despite this Timbers actually committed 3rd fewest fouls in the league. There are several reasons why Chara is a “foul master”. Firstly, he is a central midfielders and central midfielders tend to commit more fouls than any other position. Particularly those who are of a defensive disposition, which Chara is even if John Spencer doesn’t agree. Secondly, he does not stop running (well until the 80th minute at least). He covers an amazing amount of ground and thus is usually close to where the action is. Thirdly, he has a relatively good understanding of the value of the foul and discernment of when to commitment one and when not to.
The deliberate foul is, in a sense, an art. Of course it’s not artistic in the form that many other elements of the beautiful game are but it is also not as brutal and simplistic as one may think in simply watching it. A player has a split second to weigh up the potential risks and gains of said foul. This applies to a legitimate attempt to win a challenge too. You have to determine what are the risk of potential injury to both parties (most professional players don’t want to deliberately injure other players beyond, perhaps, a bruise or something else small), the chance of winning the ball (if indeed you are going for the ball), the chance of receiving either a yellow or a red card, the position of the free kick and chance of opposition scoring from said free kick. All of these are thought about and processed usually within a second then weighed against the reward, and there is always some reward to a foul that is committed intentionally. This can be one of several things, and for the purpose of this article I will separate the type of foul by these categories.
The Professional Foul
Or, preventing a goalscoring opportunity or liklihood of an opportunity developing.
Professional fouls are deliberately imposed by an opposition player because of the risk of conceding a goal. Traditional definitions talk strictly of preventing goalscoring opportunities and insist on a professional foul being a red card offense but I think a slightly broader definition gives a better indicator of what they are.
I would define it as a foul committed to avoid a situation where the probability of a goalscoring opportunity is high. For example, where 4 players are advancing on a counter attack against 3 defenders or where a highly skilled individual player is advancing with a supporting attacker against 2 defenders. Using my definition of a professional foul it will almost always result in a yellow card and often a red card. Two examples immediately jump to mind from my years of watching football. The first of the classic last man professional foul. The second is from my broader definition.
The first occurred in a game at Old Trafford in the 1997/8 season. With four games left in the season Manchester United sit a top the premier league but under severe pressure from Arsenal. They are hosting a Newcastle United team languishing in mid table. The game was tied at 1-1 with just a few minutes left. Man United have the ball deep in the Newcastle half and Beckham’s cross is headed clear by Stuart Pearce and drops for Temuri Ketsbaia who manages to help it on to Rob Lee. Lee is inside his own half but there isn’t a single player between him and Manchester United goalkeeper Raimond Van Der Gaouw. He charges forward under pursuit from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who realises he won’t catch Lee in time and so chops him down about 10 yard outside the Manchester United penalty area. He gets up and already starts walking off the field even before the referee brandishes the red card. Solskjaer knew he was going to get sent off, but the reward was justifiable as Lee was likely to score and that was likely to result in a loss. It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that this is the only red card Solskjaer would receive in his whole career. He also only received 4 yellow cards, so this is not someone that can be accused of being a “dirty” player. It was a tactical foul for tactical reasons.
My broader definition is highlighted by an incident from the 2002 World Cup. The semi-final between Germany and South Korea is tied at 0-0. Germany are in the ascendancy and but South Korea launch a counter. Suddenly there are 4 South Korean attackers bearing down on 2 German defenders with Lee Choon-soo dribbling the ball. 2 German midfielders are closely in pursuit. Lee cuts inside beating one man and is facing the last defender with the option to beat him or square the ball to waiting attackers on either side. Michael Ballack sticks out a leg from behind and brings down Lee promptly ending a very promising attack for Korea. He is booked by the ref, and despite his protests it’s a justifiable booking. It’s significant because it’s his second booking of the tournament and mean he’ll be suspended from the final should they reach it, which they did courtesy of a goal from Ballack himself. It’s plausible here that Ballack was going for the ball. But he knows going into it that it’s a low probability challenge and that the likelihood is he’s going to commit a foul and it’s going to be a booking. It cost him his place in the final but possibly got his team there.
The later incident represents the bread and butter of the deliberate fouls of a defensive midfielder. They must know when an attack is progressing that it’s very dangerous and know when it’s acceptable to end that attack with a risky tackle. It’s calculated risk as sometimes you might end a promising attack with one such challenge only to find the resulting free kick nominated for goal of the week or expect a yellow card only to find its colour is red.
Watching Diego Chara I often see him commit these kind of fouls and I daresay they have saved the Timbers from conceding a goal on some occasions. Often I find myself quietly thinking “good one Chara”.
One particularly special example from Diego occurred in the away game in Houston. Kandji was rapidly advancing towards the Portland goal and several Dynamo players were joining him in the attack. It was something akin to a 4 on 4 breakaway. Then up stepped Chara, all 5ft7 of him, and he completely levelled the 6ft4 Kandji. Inexplicably the referee waved play on and the game continued but this was definitely a foul and probably a bookable offense. I can only assume the ref believed the contact was a normal shoulder to shoulder challenge that is permissible in football.
I fully believe that Chara thought the foul would be called and maybe even expected a yellow card but committed the offense anyway knowing that the Houston attack was looking very dangerous. To me, it was a moment of beauty and intelligence from Chara. Firstly, to recognize the danger and secondly, to so promptly to put a stop to a huge and menacing striker. It makes me smile just thinking about how tough Chara is considering his size. Pound for pound I am not sure many can compete with the wee man.
Or, disrupting the flow of the game and an opponent’s possession of the ball.
Football is a game that at its finest is free flowing and continuous. It’s one of the things that make it such a beautiful game. But sometimes you are in a situation as a player where you don’t want that to happen.
A great recent example of this was Chelsea’s performances against Barcelona. Branded as “anti football” by many people, Chelsea set out defensively with the intent of frustrating Barcelona and exploiting opportunities on the break. With a fairly large slab of luck it succeeded and we all know Chelsea went on, with another defensive luck ridden display, to win the Champions League.
A part of the game plan against Barca was to hound them and to break up their play (by either committing a foul, winning a tackle or forcing the ball out of play). It isn’t pretty to watch but sometimes it is necessary. Many teams have tried to outplay Barcelona and very, very few have succeeded in the last few years. The teams that have tried and failed consist of some that are much more talented than Chelsea. Chelsea knew that they couldn’t win playing that way. Whilst I deplore teams that use this as their primary way of playing football, against certain opposition in certain circumstances it is a necessity.
The breakup foul is a simple part of such a game plan. You commit a challenge that will draw a foul call from the referee simply to stop the flow of the game in that moment. It, assuming the opposition take a moment to take the free kick, gives players a chance to get back into position.
Of course this type of foul doesn’t need to be used as a tactical outlay for an entire game. It can simply be the decision that a player takes in a moment. This is one of the areas in which I see Chara excelling the most. He has a knack of knowing when it is wise to commit a simple foul to break up a play. He’s often getting cautioned (or warned about getting cautioned) for repetitive fouling because of this. It seems like half the time an opposition player gets the ball and the possibility of launching a quick attack is there, so is Chara hassling him. Sometimes his presence is enough, other times he can win the ball back legally. But sometimes he takes a quick tug on the shirt or sticks a leg in to commit a foul. This especially seems to happen when Timbers give away possession cheaply in midfield or in the opposition half. So often the possibility for a quick counter is denied because of Diego Chara and I appreciate it a lot.
Or, frustrating opposition players to limit their effectiveness.
This particular kind of foul can be frustrating to watch and if abused can be dangerous but it can also be very effective. It very much overlaps with the previous sections as often fouls which break up plays can be extremely frustrating.
That niggling pest of a player who will not get off your back and keeps fouling you. Everyone that plays regular has experienced this kind of player and it can be incredibly frustrating. More often than not for me, in my extremely amateur level of play, it’s because someone doesn’t know how to tackle very well. But at the professional level this is simply not the case (save for the occasional lazy attacker).
Most teams, particularly in a physical league like the MLS, have players like this. They are constantly frustrating opposition players in the hope of nullifying their threat in a game. Frequently it works and sometimes even with amazing players. In his first couple of years at Manchester United Christiano Ronaldo was often hounded out of games. He would get wound up by consistent fouling, perhaps make a mistake or two and then drift out of the game. Players saw a weakness in him and exploited in it. He learned to move beyond that, grew up and, well, the rest is history. Certainly these niggling, frustrating fouls are not pretty to watch. A line also has to be drawn here. Being overly physically aggressive to irritate people is dangerous. That line is frequently crossed by individual players, particularly in attempting to cope with players that are advanced far beyond their skill level and that has no place in the game. It’s why the powers that be have clamped down on challenges from behind, two footed tackles and the like.
But, in my opinion, this is where Diego Chara succeeds. He rarely puts in dangerous challenges or looks out of control. Yet he often frustrates opposition players with his persistent tackles and fouls and his physical presence. This is why you frequently see opposition players start to get angry with Chara, and why he often has a smile on his face as they do. He’s doing his job.
As a fan of this wonderful sport I have come to appreciate this element of football. Of course it will never hold the same place as a beautiful dribble, a passing move or those goals that we crave so much. But it can still be appreciated. Indeed, if we are to appreciate a player like Diego Chara fully for what he is worth than it must be appreciated. Not every player can play “sexy football”, as Ruud Gullit once called it. Not every game can be filled with glorious moments. So we must learn to appreciate these seemingly mundane elements of the game as then we will never grow tired of it and will enjoy the truly beautifully crafted moments all the more.
Diego Chara’s place in the Portland Timbers is invaluable. Although, he may not of lived up to his early billing as an “attacking midfielder” or the promise he showed with some most excellent displays last year he continues to produce performances that aid the Timbers tremendously. His continual running, tackling and intercepting ability coupled with the understanding of when fouls are needed is crucial in helping to frustrate opponents offense. Of course he also has a decent ability on the ball, is quick to assist in offense and good at starting up attacks (he frequently will make the pass to Nagbe or one of the Wingers in a position that they are able to launch an attack).
Of course Chara is not alone here. There are many players who have successfully mastered this domain and most football fans could learn to love them even more if they can appreciate the art of fouling.
You can follow Andrew on twitter – @andyyax