By John Cartwright

All competitive team sports’ have two fundamental parts; ball retention (attacking) and ball regaining (defending). A great deal of interest regarding attacking aspects of the game can be found in coaching books, magazines, DVD’s as well as on TV and radio etc. that covers both individual and team situations; less interest seems to be given to defending and to the skill of Tackling in particular. This disregard of a vital part of defensive play has meant generations of young players developing without having acquired the skills of such an important aspect of the game.

Inadequate coverage of Tackling is probably due to a fear of injury in practice. This has curtailed sufficient thought being given to the creation of Tackling practises that are suitable through the various stages of development. It is extremely important when working on Tackling to consider the type of surface on which practises are made. Although playing and training surfaces have generally got better, this does not seem to have increased the work associated with tackling and there has been little noticeable improvement; — when tackling, too many players fail to stay on their feet — today’s lush surfaces provides a ‘cushion’ allowing tacklers to ‘dive’ feet-first in a dangerous and unnecessary manner and finishing on their backsides. In any practice session the chance of injury is always possible but with Tackling this is more likely to happen if the work provided to players at all stages of their development is not clearly and intelligently introduced and progressed.
With both skill acquisition and safety in mind Tackling practises must be structured to promote the skills required for defenders to regain the ball, whilst at the same time, provide attacking players with the ability to evade defensive challenge.

Once again I must emphasize the importance of the use of the hands in the early stages of skill development. In Tackling, the actual ‘challenge’ at the ball with the feet should only be made following important decisions by the defender. To promote these decisions the Handball game can be used to prepare players on how to; close down on attackers — guide attackers — watch the ball and not be deceived with false moves by an attacker — time ‘challenges’ for the ball — make the selection of which hand to use to touch the ball (challenge) — or to anticipate and intercept passes (throws)….. a touch on the ball immediately reverses ball possession.
Practises with slight variations that achieve more playing realism can be attempted still using the hands as in Handball, with attacking players bouncing the ball when running with it. Defending players must incorporate the decision-making ability acquired in earlier practice but must now either ‘tackle’ using either a hand if the attacker is holding the ball or with the feet if the attacking player is bouncing the ball whilst running with it. Once again, any touch on the ball by a defender reverses the att/def roles. This type of practice can begin in a simple 1v1 and progress into 2v2:3v3:4v4 work where att/def situations become more complex.
As players develop their game skills and tactical awareness it becomes necessary to introduce practises that require specific types of tackling skills; the frontal (Block Tackle) and tackles from the side (Sliding Tackle); — once again remember the need for a suitable surface for these practises. Also, as already mentioned, it is important to produce practises that combine both defensive and attacking qualities, in so doing defending and attacking skills stimulate each other to higher performance levels. The game for ‘examining’ work attempted on Tackling can be achieved using PREMIER SKILLS — (Homebase Level 3) areas where either direct or angled goals and straight or angled practice zones can assist in providing the realistic situations required for both the teaching of Tackling as well as other aspects of the game concerning both defending and attacking skills.
Tackling is a vital part of defensive play and it has been somewhat neglected over the years at junior through to senior levels. As i have said if the work required is systematically and carefully introduced it would make a great improvement in the playing quality of our game for both defenders as well as attackers.

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13 thoughts on “Tackling

  1. Hi all. I see Brendan Rogers is saying that there must be a radical change in the game-style used in England or Our national teams will fall further and further behind in world rankings. Seems he might have read these blogs over the years —- i’ve been saying this for the last 40+ years however , and have put together both a playing vision and the way to achieve it !!

  2. I agree that the art of tackling has been neglected in recent years. When defensive coaching is done, at all levels, it seems to be assumed that the players already are perfectly capable of making a tackle. As John says, this is far from the case.
    I remember, as a schoolboy, it was emphasised that the important element of the block tackle was to always ‘lean in’ when making the tackle, so that you put your full weight into making the challenge. In this way a smaller and lighter player was able to successfully come away with the ball after making a successful tackle, against a bigger and heavier opponent. Leaning back was always pointed out as almost certain to be unsuccessful in tackling when approaching the opponent in possession from the front. In addition to leaning into the tackle, the tackling player should lift he ball over the foot of his opponent at the moment of the foot contact with the ball against the opponent’s foot. So it is a combination of using every ounce of your weight, by leaning in, and dexterity with quick foot movement in lifting the ball over your opponent’s foot.

  3. Hi all, another insightful blog John. I did read your previous brilliant piece heading but I was totally engrossed in the drama packed but over hyped World Cup and Pep Guardiola’s Biography.

    I was only 11 when Channel 4 televised Serie A and I remember it being marketed as the best league in the world due to the foreign and Italian talent on show, Van Basten, Guulit, Rijkaard, Gascoigne, Careca, Rui Costa, Bastistuta, Baggio etc… But after a few matches even at such a young age I was amazed at the brilliant skills of Baresi, Maldini and Costacurta. More recently Cannavaro and Nesta. There is one thing I have noticed they all had in common besides being Italian, they hardly ever went to the ground to tackle or “never got their shorts dirty”. We have to ask why? We have to look at players from the past to help us plan sessions, coach and to produce genuinely GREAT PLAYERS! Unfortunately the masses see Beckham and Gerrard as the benchmark.

    But going back to those inspirational defenders from Serie A they knew how to read the game, they knew the stronger foot of the opponent, they knew the opponents strengths and they always timed the tackle. But once again we live in an era where 6 step overs that lead to nothing gets more kudos than a Pirlo disguised pass that takes out the whole opposition midfield, we live in an era where a crunching, diving in tackle in a non dangerous area from Gerrard gets everyone going mad instead of Mascherano keeping up with a quick player, waiting for the right moment and then coming away with the ball without sacrificing a throw in or corner kick.

    Nowadays it seems teams must get every player behind the ball to defend, to be compact but when one or two players fail to do so the individual tackling is not good enough to reconcile the positional mistake by others so those players are given the positional blame. The great thing about the Premier Skills Methodology is the emphasis on teaching children to be PREPARED. Be prepared to receive by being on the half turn, and having a view of the pitch to determine the next action. Or as John Cartwright put it in his superb book Football for the Brave, there is nothing worse than not knowing what to do, the great players always know what to do. This is down to brilliant vision/awareness which is a result of preparing the feet, the body, the shoulder etc… The same emphasis must be placed on tackling. We must teach children that diving in is not the be all and end all. We must teach them to know the opponents stronger foot, stop the session and ask children that have failed with a tackle “what is that players strength when they run with the ball?” Use these type of questions to help the young player decide on when to tackle but above all PREPARE their body and develop GAME INSIGHT. I’ve always felt that if the tackling/defending is of a high quality then it tests the level of the attacking play at all levels of the game and gives us an assessment of how really creative the attacking player is.

    The great thing about the Premier Skills method, Futsal and small sided games is the coach has the opportunity to teach the whole game or as Roger Wilkinson put it “filter things in”. Sometimes as coaches we focus on teaching dribbling and running with the ball skills but disregard the opposite skill. There has to be a change from all coaches to focus on teaching skills such as the specifics of tackling to eradicate the culture of “getting stuck in” or “take the ball and then the man out” or “what a great crunching tackle”. If Barcelona took short passing possession skills to a new level then we must aim to do the same with all areas of the game. When coaches put on rondo sessions, 1v1 games, 2v2 games, opposed practices etc… the teaching of defending skills is ignored. We see it so much where children are asked to play something like 5v2 and the coach sets out various objectives for the attacking possession 5 players in terms of their passing, movement, receiving, positioning etc… and the 2 defenders are simple told “you have to tackle, block, intercept, get the ball and either swap bibs or shoot into the goal to focus on transition”. With transitions and pressing being such a major part of the game we must teach how to tackle with insight and skill.

  4. I once heard Ray Wilkins being interviewed on the radio on his experiences in Italian football after his spell playing for AC Milan and he remarked that he noticed that in Italy the youngsters grow up valuing the technical skills required in good, well timed tackles and the skills required for good positional defensive play. From a young age, the young italian player is aware of the need to close up really tightly on his opponent in possession, and so they recognise good defending as being a battle of wits, rather than as a physical confrontation as it is often regarded among English players. Adopting the correct body shape is just as important in defending situations. So many English defeders, even at the top level, fail to adjust their feet and body shape when preparing to deal with a centre, so that they can see both the incoming ball and the opponent they are marking.
    One of the strengths of the Premier Skills methodology, is that situations arise when the coach is working on both attacking aspects, when in possession, and defensive considerations, when out of possession. So last weekend in the Level 1/Level 2 Premier Skills Course in Dudley, Course Tutor, Roger Wilkinson, frequently split his attention between coaching the boys who were in possession in both Individualism and Passing and Receiving topics, and the opposing players who he coached in defensive techniques as they attempted to prevent their opponents in possession from running through gates/ into the other half etc.
    I feel that introducing young players to deal with situations , both in and out of possession, in the early stages, is an example of the Premier Skills innovative approach.

  5. Hi all. WEe must introduce ‘softer’ descriptions towards aspects of the game. Football intelligence allied to quality playing ability can reduce the ‘toughness attitude’ we see and hear so much at all levels of our game. As i have said so often, “football is a clever game”, it does not need words like aggressive and fight etc. to distort the ‘Beautiful Game’.–powerful and competitive are much better words to describe contest in the game.—–i’ve been saying this for over 40 years as well. !!

  6. Hi John….
    I agree that using softer words in the football vocabulary could have a benefical effect on playing quality.
    Many years ago, I recall that ITV had a Sunday afternoon ‘highlights’ programme on a Sunday afternoon covering the previous day’s matches in London. (Other regions had their own programme edition). In the opening credits in the introduction to the programme, there was a brief film of the coach of a famous London 1st division club as he concluded his team talk just before the players went out on to the field. His words were: “…and remember lads, let’s have aggression all the way!” This became quite a catchphrase and soon it had filtered down into amateur park games and junior matches.
    Reversing this type of vocabulary into descriptions which emphasise the cleverness of the game when played well, could have a beneficial effect how the game is both played and watched.

  7. Steve, you hit the nail right on the head!

    We have all commented in John’s previous blogs that the media’s analysts, presenters etc.. have a massive influencing role. But unfortunately in the UK most of the pre-game, half time and post game analysis is non existent, states the obvious, lacks insight and only focuses on incident. Most people believe what comes out of a television set so therefore it is essential that what is being said is not only truthful but clever!

    I remember a game on Sky Sports where Luis Suarez had won a penalty not by diving but simply checking over his shoulder allowing him to position himself to get fouled from behind when receiving a penetrative pass. Graeme Souness (I’m generally not his biggest fan when it comes to TV punditry) pointed out how Suarez had been “clever” by using his “winger mirrors” to take note of what was around him and know what to do next. The very next day we had a couple of kids take note of his comments because it was not the norm in terms of what they hear and they related it back to how we as coaches say “check your shoulders”.

    Unfortunately most of the football TV people are stuck in their ways and unable to use softer cleverer words and phrases. I distinctly remember Johan Cruyff being in the BBC panel for the England’s 1-0 victory over Germany in the group phase of Euro 2000. With the rest of the panel being English they were obviously on cloud nine as it was England’s first win vs Germany in major competition since 1966. When Cruyff was asked about the game, he laid into how poor both teams were technically for the level they were participating at.

    The great thing about the Premier Skills Practice Play courses is the football language used. It makes more logical sense and is easier for kids to interpret straight away. Phrases like “eyes up, holding space, half turned, tidy up, soft pass, fast pass” are so simple and so effective!

  8. Hi Dav….
    Yes I like the ‘football language’ as well which Premier Skills promotes. I think it helps the players to understand the instructions which they have been given and the work which they are being coached in. Once you hear the children ‘talking their work’ regularly, then you know they understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Also, as we are told on the Premier Skills Courses, this gets the players to ‘play in the future’, because they must call the appropriate piece of play before actually doing it, thereby anticipating their actions because they have observed in advance the state of play and concluded what course of action to take. They are starting to ‘plot their route’.
    I am also interested to read about Johan Cruyff’s appearance on the BBC Euro 2000 panel. I was at that tournament and so did not see anything on British TV, but I don’t recall ever having seen Cruyff invited to perform punditry duties since. That’s probably the reason why! The TV companies don’t want anyone, even an expert like Cruyff, going on and lambasting a top match as he did with England-Germany. No TV channel wants viewers switching off when someone ‘tells the truth’ or, worst of all, switching to another station to watch something else. So an image of excitement and must-see action is built up. We have just had a perfect example with the recent World Cup – a Tournament of dramatic matches and unexpected results, but a quality of football which rarely rose above the ordinary.
    I recall a Quaifying Tie at Wembley a few years ago when England played Andorra. England were about half a dozen goals up by half time when the opposition was so weak that a non-league team would probably have won with ease. During the break, an interviewer took the chance to get a few words with Jimmy Greaves, in the crowd as an ordinary spectator, and hoping that the former goal-ace would be as enthused as everyone else by England’s first half display, he asked him what he thought the final score would be. Greaves replied that it would easily be double figures, but added that he was looking for a pair of boots because, even in his seventies, he reckoned he would get a hat trick against Andorra! Clearly, that wasn’t the reply the interviewer wanted or expected and the interview was cut short immediately. Much more of that and the programme director knew that TV sets would be switching off all over the country!

  9. After a number of years of referees clamping down on bad and late tackles, in an attempt to protect the game’s most talented players, we seem to be seeing a return to a more relaxed approach by the game’s whistlers. I noticed in the World Cup that there were a number of ‘over the top’ tackles and the resumption of matches this season has seen this trend continue. Last Friday’s televised Championship fixture, Blackburn-Cardiff, provided examples and there should have been at least one red card.
    The ‘over the top’ tackles seem to be connecting with the opponent lower down the leg than in the past, often on the top of the foot, as if in an attempt to disguise the intention as being an accident, but it is happening more and more. We hear the expression “game management” from referees, often when they have allowed bad tackles in the opening minutes of a match to go unpunished by the issue of a card, on the basis that they want the game to have a good flow from the early stages. However, if this laissez faire approach results in good players being kicked out of the game, then a return to a stricter control must happen immediately.

  10. Hi Steve
    Excellent point about over the top (lower) fouls. I remember the Belgian midfield and Dutch players fouled in this manner throughout Brasil 2014 and then of course we had the ridiculous tackles in the Brasil v Chile and Brasil Colombia games. In league games we regularly see certain Real Madrid centre backs produce these fouls to thwart Leo Messi and in the Merseyside derbies there are still same ancient horrendous fouls. Is it right that the rules should be changed because its a derby or a massive season or international defining fixture? Howard Webb received praise and criticism for his officiating of the 2010 World Cup Final. Truth is, his lenient approach to ensure the World Cup final doesn’t get ruined by “early” red cards ultimately allowed the Dutch to ruin the final with their anti football in Johannesburg where they fouled and fouled because they were unable to tackle with skill against the best team.

    The 2006 CL finals was supposedly ruined by the ref according to Arsene Wenger when Jens Lehmen was sent off even though Giuly scored immediately after the foul – but the referee sent the GK off and disallowed the goal. Should he have punished the foul with a red and allow the goal, after all it was a red card incident? Or should he have left Lehmen on the pitch, allowed the goal and thus this would have forced Arsenal to come out and play 1 nil down to a Barca team that would have picked them off in such circumstances. Arsenal went on to take the lead and then “parked the bus” like they did for much of their 2005/06 CL journey. The referee did fail to use commence sense but ultimately Arsenal’s style in Paris to defend with 10 ruined the final as a result of Lehmen’s inability to tackle. Are GK’s developed to tackle properly?

    So in essence these situations prove the point of John’s blog about the skill of tackling but the rules must also be in place and followed irrespective of the game and time on the clock. Your’re right Steve about clamping down on these sly deceptive lower over the top tackles – but at the same time it’s sad that coaches are not teaching tackling.

    The other day I watched the 1986 Argentina South Korea World Cup match and then the 1986 Argentina Italy World Cup match. In both games Maradona was man marked as was the trend then. Against South Korea they marked but were unable to tackle effectively so they just hacked, grabbed, kicked and fouled him to stop him. The Italian’s in contrast showed more skill and cleverness. 4 years earlier Gentile showed a more physical approach against Diego in Espana 82 but in Mexico 86 Enzo Bearzot’s side showed more tact and skill whereby they shackled his dribbles and penetration by knowing his signature moves (such as the sharp 90 degree cut with the inside of his left foot to his right), timing the tackles and positioning in relation to likely touches he takes. Maradona did score an exquisite goal in the end as this is what great players do even when stopped for the most part. But ultimately had Diego not scored, the game would have been remembered for the job done on him which was done with superb tackling skill.

    When we think about it playing without the ball is easier than having the ball at your feet so therefore there is no excuse for poor tackling or over the top career threatening tackles. Cruyff said that defending was about “distances & attitudes”. At Ajax they rotated every week the position children played to give them a whole game understanding. I have seen some try to adopt this method at grassroots level – but when the attack minded child who is not used to defending tackles poorly are they then being educated? With the emphasis on pressing with a high block or low block and most teams getting everyone behind the ball surely coaches must strive to perfect tackling in children to create a new culture and eradicate the current and make life easier for referees otherwise we might end up with rule changes and more video evidence introduced!

  11. Hi Dav….
    I remember the incident in the 2006 Champions League Final when the referee sent off Arsenal keeper Lehman and Barcleona scored from the resultant penalty. As I recall, the referee could have left Lehman on the pitch and given a goal, because Barcelona scored at the time of the foul. I don’t remember perfectly, but I think that the ref was a little too sharp on his whistle and had he delayed a second or two, he would have seen the ball go into the net and so could have allowed a goal. Lehman could have stayed on the pitch and so the match would have continued as 11 v 11.
    I think that there are serious issues on the poor quality of tackling,which is the subject of John’s article, and what seems to have become known in refereeing circles as ‘game management’.
    Referees are now often routinely criticised for issuing cards, whether red or yellow, in the first few minutes of a match. The pundits and commentators on TV talk about matches being ruined if a the referee gives a red card in the first few minutes because they believe that the game, as a spectacle, has been ruined by the inequality in numbers. Of course, this is often the case, but if a player has been red carded for a bad tackle in the early stages nobody ever criticises the apparent inadequacies of that club’s coaching, which has resulted in one of its players committing such a foul.
    Similarly, if a player receives a yellow card in the opening minutes, then he can often expect to be an early choice for substitution because he is considered to be in serious danger of a second yellow card which a badly timed tackle could bring. Again, further evidence of the need to coach the art of good tackling more thoroughly.Going to ground too early, lunging in with the challenge, and going in with the foot raised and studs showing, are becoming far too prevalent. Tackling from behind, where the tackler took both man and ball or, sometimes, just man, have been eradicated but serious injuries are still being caused by an inability to tackle correctly which must come from good coaching.
    We need to get rid of this concept of ‘game management’ which has been attributed to refereeing.The referee is not there to ‘manage’ the game. He is there to ensure that the game is played to the laws of the game. If the players lack the necessary skills and crafts which their work on the training field has failed to give them, then it is not his reponsibility to compensate for the inadequate coaching producing poor play by adapting his officiating and ‘turning a blind eye’.

  12. Hi Staeve. You are exactly right with your comments. The only thing i would say about Refs. is that they should deal with ‘situations’ that go on in the box in exactlly the same way as they would if the same ‘situation had happened outside the box. Penalty decisions for inside the box ‘fouls’ would soon stop the ‘cuddling’ and holding that has become part and parcel of defending.

    • Totally agree Steve, it’s the players and managers job to manage games and I cited that 2006 CL final and 2010 WC final as an example.

      Man Utd’s Jesse Lingard’s injury today is an example of poor tackling and backs up John’s article. A young player flying in to win a 50 50 and goes off injured. Does football need 50 50’s? Also the reason why Rodgers sold Shelvey.

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