Make the EPL less physical? Please no

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Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk reacts as Harvey Elliott receives medical attention after sustaining an injury.
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk reacts as Harvey Elliott receives medical attention after sustaining an injury. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith)

By Alywin Chew

The latest injury to Liverpool’s wonderkid Harvey Elliott in their 3-0 win over Leeds is sure to raise the issue of Premier League referees being instructed to be more lenient in order to maintain the flow of the game.

One would expect a Liverpool fan like me to wholeheartedly reject such a notion considering the sickening injury Elliott suffered – the poor lad ended up with a dislocated ankle after a tackle from behind by Leeds defender Pascal Struijk.

But I’m agreeable with the directive.

Why? Because the EPL won’t be the EPL without the physicality.

Look, the EPL is widely considered the best in the world exactly because it’s a tough league, both in terms of its physical nature and the quality of teams.

Taking away the physical nature of English football is like telling a mala xiang guo eatery to serve only non-spicy options. If that’s the case, you’re essentially eating yong tau foo, no?

Truth be told, Struijk was unlucky. Had his tackle not resulted in a dislocated ankle, he might have gotten away with a yellow card. Yes, his tackle was hard and somewhat reckless. He should’ve known better than to lunge in from behind so rashly.

But was the tackle violent in nature? No.

Physicality doesn’t necessarily mean being violent.

What is considered violent?

Joey Barton was violent. Vinnie Jones was violent. Theirs was not a brand of hard tackling. It was gangsterism.

Another thing to note is that this directive does not mean that bad tackles will go unpunished – they’ll just get punished later if the other referees spot something amiss on the VAR.

I can understand why managers like Jurgen Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have voiced their displeasure with this directive and likened physical play to wrestling and rugby. It would obviously be frustrating to see your team’s beautiful build-up come to naught all because of a rough tackle by the opposition.

But if you put yourself in the shoes of the other side, getting physical is sometimes the only way to deal with the elite teams.

A classic example would be Stoke City. Not many people seemed to mind their physical nature. In fact, being physical was their unique selling point.

I don’t agree that all football teams today need to adopt the modern, free-flowing approach. Every team has its limitations. Not all footballers know how to play tiki-taka effectively. Not all managers know how to coach gegenpressing. Being physical is a tactical philosophy in itself.

Getting physical isn’t exclusive to the EPL. Just look at how La Liga defenders used to handle Lionel Messi. What do you expect of teams that cannot deal with such a player? Simply let him pass?

No. You yell “You shall not pass!” and you bring him down. It’s instinct. It’s desperation.

That’s exactly what Sergio Ramos did to Mohamed Salah in the 2018 Champions League finals. As much as I abhor the Spaniard, I cannot fault him for doing his job. I really doubt he was out to dislocate the Egyptian’s shoulder. It was nothing more than a tackle gone wrong.

This is football, a physical sport where tackles can and will go wrong.

There are already rules to ensure safe and fair play. As it stands, a reckless lunge from behind will instantly earn you a red card. Going at someone with your studs showing will too. Grabbing someone by the arm or the jersey would earn you a yellow. That being said, I would not mind seeing greater enforcement regarding this. There are too many occasions where players are latching themselves onto the opponent like they would their bolster pillow - and getting away with it.

But these rules didn’t stop Struijk from making his challenge on Elliott. Because in the heat of the moment, you do what you think is necessary for the sake of your team.

In other words, it’s impossible to avoid such situations unless you introduce a radical ruling that reads: “ALL tackles from behind, regardless of the severity of the challenge, will be penalised”.

No, you cannot have such ridiculous regulations in football.

If there are, you might as well play Ultimate Frisbee.

This article, "Make the EPL less physical? Please no", originally appeared on Football Siao – Singapore’s craziest EPL website.

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