Have Law Changes Affected Football Tactics? Part 1 – Law 12
How you play a game will always be affected by the rules. And the rules will always be affected by how you play the game. In football, there are two laws which seem to be debated more than any other; and the changes to those laws have had profound effects on football tactics.
The laws in question are law XI (offside) and law XII (fouls and misconduct). Today, I’m going to focus on the latter.
It is worth saying from the outset that the actual law itself has changed relatively little over the past twenty years. What has changed is the interpretation of that law and the instructions passed down to match officials. Those guidelines have made the game very different now than it was in the final years of the twentieth century.
This article will focus on the major changes which were, for the most part, inspired by the 1990 World Cup.
Currently, the law stipulates that a “reckless” trip, kick, push, charge, pull or hold is a cautionable offence. Any challenge considered to use excessive force is a sending off offence. The changes over recent years have been over what has been considered careless (no card), reckless (yellow) or excessive force (red).
After the 1990 World Cup, FIFA realised that for the good of the game the violent side of the game had to be curbed. The final that year had been a disgrace, and all too commonly players were literally “kicked” out of important matches. Around this time, a number of changes were made to the laws to favour teams who played with the ball and punish the more vicious tactics which belonged more in the world of rugby than soccer.
The last major additions to the list of red card offences were those governing what is loosely referred to as the “professional foul”. Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity through hand ball (1991) or any other offence punishable by a free kick (1990) automatically results in a sending off.
This has affected the way teams play. After a rush of red cards (and the usual arguments about referees using more “common sense”), teams have learned to play deeper and be less aggressive with the offside trap. Combined with the changes to the offside law and the more liberal interpretations in favour of attacking players, a very high defensive line will usually result in either a one-on-one opportunity against your goal keeper or a last-ditch tackle that, if it goes wrong, will result in a red card.
Then we have the issue of carelessness, recklessness and excessive force. The first major interpretation shift regarded the tackle from behind. No longer would players be able to scythe men down from the back. Challenges had to be well-timed and get the ball before the man. Even then, the ball had to be won cleanly. Virtually any contact on the attacking player would be punished by a free kick.
In the 1998 World Cup, FIFA announced that any challenge from behind would result in an automatic red card. This spoilt some of the early games in the tournament as ludicrous decisions were taken against players who were clearly in no danger of hurting their opponent, had genuinely gone for the ball and, crucially, had won the ball cleanly.
It has not been a red card offence to challenge from behind since that World Cup – in 1998 the law change had been worded so that only challenges from behind which endangered the safety of an opponent would be punished with a sending off. But a player has to come with his leg around the opponent rather than through the back of him.
Not only does this make tackling an awful lot safer, but it favours attacking teams who can sprint away from their markers. Defenders have to make sure that they are covered if they choose to be aggressive in pushing up down the field.
The two-footed tackle faced a similar crack down at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Initially, the challenge was considered to be using excessive force if it did not win the ball cleanly. If, however, the player got the ball only a yellow card would be shown. Referee training videos after Euro 2000 showed this clearly with a crunching tackle by Patrick Vieira which, thankfully, got the ball cleanly but would have snapped his opponent in half if he had made contact with his legs.
After 2005, players would be shown the red card regardless of how much of the ball they got. It was the re-wording of the guidelines to “endangering the safety of the opponent” which eventually outlawed the two-footed challenge for good. Now not only was this type of challenge forbidden, any challenge in which the defender launched themselves at the attacker was considered “dangerous”. Dangerous was equated with excessive force. And that means a red card.
This has resulted in a much more controlled attitude from aggressive midfielders and centre backs. Far from “banning tackling” (as a lot of ex-pros have called it) the new guidelines encourage good, solid tackling without endangering the safety of the opposition. Players are no longer useful to teams if all they do is “rough up” the opposition. They may perform a job on a certain day, but it is very difficult to get through a season, especially when the risks of suspension are so much greater.
It is difficult to believe that Vinny Jones would make it in the modern Premier League. Despite your thoughts on players such as Nigel de Jong, there are more strings to the bows of most “hardmen” in the twenty-first century.
A more minor change, but no less important, has been the introduction of the indirect free-kick for “high feet” (1996). Whether this has had tactical ramifications is debatable, but if you can no longer go flying around with your feet in the air your defensive positioning and tackling have to be more controlled. Interestingly, this is defined as “dangerous play” but is not in the same category in law as “endangering the safety of an opponent”.
Law changes against time wasting have changed the game as much as the outlawing of dangerous play. In the past, teams could take forever over throw-ins and set pieces late in the game to kill the match. Nowadays, referees are far less forgiving of players who take forever to leave the field during a substitution or goalkeepers who hold onto the ball for too long (another law change – the “six seconds rule” in 2000). This has led to time wasting tactics such as walking the ball to the corner flag; but it has at least meant that the game keeps running at some sort of pace. Coaches know that their teams will have to keep playing and that they cannot artificially run the clock down.
Another product of the 1990s was the outlaw of the back pass (1992). To be more specific, an indirect free kick is given if the goal keeper (in his own penalty area) deliberately handles the ball after his team mate has deliberately passed to him using his foot. Later this was also extended to throw-ins.
In the 1992 European Championships final, Denmark spent much of the game passing back to Schmeichel who would hold the ball, bounce it a few times, and roll it out to a defender; only for the same defender to knock it back to Schmeichel to repeat the process. This is no longer possible. As mentioned before, the six-second rule has also sped things up (a keeper cannot have the ball in his hands for more than six seconds before releasing it). Though this went through a number of different phases, including a rule whereby a goal keeper could not take more than four steps with the ball in his hands (1982).
Fouls and free kicks
Of course, there have been more subtle changes to the wording of the law which have had a profound impact. One has been the removal of the word “intent”. It is still an offence to “attempt” to trip, strike, spit at, kick, etc. an opponent. But – whether you mean to or not – if you trip an attacker it is a free kick.
In the past, “accidental” trips were not considered fouls. Quite how easy this was to police, I have no idea (I was a referee in the noughties, not the 1900s). But this shift has meant that players cannot use the excuse of “I went for the ball” to avoid fouls. More importantly, this shift has extended itself to the two-footed challenge, as we discussed earlier. However much you “go for the ball” or do not intend to kick the opponent, a dangerous tackle is still a red card offence.
This works both ways, tactically. Players are much more reticent to stick out a leg in and around the penalty area, relying more on shepherding attacking sides out to the sidelines. For attackers, on the other hand, there is a lot to be gained by knocking the ball past the defender and “encouraging” them to leave a leg hanging for you to fall over.
Changes in the game
There is no doubt that the game is much quicker than it was twenty years ago. FIFA has focussed its attack in Law 12 on two main evils; violence and time wasting. What has developed out of this is a game in which players who are fast and technically gifted are given more room to express themselves.
This is not all “progress” and positive spin. Alongside advances in coaching techniques and conditioning, well-organised teams have gained an obvious advantage, since there is no other way for weaker sides to take on their more technically gifted opponents. The last World Cup may well have been the death of international football as a spectacle.
Diving has also become much easier as referees become more aware of contact. Throwing oneself to the ground, feigning injury from an elbow or a fist, or drawing a foul from the last defender are all worth the risk of a yellow card if the team can win a penalty, free kick or red card.
And, much as we might like to mock the brutish game of the past, it is clear that tackling is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the game. However, this is more because players have forgotten how to tackle. It is perfectly acceptable to make a great sliding challenge, or a good, hard, shoulder-to-shoulder battle with the opposition centre half. What is not acceptable is the reckless disregard for the attacker’s safety which was a hallmark of football before the 1990s. If a player tackles from the front or the side, makes sure he gets for the ball, and times the tackle right then he can still produce one of the most enjoyable sights in soccer – a good, hard, challenge.
Teams and players have had to adapt to this new world. They are more organised and have to provide much more cover at the back to stop themselves becoming exposed. This has freed up space for flair players and removed some of the risk of seeing players constantly nobbled by thuggish defenders.
The laws have been relatively stable for a few years now. It will be interesting to see what the next raft of changes will be and how they will affect the way teams play the game.