In recent weeks, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has requested English football’s governing body protect footballers from poor challenges, with many critics continuing to sneer at the possibility of the English game being ‘weakened’.
The Spaniard finds himself watching from the sidelines as his players are at the receiving end of terrible tackling capable of ending someone’s career. A victory over West Brom in midweek was not without complaint from Guardiola, who feels James McClean’s attempt to lunge at Kevin De Bruyne in the lead-up to City’s second goal was deserving of a red card.
Before the end of the game, Brahim Diaz found himself challenged above the knee by Matt Phillips that wouldn’t be deemed acceptable in a UFC ring. Speaking about player protection, Guardiola had this to say.
“Please protect the players. Not the Manchester City players, [all] the players. The only thing they can do is that: protect the players. Or it will happen again. The players are the artists and you have to take care of them. That’s why you are here and why I’m here. For them, the players.”
“Did I fear serious injuries? Of course. Every team can play how they want. If they decide to play in that way, perfect. But there is one man, in black, and he has to decide what is correct and incorrect. When you say: ‘Why don’t you win the four titles?’ I need the players to win the four titles.”
City have found themselves sitting pretty fifteen points clear in the Premier League title race but that incredible lead – built through talent, philosophy and belief – could have been much smaller had challenges from opposition players caused season-ending injuries.
Guardiola has found himself shouting into an echo chamber as he calls for footballers – and not only those employed by Manchester City – to have greater protection from referees and authority figures by punishing offenders of cowardly challenges.
It has been argued by many opposition supporters and ex-professionals that Guardiola should simply accept the style and nature of English football as time honoured tradition that should not be changed.
Those arguments are flawed in many ways as challenges are regularly going unpunished by referees and through luck above all else, players are escaping without the aid of medical assistance.
However, there have been instances in recent weeks that would silence any critics of Guardiola’s comments after Leroy Sané has been ruled out for two months with an ankle ligament injury suffered in the F.A Cup against Cardiff City.
Joe Bennett was the offender this time and attempted to prevent a counter-attack provoked by Sané just moments previously. The German international comfortably breezed past the Championship side’s defence before Bennett unnecessarily challenged Sané above the ankle with little intention of making contact with the football.
Sané’s injury will now force him to miss the Carabao Cup final against Arsenal. The 21-year-old reached his first domestic final in club football and now has it brutally taken away from him due to the dangerous assault by Bennett.
As guilty as Bennett it for making the challenge, the referee’s should take equal responsibility as what they now deem an acceptable challenge is one that allows a youngster have his first chance at club silverware snatched away from him.
The punishment for Joe Bennett ending Sané’s hopes of a Wembley appearance in four weeks? A yellow card. In other words, referee Lee Mason saw the challenge but deemed it only warranted a caution. Bennett failed to learn from his first-half mistake and tackled 18-year-old Brahim Diaz in the final moments straight on, almost breaking his shin in the consequence.
The example of Sané’s injury isn’t the only instance of footballers using excessive force to prevent City’s player’s playing in their usual style. Dele Alli almost broke Kevin De Bruyne’s leg during City’s 4-1 victory over Spurs in December. Ironically, that horror challenge came moments after Harry Kane’s stud-first, side on, challenge to Raheem Sterling’s shin – a potential leg breaking tackle that would have ended his best ever season in professional football.
A tag of ‘he’s not that type of player’ was branded upon Kane following his challenge on Sterling and makes little sense when Sterling could have had his dreams dashed before him in an act bad-nature from media-adored Harry Kane.
Why did the Tottenham duo challenge so forcefully? The simple answer is because English football’s governing body allows forceful challenges to superstars because of a stigma attached to English football that it’s physical and tougher than any other league, something Guardiola is keen to change.
The notion that football is a contact sport is ludicrous. Football is meant to be ‘the beautiful game’ with fast flowing attacking football what many supporters want their team to aspire to play.
Even supporters of the English national team have dreamt for decades that their side would change their style of football but why do people find the need to condone – and slam opposition like Guardiola – brutal challenges that could result in long-term injuries for players?
All these points enhance Guardiola’s argument for players receiving more protection. The mentality in English football needs to change. His unwillingness to stand by silent when his players are hacked on a weekly basis should be admired and listened to before someone – regardless of their allegiance – suffers an injury that could result in his career dashed due to incompetence from referee’s and football’s hierarchy.