Ryan Shawcross had no intention of turning Aaron Ramsey‘s leg into putty when he went into his tackle yesterday. Martin Taylor had no interest in seeing Eduardo’s leg shattered in two when he went studs up against him two years ago. Dan Smith took no delight in the crunching sound of Abou Diaby’s ankle being fractured and dislocated when he went in late against him two years before that. To assume otherwise would be to accuse them of being sociopathic maniacs. I am sure they are not.
However, what I am sure of is that all those injuries are the result of a particularly pernicious facet of English football in general, and playing against Arsenal in particular – the art of “getting stuck in.” This talent, which is occasionally also called “Playing a man’s game,””getting it ‘up em,” and “giving him something to remember with every challenge” is exalted in the English game. To the rest of the world, it is nothing more than one player kicking the crap out of another. With English football’s acceptance of this tactic, it is inevitable that players will occasionally find their lower leg bent where no hinge should exist.
Arsenal is quick team. They like to move the ball quickly. Their interior passing is among the best in the world. Good teams combat that by pressuring Arsenal all over the pitch. If you don’t give an Arsenal player time to see his passing options, Arsenal can turn the ball over and are vulnerable on the break. That type of pressure and counter-attacking guided Chelsea and Manchester United to two comprehensive victories each over Arsenal this season, and those victories were fully deserved.
However, not every team in the league is Manchester United or Chelsea. Some of them are Stoke, Birmingham and Sunderland. They don’t have the quickness or the skill to be pressuring Arsenal from the front and constantly be challenging for the ball. Their managers give their team a slightly different set of instructions. Tackle hard boys! Make Arsenal feel it with every touch! Take fouls if you have to, but force Arsenal to pass the ball prematurely for fear of the hit they know is coming! In short, “get stuck in!” When a Stoke, Birmingham or Sunderland go into a match with that type of attitude, it is inevitable that a Ramsey, Eduardo or Diaby will, on occasion, leave the ground on stretcher.
Sadly, there is almost no chance of avoiding these types of catastrophes under the current English ethic of football. Shawcross got his red card and will be suspended for a few games, but that will not change any team’s strategy. Commentators will talk about how Shawcross is a “great lad” who is “absolutely gutted” and left the pitch in tears, as if anyone is arguing that Shawcross thought the whole thing was funny. Two weeks from now, those same commentators will pontificate about how Arsenal is soft and can be bullied, which is just a sub-rosa way of saying that you can beat Arsenal if you can kick them hard enough. Nobody will bother to opine that kicking a team off the pitch is not an acceptable form of football.
And of course many will say that the fact that three Arsenal players have had their legs shattered over the past four years is just a coincidence.
But it is not a coincidence. What is striking is the similarity of all three breaks. They all happened in the middle of the pitch. They all happened just after the Arsenal player had passed the ball. They all happened after their opponent went flying in and decided to leave his feet rather than give up on a lost challenge. This is all the definition of “getting stuck in.”
Hopefully Aaron Ramsey will fully recover and continue his trajectory as one of the future stars of British football. If he does fully recover, it will take years. A year from now, there is the possibility that he will again be wearing an Arsenal uniform and playing the game. However, four years after his injury, Diaby is just finally beginning to show the potential he had before his fracture, and Eduardo is still struggling two years later to recapture his pre-injury form. With a break like that, both players have had to re-learn how to use their leg. In the process, they tend to pick up a lot of other niggling injuries along the way. Even with their return to first team action, both Diaby and Eduardo seem to have spent as much time on the training table as they have on the pitch.
In the meantime, do not be surprised to see some other player in England, possibly from Arsenal, suffer a similar type of injury. Some player will be carted off. The player who went in late will be gutted. We will all talk about what a sickening scene it was. Until the ethic of “getting stuck in” changes, this is a movie we will see many times again in the future.