Georgina Turner
Friday September 17th, 2010

Tackling has moved to the top of the Premier League agenda this week after Fulham's Bobby Zamora suffered a broken leg against Wolves and Arsenal substitute Abou Diaby had to be substituted himself, 13 minutes after coming on, thanks to a Paul Robinson challenge aimed at the ankle he dislocated four years ago.

In the meantime, of course, Manchester United's Antonio Valencia's season has been prematurely halted by a similar broken leg/dislocated ankle combination suffered in Tuesday's Champions League match with Glasgow Rangers. Amid increasing angst about safety on the pitch, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger (still without Aaron Ramsey, whose leg was broken in February) has revived his plea for referees and the FA to protect players from rash challenges.

"I love the way the game is played in England with one proviso: full commitment but always in getting the ball," Wenger told reporters. "The English game becomes dangerous when players try to hurt each other. ... Do you want to see [Cesc] Fabregas, who plays football, or the guy who kicks you from behind?"

Wenger's stance has drawn stinging criticism from Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce, who accused Wenger of attempting to influence match officials, but the injuries have prompted introspection in the Premier League community. Is it becoming more dangerous?

Statistically, no. Two in the space of a few days is eye-catching, but it's too soon to start suggesting that each week or even each month might bring a couple of more. "If you look at the stats," said Chris Carling, sports scientist at Lille OSC, "there hasn't been any increase in injuries over the last seven or eight years." This is borne out with less scientific research, too: Think back over the last decade and you'll remember at least a few leg breaks each season -- by this time last year, Tottenham's Luka Modric was already wearing a cast.

Smith and Diaby were joined in 2005-06, a particularly bad year, by Brett Ormerod (Preston North End), Djibril Cisse (Liverpool, for a second time in two seasons), Leroy Lita (Reading), Nicky Hunt (Bolton Wanderers) and a handful more lower-league players. Games between Liverpool and Blackburn have caused several breaks: Jason McAteer (leg, 1998), Jamie Carragher (leg) and Milan Baros (ankle, both 2003), and Cisse (double leg break, 2004).

You have to go back to 1996 for what remains the most horrific leg break in (certainly British) soccer: Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel vomited at seeing Coventry's David Busst's snapped leg, and had to have counseling afterward. It took 15 minutes to clear Busst and several pints of blood off the pitch. United's Brian McClair looked traumatized as he held his opponent's hand.

Busst never played soccer again. Neither did Chelsea's Roberto di Matteo, who suffered a triple fracture in 2000, nor Aston Villa's Luc Nilis (hurt in a league match in the same month). Coventry City manager Aidy Boothroyd has a wealth of managerial experience at 39, but then he was forced to give up his playing career at 26 after breaking his leg. Wigan director Dave Whelan's retail empire began with the $625 compensation he received after breaking his leg playing for Blackburn in the 1960 FA Cup final.

This grisly, whistle-stop tour of history isn't meant to suggest that we shouldn't worry about serious injury, but rather to establish that, despite the current fretting, soccer hasn't suddenly become more lethal. Although Eduardo's stomach-churning break was replayed in slow-motion close-ups two years ago, broadcasters didn't show replays of Valencia's injury because viewers would find it distressing. This newfound squeamishness lends itself to a sense that English soccer has reached some new, more brutal level.

Which is doubtful, as anyone who was at the 1952 FA Cup matches between Leeds United and Chelsea will tell you. The tie went to two replays, and the tackles had flown in so hard that the Londoners were forced to make seven changes for the second of them. The battle was reprised in the 1970 final, when Chelsea's Ron "Chopper" Harris left Leeds' Eddie Gray hobbling with a late tackle eight minutes into the replay. It's been a while since anybody ended up in court because of a tackle.

Wenger's concerns about safety are not illegitimate (though his sense of persecution is perhaps misplaced; as manager of Blackburn in 2007, Mark Hughes lost Andre Ooijer and Robbie Savage to broken legs within weeks of one another, but reacted simply by saying, "I hope there was nothing untoward"), but malicious tackles would seem to be in decline, not becoming more prevalent. Referees generally -- though not consistently -- reach for their pockets at the sight of tackles from behind, two-footed lunges, stamps and studs-up challenges that their predecessors might have waved on.

All this proves, you may argue, is that soccer has always been a violent sport, but that that doesn't make it right. Perhaps. But soccer is a contact sport, which means accidents happen. Wenger himself lost goalkeeper Rabi Shabaan for much of 2003 after a training-ground collision with Martin Keown. In 2006, League Two outfit Macclesfield Town lost keeper Jon Brain and defender Andrew Teague for the season after they ran into one another and each broke a leg.

Some of the worst breaks over the years, including Busst's, Henrik Larsson's, Cisse's and Nilis', have come as the result of an awkward fall, an ill-advised stretch or an innocuous challenge. It is fortunately rare that players mete out an intentional assault such as Roy Keane's lunge at Alf Inge Haaland in 2001 or Andoni Goikoetxea's leap at Diego Maradona's ankle in 1983. Neither tackle caused a break, but Goikoetxea is the only player to have mounted the boot that did the damage in a glass case and displayed it proudly on his mantelpiece.

This week's debate isn't actually new -- almost 10 years ago, Chelsea's Mario Stanic complained, "You always fear you might suffer a broken leg" -- but it has raised new questions, about the speed of the game, technique and kit. Sunderland manager Steve Bruce suggested that boots with blades (as opposed to traditional studs) might be the culprits. Certainly Valencia looked to have caught his studs in the ground as Kirk Broadfoot approached, and Bruce lost Fraizer Campbell (cruciate knee ligaments) in similar fashion last month. Both apparently wore blades.

"At Lille, when a player gets injured we look at the footwear, but we've not really found any patterns," Carling said. "It would be interesting to know how many players are wearing the same footwear as Valencia and not getting injured."

Carling speaks with a scientist's detachment. Facts and figures count.

"On average, a professional soccer team will have about eight serious injuries over the course of a season," he said. "If you think of the amount of time players train, and how many games they play, it's actually not very much."

His research has also found no link between fixture congestion and injury risk.

"A lot of clubs do prevention training, strength training, etc., and it will reduce the overall number of injuries. But the number of serious injuries is still the same, because a lot of it's down to bad luck."

For all his railing at the roughhousing of his players, Wenger has admitted that his men also make bad tackles (as Samir Nasri -- who, incidentally, broke his leg in training last season -- proved with a two-footed leap against Braga on Wednesday). He insists these are not intended as if many others are. If Wenger can't eradicate poor tackles from his own (extremely talented) players, is it at all realistic to think the ill-timed, clumsy challenge can be wiped out of the game? It shouldn't count as an endorsement of foul play to admit that it's probably not.

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