Make no mistake about it, the sliding tackle is an art form. A dying one, but an art form no less
Break the game of football up into its constituent skills, rank them by order of the most satisfying and a well-timed slide tackle will always feature somewhere near the top – right up there with a sweetly struck volley or that touch that instantly kills dead a long, raking pass.
Or at least, that’s how it is on these shores. Those of us who grew up playing the game on the permanently rain-slickened surfaces of these fair isles seem to have more of an appreciation for a well-executed sliding tackle than some of our continental neighbours, as we were reminded on Monday night.
England’s 3-2 defeat of Spain on their own turf was no mean feat – not when considering that La Roja had been unbeaten at home for 15 years prior to the game in Seville. Yet as much as English football fans might have lauded some of the football on show from Gareth Southgate’s men in the build-up to their first-half goals, it was telling that another incident, one which took place before Raheem Sterling had opened the scoring, was so widely discussed after full-time.
Sergio Ramos’ touch was heavy. By his own byline the ball came back to him unexpectedly, running off his foot into his own penalty area and towards David De Gea’s goal. Eric Dier was on to it instantly, accelerating across the 15 yards or so between him and ball like a Great White towards an unsuspecting seal pup. To ground he went, taking ball then Ramos, who clattered to the deck – coming to a halt only after the back of his skull had rattled the ground.
This, some on social media enthused, was a slide tackle for the ages. And for several reasons, it was easy to see why such conclusions were drawn.
For a start, this was undeniably a good, aesthetically pleasing, firm challenge (at least in the eyes of the majority of Englishmen watching). Ball was taken, then man and nobody was hurt. The kind of tackle made 10,000 times without punishment on Sunday League pitches up and down the land every single season.
Then, its victim. While nobody can dispute that Sergio Ramos is a wonderfully elegant footballer and one of the best defenders of his generation, he’s earned something of a reputation as the pantomime villain over the course of his career. The kind of bloke you’d half expect to go to ground clutching his face after he kisses his kids goodnight, the fact he’d been upended in such a forceful manner undoubtedly made witnessing this all the more enjoyable for many.
But lastly (and most importantly) is that it was all so gloriously, magnificently needless. Factoring in where Ramos and the ball had been and the direction and speed at which Dier was travelling, there was little in the way of an advantage for the Tottenham midfielder to gain from this scenario. The best possible outcome for England would’ve been a goal kick for the home side; the worst would’ve been 80 minutes of chasing Spanish shadows while a man light. What much of the social media brouhaha overlooked in the aftermath was that referee Szymon Marcinia deemed Dier’s challenge worthy of a Spanish free-kick and a yellow card. Had the tackle missed the ball or taken more of Ramos, a red would’ve surely been flashed in his direction.
All of this considered, the only logical explanation was a simple one: Dier was merely trying to rough Ramos up a bit, to intimidate him and his Spanish teammates. And given how vulnerable they were to England’s pacy counter-attacks in the moments that followed, perhaps it worked in some way.
As fond of it as many of us are, the days of the sliding tackle are numbered at the top level of professional football. Dier’s yellow card and another booking for Harry Maguire in the second half are evidence of that.
As England’s style of play evolves and becomes more progressive, we will undoubtedly see less of it. But on Monday, on a night where the Three Lions would go on to play some of their most exciting football in living memory, it might just have played a part in setting the mood for what was to follow.