Every month we bring you the complete Gunners guide to various techniques that make up the beautiful game. This month we take an in-depth look at the art of tackling.
Every striker has a favourite goal, so does it follow that every defender has a favourite tackle? Nigel Winterburn made so many tackles during his 584-game Gunners career he could be forgiven for not being able to recall a particularly memorable example.
But the left-back - affectionately nicknamed Nutty Nigel by the Highbury faithful - says a couple of tackles spring immediately to mind when he recollects his playing days.
"I once went up for a header with Ugo Ehiogu. I came back down and it felt like I’d gone about 10ft into the air"
“One of the first tackles that I really remember was against Wimbledon, where we tried to play offside near the halfway line and got it completely wrong,” he begins.
“The ball was chipped over the top and one of the attackers was about 10 yards ahead of me. I was chasing back and I thought I had no hope of getting anywhere near him. But he seemed to dilly-dally and I came in from behind, which you could do then, and did a hook tackle to take the ball from in front of him and back the opposite way.
"I took the ball away and we started to advance up the pitch. From looking like we were going to concede, we went on the counter attack,” says Nigel, who was a regular part of the Arsenal defence between 1987 and 2000.
“I also remember one at Aston Villa against Ugo Ehiogu. He was a big centre half, over 6ft tall and probably twice as heavy as me. We went in for a 50/50 on the halfway line and I knew I couldn’t pull out. We met the ball at the same time and I remember going straight up in the air.
"I came back down and it felt like I’d gone about 10ft into the air. I landed on my back and you could hear the crowd go ‘ooh’ as the tackle came in. My back was killing me but I didn’t want to show that I was injured in front of the crowd. So I got up and jogged back, but it was really hurting.”
It was clear from watching him play, that Nigel really enjoyed tackling – it was a part of the game he relished, and he never held back when going in for a challenge. “I used to pride myself on making sure I was whole-hearted when I tackled,” he continues.
"I think the laws in today’s game have changed so significantly that it’s almost as though you have to intercept a pass"
“What I used to do as well was win the ball and hook it. I used to tackle with my left foot and try to hook the ball back round to try and keep possession and then start a counter attack. I used to work a lot on that.”
Nigel was one of George Graham’s first signings as Arsenal manager, but he also played regularly in the first few years of the Arsene Wenger reign, so did he have to adapt his tackling style much as the Premier League became more continental in style?
“Not really, no. The game changed a bit in my period but I don’t think I really had to adapt my game too much. I think the laws in today’s game have changed so significantly that it’s almost as though you have to intercept a pass. You have to be very careful and you can’t tackle from behind.
“Even coming in from the side and taking the ball can be deemed to be aggressive, which is absolutely bizarre. You can’t tackle from straight on with a single foot because once you see that foot raised off the ground, it’s a free-kick against you and can even mean a sending off. It is difficult now for full backs in particular, because there are so many decisions they have to make about when they can tackle an opponent.
“The art of defending has gone away a little bit, particularly for full backs,” he continues, “because of what they are asked to do going forward. You’ve also got a responsibility when you’re under pressure, so you have to know how to defend properly.
"Being able to tackle well is underrated in the game. We’ve almost gone away from being out-and-out defenders"
"I would say that positioning is very important, as is communication with the rest of the defence. If you get that right, you can intercept the ball a lot of the time, and don’t need to make tackles. Reading the game is what you need to be very strong on as well.”
Nigel adds that despite changes in style in the modern game, the art of tackling is still a vitally important part of a defender’s armoury.
“Being able to tackle well is underrated in the game. We’ve almost gone away from being out-and-out defenders. A lot of wingers have been converted to full backs. But there are always going to be periods where you have to defend one against one.
"You’ve got to know how to do that and which areas to push the opposition player into. Sometimes the full backs are not aggressive enough in terms of dictating against an opponent that they come up against.”
Nigel, who won two England caps, says he was influenced by the more physical teams and players when he was young.
"We spent hours and hours on the training pitch, working together. It gave us that unit and it made me a better defender"
“I used to support Leeds. They were renowned for being a really dirty team. Leeds could pass and move the ball around but they could certainly mix it against teams too. They had players in their team that could do both. I used to look at that and admire it in a way. Maybe that tells you what my philosophy on football was like a bit.”
But although the joy of defending was obviously with him from an early age, Nigel also pays credit to former boss George Graham – who signed him from Wimbledon in 1987 – for honing his defensive skills.
“We did a lot of work with George Graham when I first came to the club. I used to pride myself on being a good defender anyway and giving 100 per cent and never giving up. That’s what I wanted to be renowned for.
"I remember working with George – and all the back four will tell you about it – we spent hours and hours on the training pitch, working together. At times it was so boring but it did give us that unit that stayed together for so long and it undoubtedly made me a better defender, that’s for sure.”
And those tireless hours out on the training pitches paid off for Nigel and the rest of that famous back four as they won the league title in 1989, then again in 1991 – conceding just 18 league goals from 38 games that season.
Nigel was an ever-present that term in that finely-tuned defensive unit. Not many attackers got past that quartet of Winterburn, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams and Steve Bould, but when they did, Nigel was often on hand to make one of his favourite types of tackle – the last-ditch challenge.
“I used to pride myself on making a well-timed tackle but if you are making a last-ditch tackle, where you are stopping a definite goalscoring opportunity, there’s no better feeling. You don’t want to be doing that too often though because it suggests that your back four is doing something wrong.
"It’s a fantastic feel-good factor when you make that last ditch challenge though, especially inside the area. The art of tackling and of taking the ball off the winger when he’s going at full pelt is what I used to work on a lot and do to perfection. It didn’t always work but it did a fair amount of the time.”
Five of the biggest ever Arsenal tackles
Kevin Richardson on John Barnes Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal May 26, 1989 Division One
The turnover which led to the most famous goal in English football history. With the clock having already ticked over 90 minutes and Arsenal still needing another goal to win the league title, Liverpool’s John Barnes, rather than take the ball into the corner, advanced into the penalty area where he was cleanly tackled by Richardson. Richardson, who had just received treatment for cramp which necessitated the crucial injury time, calmly played the ball back to John Lukic, who in turn bowled the ball out to Lee Dixon, and the rest is history.
Tony Adams on Andrey Shevchenko Arsenal 1-1 Dynamo Kiev October 21, 1998 Uefa Champions League
An extraordinary tackle from one of the very best at the art-form. Legendary Ukraine striker Andrey Shevchenko appeared to have beaten Adams, only for the Gunners skipper to extend a leg, avoid the striker’s legs, and bring his foot down on top of the ball. He then sprang back up to make another challenge. ITV co-commentator Ron Atkinson compared it to Bobby Moore’s famous tackle on Jairzinho at the 1970 World Cup.
Patrick Vieira on Angelos Basinas Arsenal 2-1 Panathinaikos October 16, 2001UEFA Champions League
A move to sum up the power and poise of Vieira. The captain - who would give a man-of-the-match performance that evening - slid in just inside his own half to dispossess Panathinaikos midfielder Angelos Basinas and bring the ball cleanly away while Basinas was felled. He then took one touch to bring the ball over halfway, before playing a beautifully weighted through ball to Thierry Henry to race through and open the scoring.
Laurent Koscielny on Daniel Sturridge Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea April 21, 2012Premier League
A perfectly executed jump tackle to preserve a point at the end of this London derby at the Emirates. The match was goalless with two minutes remaining when Koscielny’s flying tackle/clearance nipped the ball off the feet of Daniel Sturridge when the Chelsea man looked certain to score at the far post. It was a move the Frenchman had to time perfectly, and he did.
Kieran Gibbs on Billy Jones West Bromwich Albion 2-3 Arsenal May 13, 2012Premier League
The tackle that saved Champions League qualification. Arsenal led West Brom 3-2 in the 92nd-minute of nerve- jangling last-day clash at The Hawthorns. Only three points would be enough to ensure Arsenal finished in the top three and guarantee Champions League qualification ahead of Tottenham. Suddenly Billy Jones was inside the area through on goal. His heavy touch gave substitute Gibbs the split-second of encouragement he needed to dive in with an inch-perfect sliding tackle and force the ball away for a corner.
The expert view
Former Arsenal and Northern Ireland midfielder, Steve Morrow has also managed in America’s Major League Soccer, is a UEFA A qualified coach and has worked as a match analyst for Arsenal.com. Now head of recruitment for the Arsenal Academy, he is involved with youth player development globally for the club.
"The most important element of tackling is timing. Knowing when to attempt it, and when to make a particular type of tackle.
"We encourage our defenders to stand up, to show the ball in a certain direction. We often tell our defenders they don’t always need to tackle, be patient"
"Defenders take fewer risks now around the box because there are so many free-kick specialists out there. Our coaches will remind our players to be careful when tackling around the box, especially if the opposition has good set-piece takers. So timing is vital.
"Often it might be best not to make the tackle at all. We encourage our defenders to stand up, to show the ball in a certain direction. We often tell our defenders they don’t always need to tackle, be patient.
"But tackling is an important part of the game, and we spend a lot of time teaching youngsters in one- on-one situations. We teach them block tackles, sliding tackles and it’s important to teach them an element of aggression. It’s not just defenders though, all positions on the pitch need to be able to tackle well. We switch that around in training sessions too.
"I remember growing up with lots of players for whom tackling was a great strength. Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown people like that. All strong defenders and all determined tacklers.
"I played in midfield myself a lot because of the defensive qualities I had. George Graham said he used me in that role a lot because of my ability to tackle under pressure."
The boss on the tackle
On the secret to a good tackle... "The secret is the timing of your intervention, the technique to go down with the one leg and basically to put your body in the position of a hurdler. When someone goes over a hurdle the other leg is flexed, the first leg, to touch the ball. As well, if you are a super tackler, to make a pass when you win the ball with your intervention. That means to take care again of the attacking. That for me is the most important thing: to be calm and master well what you do.
"The older generation mastered that better than the modern one. In our team, the young boys are good at it as well but they are less subject to it"
“The tackles that are just jumping in there, I hate that. But when a tackle is well timed, with a thinking process behind it – because sometimes you can only catch the ball if you tackle – I find it a marvellous technique that is under-rated in the game.
“You find fewer tacklers in the modern game than in history because the quality of the pitches are better, there are less opportunities because the pitches are harder and in the way of tackling, the quality of the tackles has a bit gone out of the game because of the quality of the pitches."
On which players are particularly good at tackling… "Steve Bould, Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn – for me these are real tacklers. The older generation mastered that better than the modern one. In our team, the young boys are good at it as well but they are less subject to it. It is a technical art much more used in the 60s, 70s, 80s than in the modern game. But still I feel our defenders can actually do it."
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