Tactical fouls are not sporting tactics

The referee’s ability to identify tactical fouls is tested virtually every game.  This is particularly the case given the speed of the modern game and the counter-attack style many teams employ.  In addition, the severity of punishment for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity and a tackle that involves serious foul play (both = red card + expulsion) “forces” a  player to foul further away from his own goal and to look for other ways in stopping the progress of an attacker respectively.  The skillful and creative player in the center of the field or the speedy winger is often targets of such tactical fouls.

What is a tactical foul? Trying to find a definition (any definition!) that fits all possible scenarios is never easy, but for the purpose of this article, let us define it as follows:

A tactical foul is a foul that stops a promising attacking move, thus gaining a clear advantage for the defenders. They have a tactical implication because they are designed to normally impede the progress of an attacking opponent.

Tactical fouls require a yellow card for unsporting behaviour. [See also 12th UEFA Advanced Course for Elite Referees, page 5, Madrid 2004)

I am deliberately refraining from using the word “professional foul” in describing tactical fouls for two reasons. Firstly, Fifa does not use the term “professional foul” anywhere in the 17 Laws of the Game or in the Additional Instructions to Referees. Secondly, it leads to confusion as this term is normally being used (in my humble opinion, incorrectly!) to describe the known red card offence of “denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity” to an opponent.

Referee Frojdfeldt cautioning Gattuso for a tactical foul.

Since the idea is to stop or slow down the opponent and his attacking play, tactical fouls are tackles/challenges that do not (necessarily) endanger the safety of an opponent. Often, such fouls are “minor” and easily escape punishment as referees do not recognize the tactical implications of the challenge and fail to read the tactical, attacking advantage that has been denied. They are usually non-reckless, being mostly careless in their nature. Sometimes tactical fouls are commented on as being “cynical.”  Such a subjective term is not really helpful to a referee. He needs a more objective set of criteria to identify tactical fouls.

How to identify cynical/tactical fouls? As referees, we are instructed according to Law 12 (Fouls & Misconduct)  that careless challenges per se don’t warrant cautions for unsporting behaviour. We know the Fifa formula: Reckless challenges = free kick + yellow card. Careless challenges = free kick only. Since tactical fouls are mostly careless, we can clearly see the difficulty in identifying now a careless challenge suddenly as also warranting a yellow card for unsporting behaviour!

The Laws of the Game don’t offer much guidance to referees with regards to criteria for tactical fouls, save a short mention regarding blatant handball to deny an opponent getting possession of the ball, or blatant shirt pulling in preventing an opponent from taking up an advantageous position.

The Oracle: “Why was the foul committed here?”

Reply: “Whadda you mean …. WHY?”

Tactical fouls are not deserving of a yellow card on its own merit, if seen in isolation. But when taking the match situation as a whole into consideration, the foul warrants a caution. Therefore, as a first step in identifying a criteria for tactical fouls, referees should ask themselves the “HOW as well as the “WHY the foul was committed. It is the “WHY”  that unlocks the identifying process. This will enable referees to identify the true nature of certain fouls as being tactical fouls.

As mentioned, tactical fouls are committed in order to strip a team of an effective promising attack. As such, a tactical foul is one for which the tackler is willing to accept the likelihood of getting a yellow card in exchange for stopping or slowing down a promising attack.

Paul Tamberino & Brian Hall identifies six common characteristics of tactical fouls:

  1. Tactical fouls occur usually close to the attacking end of the field. Defenders commit the foul because they are aware the attackers will have a credible opportunity to attack their goal with a high degree of effectiveness. The attack may develop from a counter-attack after dispossession of the ball, and speed is of the essence to get the ball/player into the attacking half of the field.
  2. Tactical fouls are used to gain a numerical advantage for defenders to stop or hinder the attack.
  3. Tactical fouls give defenders time to defend. It gives the defending team time to get goal-side of the ball, thus creating a numeric advantage for defenders.
  4. Tactical fouls prevent the ball and/or player from advancing with his promising attacking move (e.g. deliberate handball or obstruction or holding attacker). The foul is committed to prevent the ball and/or attacking player from getting into space behind a defender or behind the defense. It is the theory “if the ball gets by, the player doesn’t or “if the player gets by, the ball doesn’t”. Look for open areas/space that the ball would normally be played into or where an attacking player would run into if they were to receive the ball. The open areas would be behind a defender and close to or in the attacking half of the field.
  5. The defender knows he is beaten. The defender knows that he has not the skill and/or the speed to stop the attacker. Tactical fouls usually occur in one-versus-one situations. Not to be confused with denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (red card).
  6. Tactical fouls are usually minor in nature, i.e. they are more often then not careless in nature as opposed to being reckless. These fouls are often considered minor because they normally don’t involve hard, physical contact. Due to their “careless” classification, these fouls often go unpunished. Shirt pulling or using the defender’s body to make contact with the opponent and impede his progress are frequent examples.

Referees should ask themselves, “why did the player commit the foul here?” Often, tactical fouls occur in the wide open channels and spaces (close to the sideline) on the field, so it is critical that assistant referees also be aware of these characteristics and provide the referee with the necessary assistance via communication.

As play develops, referees and assistants need to anticipate potential actions by defenders that wants to slow down the attack. Recognizing these warning signs will aid referees in positioning themselves pro-actively prior to the defender’s challenge, so that they have a better angle of view of the tactical foul. Also, it may aid the referee by increasing his presence (getting closer to the ball) and thereby preventing a foul by a defender. A well positioned referee will be in the defender’s vision and his presence may deter the defender to initiate a tactical foul on an attacker.

Assistant referees should feel empowered to provide assistance in identifying and bringing these tactical fouls to the referee’s attention when the referee has not been successful in identifying the tactical nature of the foul. The assistant referee should utilize a signal – agreed upon prior to the game – if the assistant believes the situation warrants a caution.

Let us look at some examples of tactical fouls.

Example 1: Everton FC vs MLS All Stars, 2009(Move the video clip to 5:16 and then play onwards to 5:30)

Blue counter-attacks in their own half and the ball gets passed with speed to his team mate, Fredrik Ljungberg. The defender (white) knows he has no support or cover behind him so his only options are to either stop the ball or stop the attacker.

The defender sees the speed of the attacker and the ball has clearly bypassed him. He identifies his only option: Deny the attacker from getting into the space behind him! He clips (trips) Ljungberg. The referee is well-positioned to spot the tactical foul.

In the above video clip, the speed and skill of the attacker puts the defender in a position of having to foul in order to eliminate the potential for a dangerous attack. The referee does a good job of recognizing the nature of the foul and makes a correct decision to caution the defender for unsporting behaviour.

The simplest method to prevent the progression of the attacker is to deliberately interpose his body between the attacker and his pursuit of the ball. Remember, players work hard to disguise tactical-type fouls and to make them difficult for officials to recognize.

You should watch the tackler and analyze his actions/movement. Useful Indicators that will help the referee to identify tactical fouls are:

  • The defender’s eyes are not on the ball but on the attacker he is about to tackle;
  • The ball is past the defender when he initiates contact with the attacker.
  • The defender takes a few steps into the attacker’s movement path while making no attempt to chase the ball that has been played behind him into space by the attacker.
  • The attacker and ball are moving faster than the defender can.
  • The defender may put his hands up in the air during/after the tackle to disguise the infringement.
  • One-on-one situations. There are no players supporting or covering the defender in his attempt to close down or slow down the attacker.

In closing, still snapshots illustrating and highlighting the criteria mentioned above.

Example 2: LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake, MLS CUP Final, 2009. Here we have a scenario where all the tactical foul indicators are fulfilled, making it very easy for the referee to spot the nature of the foul and caution the defender for unsporting behaviour.

White Attacker played the ball (earlier) past the Red Defender in a promising counter attack. Defender is only interested in taking out the Attacker due to his eyes only following the Attacker. The Attacker is moving faster than the Defender. This is an one-vs-one situation where the Defender knows he's beaten.
Red Defender prevents the Attacker from advancing into space with his promising attack. He puts his hands in the air to disguise the tactical foul.