With Wolves captain Karl Henry and City enforcer Nigel de Jong both having hit the headlines for their tackles this weekend, the debate over player protection has understandably risen to the fore once again.
Luckily, Wigan's Jordi Gomez escaped pretty much unscathed, but Newcastle starlet Hatem Ben Arfa suffered a double leg break. For Richard Williams, writing in The Guardian, football has a duty to disarm its human missiles.
A month ago, according to Alan Shearer's notorious observation on Match of the Day, nobody had heard of Hatem Ben Arfa. They have now. A tackle by Nigel de Jong broke the tibia and fibula of the gifted young French forward's right leg on Sunday afternoon, condemning him to months of rehabilitation and raising once again the question of exactly what constitutes an acceptable challenge in modern football.
De Jong has recent form of the kind that tends to skew a debate. During Holland's friendly against the United States in March he broke the leg of the Bolton Wanderers midfielder Stuart Holden with a very similar tackle. And in Johannesburg three months ago, during the World Cup final, the sole of his raised boot made jarringly painful contact with the chest of Xabi Alonso. Poor Howard Webb, desperately trying to preserve the quality of a showpiece occasion, let it go, but yesterday even Holland's manager, Bert van Marwijk, lost patience and dropped De Jong from his squad after viewing the tackle on Ben Arfa.
The Dutchman is known for his stern tackling, and it has made him one of the most successful of Manchester City's recruits since the money started flowing in. A product of the Ajax academy, he is the kind of holding midfield player around whom a side can be built, and he fits into English league football as well as Dave Mackay, Nobby Stiles or Peter Storey once did.
But football has changed, or rather footballers have, since those particular hard men held sway. All players are athletes now, far stronger and faster than their predecessors, which means that they are hurtling into contact more frequently and at much greater velocity. It also means they are often making those tackles before the player in possession has had time to control the ball or set himself to resist, absorb or evade the challenge.
That was more or less the case with Ben Arfa. But Jordi Gómez of Wigan Athletic was running at full speed and had taken a touch when Karl Henry, the Wolves captain, came flying in on Saturday, sending the Catalan midfielder into a spectacular somersault. If it looked much worse than the collision between De Jong and Ben Arfa, luckily it had a better outcome.
The two challenges had something in common: both tacklers were going for the ball, aiming to dispossess the opponent. The injury to Ben Arfa was incurred when the Newcastle United player made contact with De Jong's trailing leg. The sheer force of Henry's arrival knocked Gómez off his feet. In both cases, however, the tackler had launched himself like a sort of human missile, although neither challenge was two-footed.
Ryan Shawcross's challenge on Aaron Ramsey last March, in which Arsenal's young Welshman suffered the same double fracture as Ben Arfa, was another example of recklessness, although Arsène Wenger thought he detected something else. "I love the commitment of the English game," he said afterwards. "I do not want to change that. I think it makes the game even more attractive. But high commitment demands as well fair intention."
Intention is hard, often impossible, to identify with any certainty. Shawcross's tears after the incident supported those who felt that there had been no malice in the young Stoke City player's challenge.