England's uncompromising underdogs
The English game has always had a reputation for being more physical than some of its European counterparts and a variety of styles is regarded as central to the Premier League's global appeal. However, in recent weeks the rough-and-ready style of England's top flight has been has been brought starkly into focus.
With a number of high-profile injuries and eye-watering tackles catching the attention of managers and media alike, three teams in particular - Stoke City, Blackburn Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanders - were accused of employing an over-physical approach.
The men on the receiving end have been quick to justify their style of play however, and insist they have been unfairly stigmatised for a perfectly legitimate and successful approach to the game. After last week’s league match with West Ham, Wolves manager Mick McCarthy was quick to refute the label his side has been given.
"I'm sure you all flocked here expecting to see a dozen yellow cards, but that's not the case with us," McCarthy said in a post-match interview. "Kieran Dyer has just said to me: 'If you're the dirtiest team then that's nonsense'. We've played some great football today. The whole thing has been a sort of mini-saga.”
With tongue firmly in cheek, he told BBC Sport: “I asked all the lads to knock seven bells out of them like I normally do and instead they went out and played free-flowing football for 45 minutes. What the hell were they playing at?”
Using physical tactics to maximise inferior resources is nothing new among less glamorous clubs, of course, and it has worked wonders for the teams in question, particularly against sides that are admittedly more technically gifted than their own. All three of the highlighted sides were earmarked for relegation last season but managed to survive by playing their own brand of pragmatic football and getting results against teams with far superior bank balances.
Sam Allardyce has had a reputation for employing such tactics, both since managing Blackburn and previously at Bolton Wanderers, and it is a formula that has proved successful for him. Teams, such as West Bromwich Albion when managed by Tony Mowbray in 2008/09, have been relegated from the Premier League for trying to outplay sides when it was possibly not within their means, and Allardyce has no gripes with approaching the game in a manner that gives his side the best chance of success.
“We are a team that go out to try and win football matches when we go out and play, and we use our strengths to succeed, like we all do, to win three points," he said. "We play football the right way because we play football to try and win. We are not dirty, we never go out to injure a player, I never send a player out to injure a player of the opposition, we’re far too professional for that.”
Stoke City have been something of a revelation since winning promotion to the Premier League in 2007/08, finishing 12th and 11th in their first two seasons. This has been largely thanks to their physical attributes on the field, with their approach play, often built around getting bodies in the box and causing disarray with the likes of high-balls and long throws, harking back to an earlier era of English football.
This gameplan, which has brought them wins over the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Manchester City and Aston Villa, necessitates winning physical duels – particularly with the vast majority of their players towering above 6ft. However manager Tony Pulis feels that this physicality is one of the major fabrics of the game in England, and the merits of employing it within the rules of the game, and the ability to be able to use it successfully, should not be forgotten.
“Tackling is an art-form and we should never take it out of our game," he said. "To do so in my opinion would be to destroy what makes the Premier League, and English football in general, so fantastic. We must absolutely guard against rash tackles, whether committed by the most gifted player, or just the mere mortals. However, we must also be realistic in that we will never completely eradicate injuries in a contact sport.”
The debate is likely to continue, and the less glamorous sides will always be the first in the firing line, but as long as they find themselves continuing to ply their trade in one of the world's top leagues it's unlikely they'll be bothered at being perceived as a little rough around the edges.