Soccer Tackling in Context



It is extremely important that coaches address the context of soccer tackling with their players before teaching the various types of tackles.  This involves general concepts, the rules involved – including legal and illegal contact – and referee interpretations of the rules, all as they apply to soccer tackling.

Legal tackling in soccer is an action taken by a defender to attempt to, or to actually, take the ball away from an opponent (to “dispossess” them of the ball) where, if contact is involved, the contact does not violate Law 12 of the Laws of the Game, “Fouls and Misconduct.”

Tackling is very likely to involve contact.  It is the responsibility of the tackler to conduct the tackle safely, otherwise a foul or an injury might occur.

As with all instruction and drill in ball skills, proper demonstration and service is critical.

General Concepts

Tackles may be attempted anywhere on the field.  It should be noted, however, that a poor tackle, resulting in a foul, will result in the award of a direct free kick to the opponent and possibly a booking.  If this happens within the defender’s Penalty Area, it will result in a Penalty Kick.

Which type of tackle to use is based on the relative positions of the players, the location of the ball relative to the attacker and the defender, the location of the ball on the field, and other circumstances of play.

Tackling can be dangerous.  No one wants to be injured by a poorly-performed tackle and no one should engage in poor technique that can create an injury.  A decision regarding tackling may be made in a split second and it needs to be correct.  Otherwise, someone gets hurt or carded.  Similarly, players about to be on the receiving end of a poor tackle may need to protect themselves.  See:  The Avoidance Move.

Players with the ball should also be made to be more conscious that, by taking their concentration off the ball, such as looking for a pass, right at the moment a defender is making a tackle, is a significant factor for an increased chance of injury.

The time and place for a tackle is most often part of a process.  A generally-accepted process for a defender involves:

  1. Mark an opponent.
  2. Ensure that you are properly “goal-side.”
  3. Stay with your mark.
  4. If possible, intercept a pass.
  5. If your opponent gets the ball, establish a proper defensive stance, delay, contain, and control. Keep the opponent and the ball in front of you.  You may fake a tackle (by moving toward the dribbler or “pressing” them) or make motions to get the vision of the opponent “down” or restricted around the ball.  See:  Introduction to Dribbling.
  6. Keep your proper “goal-side” positioning. Maintain an adequate “cushion” between yourself and the opponent.  Give ground grudgingly. Allow your defense to build numbers.  Know where you have to stop backpedaling or retreating.
  7. Listen to oral communication from your teammates, especially the defensive coordinator and the goalkeeper. Tackle immediately if directed to do so.
  8. Watch for your opportunity and go for the tackle. Remember that a successful tackle does not always mean coming up with the ball.  A successful tackle can include kicking the ball away or out-of-bounds.
  9. Perform the tackle properly, in accordance with the “Spirit and Intent” of the Laws of the Game


Again, legal tackling in soccer is an action taken by a defender to attempt to, or to actually, take the ball away from an opponent (to “dispossess” them of the ball) where, if contact is involved, the contact does not violate Law 12 of the Laws of the Game, “Fouls and Misconduct.”  The applicable portions include:

Law 12

In part, the specific rules addressing tackling state,

direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offenses against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:

  • Tackles or challenges [improperly].

“Careless” is when a player shows a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or acts without precaution. No additional disciplinary sanction is needed beyond the direct free kick being awarded.  “Reckless” is when a player acts with disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent and must be cautioned [yellow carded].  “Using excessive force” is when a player exceeds the necessary use of force and/or endangers the safety of an opponent and must be sent off [red carded; ejected].

In addition, in part,

A player, substitute, or substituted player is shown a red card and ejected if guilty of any of the following (sending-off) offenses:

  • Serious foul play.

Serious foul play includes:  A tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent or uses excessive force or brutality; and, any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side, or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force or endangers the safety of an opponent.

Players must also understand the difference between legal and illegal contact.

Legal Contact

Legal contact in soccer is nominally described as being “shoulder to shoulder” between two opponents, as one player comes into the other, or challenges for the ball.  The most common instance of this is two players running side-by-side, usually as they both pursue a moving ball in front of them.  Shoulder-to-shoulder contact may also occur with opponents facing one another, such as in a front block tackle, or from behind, such as when one player screens the ball from an opponent.  Each of these examples, when performed properly, represents a “fair charge” or a “fair challenge” in soccer.  Former wording of the FIFA Interpretations stated that, “the act of charging is a challenge for space using physical contact [emphasis added] within playing distance of the ball without using arms or elbows.”

The expectation during the performance of a fair charge is that both players will have at least one foot on the ground and that excessive force will not be used.   In other words, the player making the challenge cannot just slam into an opponent who is in mid-air or barrel into him at high speed, even if the contact is shoulder to shoulder.  A fair charge can result in a player being put to the ground, however, if one player loses his balance, timing catches an opponent on the “wrong foot” at the moment contact is made, or if another player is simply bigger or stronger.  The mere fact that contact has occurred and a player winds up on the ground does not make the contact illegal.  A fair challenge or fair tackle generally involves a defender cleanly contacting the ball first and not the opponent, when trying to take the ball away.  A fair challenge or tackle may also result in the offensive player going to the ground, essentially tripping over the stopped ball.

Illegal Contact

Illegal contact in soccer starts with the fouls identified in Law 12 of the Laws of the Game, “Fouls and Misconduct,” and escalates from poor challenges during the common run of play to truly inappropriate behavior.  The illegal contact in Law 12 includes [improper] charges, jumps, kicks or attempts to kick, pushes, strikes or attempts to strike (including head-butt), [improper] tackles or challenges, and trips or attempts to trip [an opponent].”  The Law states that, “A direct free kick is [to be] awarded [to the opposing team] if a player commits… [one of these] offenses against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force.”   It is also illegal to charge or challenge properly, but with the ball not within playing distance.  Referees must use their judgment to determine the severity of the penalties to be applied.  Law 12 also addresses holding, impeding, biting or spitting, and throwing an object.


When making a proper tackle, it is expected that any contact by the defender with the opponent before, during, or after the tackle will be legal.  Further, it is expected that the defender is clearly attempting to block, stop or kick away the ball as part of the tackle, and not an attempt to block, stop or kick the opponent.  During the performance of the tackle by the defender, it is expected that at least one foot (or possibly a portion of a leg) will be in contact with the ground.  Finally, it is expected that defenders will consciously refrain from making a tackle which will result in injury.

In order to refrain from illegal or injurious tackling, defenders are expected to not attempt any type of two-footed lunges made at an oncoming opponent, whereby both feet are off the ground; any type of tackle that is late, or mis-timed; any type of tackle that leads with the cleats showing, or the cleats will make first contact; and any type of tackle where the leg is swung wildly in a kicking motion directly at the opponent.  (Slide tackles may further be restricted by “Local Rules.”)

Winning the ball first, or having made some contact with the ball while tackling, is not a criterion in the Laws.  The Laws address contact by the defender with the opponent.  A defender can attempt a tackle from behind, as long as it does not violate the Laws involving contact.  A slide tackle performed correctly is legal, as long as it does not endanger the safety of the opponent.

Referee Interpretations

Referees observe defenders before, during and after a tackle.  They watch for such things as the defender’s proximity to the opponent; that the tackle is a legitimate attempt to play the ball; the amount of force being used; and if the challenge is careless, reckless or uses excessive force. The angle the tackler takes is also observed.  Tackles from behind can be particularly problematic because the dribbler is not likely to see them coming in order to have a chance to protect themselves.  (In the Penalty Area, these are also the most likely to result in a Penalty Kick.)

During the tackle, whereas clean contact with the ball is important, if illegal contact is made with the ball handler, the fact that the ball was struck does not override the foul.  Leading directly with both feet off the ground is dangerous, even if the cleats are not showing.  Taking out the attacker with a following or “trailing” leg or foot may be a foul.  Tackles against a dribbler are expected to be made at ground level.  Contact made with the attacker mid-shin or above is most likely to be a foul.

Incidentally, during the execution of a fair tackle, referees will also be observing to see if the attacker engages in trying to simulate that they have been fouled, usually by faking having been kicked or tripped.

If it is determined by the Referee that a foul has been committed by the tackler, the application of the “careless, reckless or excessive force” criteria is made and the appropriate sanctions applied.

Conversely, any other contact having been clean and legal, if the tackler successfully blocks the ball and the dribbler trips over the ball, the tackle is legal.

For both safety and success, once it is decided to go in for a tackle, there are a number of generally-accepted guidelines that should be taken into account by a defender:

  • Know where your teammates are
  • Know what should happen to the ball after the tackle
  • Ensure the tackle necessary
  • Don’t tackle from behind
  • Never go in with studs up
  • Be sure you can get the ball
  • Use the best tackle for the set of circumstances
  • Keep one foot in contact with the ground
  • Perform the tackle skillfully with proper timing, accuracy, confidence and the appropriate level of aggression
  • Recover quickly after the tackle

The first article addressing tackling as a skill is The Front Block Tackle.

The second article addressing tackling skills is Intermediate Tackles.  This includes the split-leg tackle, poke tackles, the side tackle, the shoulder tackle, the pull tackle, and interposing.

The third and final article addresses the Slide Tackle.

Soccer Coaching Tips:

  • Drill at different locations on the field.
  • Fatigue contributes to mis-timed tackles and an increase in fouls and injuries. Remember to also teach “what not to do” during tackling, including backing-off or withholding from what would clearly become an illegal or injurious action.  This includes not coming in from behind, or risking an Achilles tendon or an ankle injury to the opponent.  See:  Unwritten Rules.
  • Use the term “Tackle” as part of On-field Oral Communication.  This is used by the defensive coordinator or the goalkeeper to tell a defender on the ball that they either have support, or they can no-longer retreat, and that they should move in to try to take the ball away.
  • Players may develop a “tackling style,” a personal preference for block tackles or slide tackles, technical or hard. While this may be effective, players should not get locked-in to one technique at the expense of being able to perform all types of tackles correctly at the proper time.
  • Remind offensive or attacking players of the “Avoidance Move” as a technique to help protect themselves from poor or mis-timed tackles.
  • Tackling practice my be a topic for small-sided games, grid-work, or rondos.
  • In drills, be conscious of not putting together players with mismatched skill levels as a way to help avoid unnecessary contact or injuries.

© Copyright, John C. Harves