Why headed goals are a dy­ing art

The num­ber of for­wards who spe­cialise in the air con­tin­ues to de­cline, writes Alis­tair Tweedale Harry Kane last scored a top-level header over a year ago

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Football -

It is some­how still the case, 19 years into the 21st cen­tury, that not a sin­gle Premier League match will pass with­out a groan from the crowd when a player opts for a sim­ple ball back to a team-mate in a deeper po­si­tion rather than lump the ball into the box.

The idea that get­ting the ball near the goal as quickly as pos­si­ble is the best way to play is hard to shift in the English men­tal­ity. The play­ers them­selves, how­ever, ap­pear to be real­is­ing that the days of crosses and head­ers be­ing the Premier League’s bread and but­ter are long over.

A decade ago, al­most 50 crosses were be­ing at­tempted in the av­er­age Premier League game. That fig­ure has dropped con­sis­tently each sea­son since, and now sits at around 35 per game.

Re­move set-pieces from the equa­tion and it is the same story: 38.2 open-play crosses were put into the box in 2008-09, with that fig­ure plum­met­ing to 24.2 in 2018-19.

Foot­ball statis­ti­cians Opta de­fine a cross to in­clude most balls played from a wide area [from a few yards into the box right out to the touch­line] that is aimed into the mid­dle with the in­ten­tion of cre­at­ing a chance. Even al­low­ing for the many low balls across the face of goal that Pep Guardi­ola’s Manch­ester City at­tempt, crosses are in­creas­ingly un­com­mon in the top flight.

Some of the worst re­cent per­for­mances by the Premier League’s big­ger teams have been de­fined by a woe­fully in­ef­fec­tive fo­cus on cross­ing. The day then-manch­ester United man­ager David Moyes called “as bad as it gets” was when his side at­tempted a record 81 crosses in a home draw against Ful­ham in Fe­bru­ary 2014, with vis­it­ing de­fender Dan Burn liken­ing the tac­tics to “Con­fer­ence foot­ball”. Manch­ester City have at­tempted 35 crosses or more in four league games since the start of last sea­son, and have lost every time. The use of wide for­wards play­ing on their “un­nat­u­ral” flank with the aim of cut­ting in­side to­wards goal is cer­tainly play­ing its part. Un­der­dogs are in­creas­ingly try­ing to shut teams out with deep, nar­row de­fen­sive blocks, forc­ing op­po­nents to move the ball out wide hop­ing that they will re­sort to hope­ful cross­ing. That is the blue­print for up­set­ting the odds th­ese days.

There sim­ply are not as many top-level cen­tre­for­wards who spe­cialise in head­ers. Harry Kane last scored a Premier League header over a year ago. Olivier Giroud has lost his place at Chelsea. No Ar­se­nal cen­tre-for­ward has scored a headed goal in the league since De­cem­ber 2017 [in­ci­den­tally, that was Giroud], and Chris­tian Ben­teke – pre­vi­ously one of the finest ex­po­nents of the header – has stopped scor­ing en­tirely. The top scor­ers from head­ers this sea­son are Ever­ton’s Do­minic Calvert-lewin and Burn­ley’s Chris Wood, with two apiece. That has re­sulted in headed goals be­com­ing a dy­ing art, mak­ing up just 11.7 per cent of the goals that have been scored this sea­son, which is, by a dis­tance, the low­est rate in any sea­son in the Premier League era. Clearly, it is harder than ever to con­vert from crosses.

This does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that crosses them­selves are re­dun­dant – they just have to be bet­ter than they were be­fore. Liver­pool have two of the league’s best crossers in Trent Alexan­der-arnold and An­drew Robert­son, while City’s Kevin De Bruyne is ar­guably the best in the world. When any of those play­ers get into a po­si­tion to cross, de­fend­ers have to worry about more than beat­ing the striker to a header. If a cross dips and bends, strik­ers can get in be­hind to score. That is why Liver­pool and City lead the league this sea­son – along­side Ever­ton – with four headed goals each. Hit-and-hope crosses are now al­most im­pos­si­ble to score from, and more so­phis­ti­cated rou­tines are needed in open play as well as at dead balls. It has all led to a change in the English foot­ball diet, and while that may have pro­voked some rum­blings in cer­tain quar­ters, the game should be richer for it. and De Gea’s po­ten­tial ab­sence would be another headache for Sol­sk­jaer and ne­ces­si­tate Ser­gio Romero start­ing on Sun­day.

There was bet­ter news on Mar­tial, who re­sumed full train­ing this week af­ter a thigh in­jury and, bar­ring any set­backs, Sol­sk­jaer hopes to have the France striker fit to lead the line against Liver­pool.

Paul Pogba will be ex­am­ined this week as United’s med­i­cal staff as­sess his re­cov­ery from an an­kle in­jury, although the Liver­pool game could come too soon.

Wan-bis­saka and Lin­de­lof, who missed the 1-0 de­feat by New­cas­tle with ton­sil­li­tis and a lower back prob­lem re­spec­tively, should be avail­able an d Shaw is push­ing to be fit af­ter a ham­string in­jury, as is Jesse Lin­gard.

Aerial bat­tle: Harry Kane chal­lenges James Ward-prowse for a header in Spurs’ re­cent 2-1 vic­tory against Southamp­ton

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