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
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