By Paul Gardner
Some rather random thoughts after watching three recent English Premier League games: Aston Villa 1, Reading 0; Sunderland 0, Queens Park Rangers 0; and Chelsea 0, Manchester City 0.
I missed the first 20 minutes of the Sunderland game, so we’re talking about something like 4 hours of soccer. Four hours -- and one goal. From a set play. That’s the most obvious observation -- one that would seem to imply a great deal of defensive play. But that was not the case. None of the six teams involved played within a defensive formation, none of them relied on a packed defense with the occasional counterattack.
That is not surprising. It is very rarely that English teams employ out-and-out defensive tactics. The fans, we are told, would not put up with it. That may be the case. There has always been a sense of impatience built into the English game, a desire to “get on with it,” to keep the action going. A commendable approach, no doubt, though its most obvious manifestation is the long-ball game, which boils down to a desire to get the ball into the opposing goalmouth as quickly as possible, and the hell with all that midfield passing, a la Barcelona, which merely delays matters.
There was plenty of long ball stuff in two of these games -- to be expected, really, as Reading, Sunderland, QPR and Aston Villa are all teams struggling to get out of the bottom reaches of the league standings.
There was much less evidence of Route 1 in the Chelsea-Manchester City game. That seems logical enough -- these are two of the most expensively assembled teams in the world, brimming with world-class talent, so we should surely expect something more sophisticated than the crudities of the long-ball game. This should have been easily the best game of the trio.
So much for logic, which never seems to work too well in soccer. The Chelsea-Man City game was the worst of the three. Or so it seemed to me. The higher the expectations the greater the disappointment when they’re not met -- yes, yes, but even allowing for that, this was a desperately poor game.
I haven’t bothered to look up the official stats for the game -- these are my impressions that I’m going with here -- but I recall only one save made by the ManCity goalkeeper Joe Hart. At the other end, Petr Cech made two crucial saves -- about which more in a moment.
I did see the stats for the Villa-Reading game, which told me that there were 8 shots on goal -- a pretty measly total, and two more than I recorded. Brad Guzan, Villa’s American keeper made two crucial saves ... more on them in a moment.
QPR’s keeper Rob Green, fondly remembered by American fans for his generous 2010 World Cup gaffe, contributed the only spectacular save. In the same game, Sunderland’s keeper Simon Mignolet made two important saves -- there’s more to say about them.
Not too much goalkeeper action then. Partly that was down to generally poor shooting. In the Villa-Reading game, the stats showed 30 shots -- of which only 8 were on target. Was it always like this? I mean, that’s a pretty poor ratio -- three shots missing the mark for every one on goal. And the ones on goal were mostly feeble efforts. Did we always yell in derision (at their guys) or simply shrug things off (our guys) when a shot sailed yards wide or over the bar? Or did we boo? I doubt we booed that much back when the players were paid peanuts. But nowadays ... is there any reason for a forgiving attitude to players who make millions? Really, they should be doing better.
And so should the goalkeepers. Even though they are, to some extent, trapped in one of the game’s more fatuous anachronisms, you would hope that some of them would seek a way out. But they don’t. They just keep on doing the same old thing that they’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. It is unquestionably the sport’s most brainless activity -- the long goal kick, or clearance, or punt. The ball whacked hard and high into the heavens, the goalkeeper not that interested in what happens when it comes back to earth.
Remember the lines in Tom Lehrer’s wonderful song about the master German rocket builder, Werner von Braun?
Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department, says Werner von Braun.
So here are my highly unofficial stats on what is laughably called “goalkeeper distribution” in these three games. There were 79 such “distributions”, which I can divide into three categories -- long kicks (64), short kicks (7), throws (including roll outs) (8).
The throws were always direct to a teammate. The short kicks were clearly aimed at a specific teammate. But the long kicks were always just plain dumb thumps, making sure the ball traveled as high and as far as possible. I can tell you -- and this part of my observations I swear by -- that none of those 64 “distributions” led to anything at all. Nothing constructive, that is. Most of them did lead to short episodes of ugly soccer as players fought to control the ball -- and fought is the correct word.
One observation on that: why is it that so few European goalkeepers (virtually none of them, in fact) use a side-volley instead of a punt? South Americans do use it -- a swifter, lower-trajectory ball that can be aimed at a teammate, and does have a reasonable chance of finding him. Why do the Europeans stick to a 100-year-old practice that has nothing whatever to recommend it? Why don’t soccer’s rule-makers step in? Does anyone ever actually think about the stupidity and the ugliness of what the goalkeepers are doing?
I suppose the answer must be no. I have only one goalkeeper instruction book on my shelves. It tells me that “the punt often results in a 50-50 ball.” Nonsense. The punt invariably results in a contested ball. Imagine a fullback who, every time he gets the ball, merely whacks it high and far down the field, any old where will do. Who cares where it comes down ...? How long would it be before his coach benched him? Yet goalkeepers are allowed -- expected, really, it’s part of a hallowed tradition by now -- to make these brainless plays regularly. And so they do.
Still with goalkeepers, this time something that does seem -- to me -- to be changing. I have had a feeling for several years now that goalkeepers are using their feet more. I don’t mean to play the ball, to control back passes or even dribble or make fancy plays -- they are generally quite hopeless at that, whatever they may claim. I mean to make saves. Big saves.
Those saves I mentioned earlier -- two each for Cech, Guzan and Mignolet -- were all crucial saves. And they were all made with the feet or legs. No hands involved at all. I can see a strong reason -- avoiding injury -- why it makes a lot of sense for a keeper to go for the ball feet first rather than diving in head first, or hands first.
But do they do it more often these days? Maybe one of the many goalkeeper coaching gurus (there are legions of those -- goalkeeper is the most coach-intensive position in soccer) has an opinion and some reasoning to offer on this?