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Why so many headers at Euro 2012?

The first 12 games of Euro 2012 provided 33 goals as well as plenty of entertainment. The stand-out statistic at that stage is the volume of headed goals: at almost 33% that is well above the typical major championship average. So why is this happening? Has the average height of attacking players increased?! Have defences shrunk?! I believe there are several reasons, and aim to explain their role in this phenomenon…

  1. The ball
  2. Importance of set pieces
  3. Poor defending?
  4. The role of wingers and full backs

Firstly, it has been refreshing to watch a major UEFA tournament not tainted by talk of ‘the ball’. After the farce that was the ‘Jabulani’ at the last World Cup, adidas have created a football that does exactly what it should and not fly away into the air. Yes, the ball moves a little in the air when it is struck with venom; but nearly all footballs have done (and will) move when hit at such velocity – we don’t play with 1950s leather anymore. This has contributed significantly to the second factor identified: set pieces.

The quality of set pieces has improved vastly in comparison to previous tournaments. Although there hasn’t been a direct free kick curled in the top corner or lashed past a wall, corners and free kicks from wide areas have provided several goals and scoring opportunities. As alluded to above, the ball is playing a key role as the players are getting the expected reaction from it. More importantly, teams are recognising just how valuable set pieces are in the modern game. I dare to say that some sides would rather have a free kick out wide that can be swung in to the box, rather than on the edge of the area with a 6-man wall to avoid. The inability of defences to deal with the ‘in-swinger’ in particular has been a feature of league football for the last few seasons, and was epitomised this week by Arshavin’s wicked curler that found Dzagoev’s flick against a poorly organised Polish defence. Such free kicks provide the perennial problem for the goalkeeper of staying on his line, or attempting to punch/catch; a slight touch can make either decision look rather daft. A similar goal was scored by St. Ledger for an Irish side who appear over-reliant on the set piece in their game-plan.

Most surprisingly, there have been many headers from open play. These goals have not been scored by ’giants’ such as Crouch, Koller or Zigic, but players like Shevchenko and Mandzukic who are slightly over 6 foot. Even Mario Gomez – whose awesome header claimed 3 points against Portugal – is only 6′ 2″. So should the blame be laid at the door of modern defenders? Are they incapable of coping with even a limited aerial threat? I would suggest not, although I would argue that their movement – or ability to respond to forward movement – has been suspect at times. Mellberg was a prime example earlier in the week. A player who has made a career from being an old-fashioned ball-winning central defender, embarrassingly beaten to a cross by Shevchenko. As a central defender myself, I would like to deflect some attention to the full backs who are allowing the crosses in – and in some cases making the crosses.

As teams strive to avoid defeat, they inevitably attempt to flood the centre of the pitch, often by employing holding midfielders (Netherlands) or by essentially playing 3 central midfielders (Sweden). While this does not mean that chances can not be created through the middle – as the Italy-Spain game proved as well as Milner’s agonising miss – it tends to shift the influence of attacks out wide. Wingers have thus proved to be key in creating chances, and I believe Nani and Konoplyanka have looked consistently threatening as well as providing good final balls. Full backs have also benefited from this situation – the modern-day full-back has more attacking responsibilities in some sides, providing overlaps and regular width in addition to or instead of the wide men. The likes of Selassie, Debuchy and Coentrao have rampaged down their respective wings, and while questions have to be asked about their defensive aptitude, they have regularly provided attacking threat.

By attacking down the wing, teams are obviously going to create more crossing opportunities, and thus more headed goals. To support this argument, Coentrao, Selassie and Nani have all provided assists for goals that weren’t headers! So the conclusion would appear clear for teams trying to win this tournament – get down the line! I believe even Spain are susceptible to play from this direction – Alba is far better going forward and Arbeloa can be decidedly average.

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