Football has undergone something of a revolution in the past few decades in many ways like tactics, diet and players themselves on the pitch. Cristiano Ronaldo perhaps epitomises this in some aspects; his extraordinary free-kicks, willingness to float from one wing to another, dribbling ability and of course not forgetting his unbelievable goal return hitherto this season are all positive examples.
The 2007-8 Premiership season seems more than ever to have highlighted the beauty of possessing set-play specialists and players who can benefit from them. The old cliché that goalkeepers, for instance David James in recent times — England aside, can save around 12 points a season can surely be supplemented to for those teams who put in the practice on the training ground and regularly reap the dividends in tight games in a climate when every place in the league can bring around £500,000, or the loss of major revenue in the event of relegation. Of course, they are not responsible for a club like, for instance Derby County, staying up, but they can make a difference to others.
When discussing this topic in general inside or outside of the EPL, one might primarily think of free-kick takers such as Jose Luis Chilavert – the eccentric Paraguayan shot-stopper who made dead-ball conversions his trademark – or David Beckham, who needs no introduction after delivering countless majestic efforts from outside the box and assists galore from corners during his career. Of course, critics of Beckham suggest that he is unable to beat a man on the flank but nobody can deny his contribution to highlighting the prominence of practicing free-kicks in the modern game. With Beckham departing the Premiership in 2003 for Real Madrid, the fans of today would more likely credit Steven Gerrard or Ronaldo, the latter whose unique execution of this art regularly leaves pundits drooling, as being the major exponents. Laurent Robert was one name in between the two eras who carried the torch for Newcastle, but I recall one particular delivery when he played for Portsmouth at the City of Manchester Stadium in 2005 for John Viafara that was like a dream; the Colombian needed only the faintest of contact with the ball to beat David James and put Portsmouth in front. They lost that game thanks to Andy Cole and Claudio Reyna, but not much went right for the club under Alain Perrin, after all.
However, while stars such as those referred to above make invaluable contributions to for their respective Merseyside and Manchester clubs, it seems to be that the vast majority of clubs in the Premiership have players who can make things happen in these types of situations.
Writing as a City fan, this may have been more notable recently now that Joey Barton has departed for pastures new — his insistence on taking what felt like 95% of City’s fruitless set-pieces in 2006-7 with him — and seeing Elano earlier in the season bringing a hint of this value to the Citizens. That said, the Brazilian hasn’t contributed too much to this in recent months, but it can be little things and not necessarily free-kicks that are alluded to when discussing this. It can be a real joy to see, for instance, defenders pouring into the box for corner-kicks and something come of them.
As I write this, I am thinking of two instances; the first of which was Nedum Onouha firmly dispatching a header past Paul Robinson to wrap up 3 points in the clash with Tottenham recently, and in the 2006-7 campaign 3 points being the difference when City entertained Middlesbrough at Eastlands. The latter arrived courtesy of Barton’s corner finding Richard Dunne near the penalty spot; the affable Irishman wasted no time in directing a bullet header into the top-corner of Mark Schwarzer’s goal, securing what would ultimately be the 3 points.
Occasions with City profiting from corners like this can be, sadly, all too rare, which was all the more frustrating last term when they couldn’t score from open play with any regularity. Perhaps that’s why, to this author, it seems more notable that other clubs possess such traits. The examples above display the benefits for clubs, not just having the players who can deliver quality crosses and shots, but also the players who can get on the end of them.
It’s not necessarily about the big-names such as the two mentioned earlier, Lampard, Ballack, Van Persie and Fabregas. Teams like Everton and Aston Villa seem to benefit quite frequently. It’s no secret that Joleon Lescott and Tim Cahill have enjoyed great goalscoring campaigns, but players such as John Carew and Martin Laursen are regularly found from pinpoint Ashley Young crosses. Blackburn are another that spring to mind, with David Bentley and Morten Gamst Pedersen the players who can deliver while Roque Santa Cruz and Cristopher Samba attempt to create havoc. Nicky Shorey of Reading is a left-back capable of devastating accuracy as witnessed in their recent 2-1 triumph over Birmingham. The part such a facet plays in securing 3 points at the bottom end of Europe’s most physical league cannot be overstated.
Jamie O’Hara of Spurs also appears one likely to cause a few Premiership defences problems in the future, if his recent delivery for Darren Bent’s ‘illegal’ equaliser in that game at Eastlands recently is anything to go by. Martin Jol would surely have noticed Gareth Bale’s set-piece accomplishments at Southampton before splashing out to take the Welshman to White Hart Lane. Who could ignore the impact of Jimmy Bullard’s injury for Fulham when thinking about this aspect of the game? Upon his return he curled a terrific free-kick over the Aston Villa wall a few weeks ago and wrapped up 3 points for the struggling Cottagers.
With all of the above in mind, however, the discussion on the importance of set-plays needn’t always be an offensive one. It’s probably not as significant given the eventual results and Mascherano-gate, but did anybody else notice how Liverpool had nobody on the posts for Manchester United’s second? Even had Reina stayed on his line, it was a free header for Ronaldo and it would have been like a tracer bullet to save from 6 yards at any rate.
Chelsea were guilty of similar neglect against Arsenal; Bacary Sagna’s stooping effort beat Carlo Cudicini too easily. Perhaps the keeper would take some of the blame in this situation, but a man on the near post would have prevented it anyway. The irony wasn’t lost on this author when Martin Petrov, usually such a chaotic attacking threat, blocked a Bolton effort on the post as the 0-0 stalemate went deep into injury-time.
For one usually quite critical of the Blues from set-pieces, credit must go to them for employing this tactic and preventing Wanderers obtaining a massive 3 points!