To the well-informed football fan, stats have never been more on trend. I could eavesdrop any number of pre-match conversations and I’m certain I’ll hear supporters chewing the fat over Player X’s assist count, Player Y’s top-notch pass accuracy, or Player Z’s prowess when it comes to interceptions. Speed is another hot topic. Rarely does a debate fail to mention the term ‘pace’ within at least five minutes. We love to wax lyrical about that attribute.
I’ll tell you what barely gets a mention, though. Heading.
It’s surely the modern game’s most criminally under-appreciated skill.
With a bit of luck Rudy Gestede’s exploits this season will help to alter perceptions. The former Blackburn Rovers striker’s £6million move to Aston Villa on July 31 didn’t create much of a fanfare, but the Benin international is one of football’s finest exponents of aerial prowess.
No one won more headers than six foot four Gestede in the Championship last term, and the excellent @OptaJoe tipped us off on the day he signed with a great stat. (below)
The moment I saw it I sensed Tim Sherwood might have pulled off a really astute signing, and his bullet header against Bournemouth on Saturday instantly outlined the threat he’ll pose opposition sides this term
He could be one of the signings of the season because young defenders just aren’t as accustomed to dealing with his type of threat as they used to be.
When I was a pro I remember guys like Tony Adams, Steve Bould, David O’Leary and Martin Keown spending a few minutes after each training session, leaping eight or nine feet into the air to head a ball that was connected to a rope hanging from a post stuck in the ground at Arsenal’s London Colney.
It was so high that, at five feet nine and three quarter inches I’d be lucky to graze it, but those centre-halves would thump through the ball Swingball-style, sending the rope and ball spiraling all over the place.
Timing their headers was vital, as they knew they’d have to outjump big men in the box on a Saturday.
Nowadays with more passes encouraged and fewer crosses flung into the penalty area (on average nine less per match than a decade ago) containing target men isn’t an everyday occurrence for central defenders. To many managers, their ‘quality on the ball’ is a more important trait.
This is where Gestede, and other physical front men can make hay this season.
So many current centre-backs aren’t battle-hardened, or comfortable dealing with aerial balls. When a cross is delivered at the right speed and height I see them floundering all of the time.
Louis van Gaal knew he could profit last season, so he built Manchester United’s approach around lofted balls aimed towards the head of Marouane Fellaini. He wants to be more refined this term, but at critical times it did pay off.
Was it a fluke that EIGHT majestic headers (or seven plus a shoulder if we’re nitpicking) whistled into the back of the net across the opening weekend of the Premier League season?
Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Cheikhou Kouyate, Graziano Pelle, Shane Long, Georginio Wijnaldum, Vincent Kompany and Gestede all out maneuvered their markers to score, highlighting the fragilities I’ve discussed.
Okay they aren’t as difficult to execute, or as pretty as a Rabona, a nutmeg, or a cheeky chip, but headers were responsible for over a quarter of last weekend’s Premier League goals. It’s a skill that warrants much more attention than it gets.
Could this be the season that sees big men and towering headers come back into vogue? As long as it doesn’t come at the expense of attractive football, I genuinely hope so.
If defenders don’t wise up to the threat, it means we’ll see a lot more goals.
Read more from Adrian Clarke