Fine arts of the master blaster

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The Independent Online
WHEN people talk about the precious gift of being able to score goals from midfield, it's usually the well-timed run into the penalty area that they have in mind - the ability, as Bryan Robson had, to hover on the fringes, arrive late, and strike from close range while defenders are worrying about the forwards.

But in David Beckham's case, goals from midfield mean exactly that - he's still in midfield when he scores them. There's no stealing space on the edge of the six-yard box. Give him room outside the area, and that's where he'll pot the shot from.

With the season barely past halfway, Beckham has already scored 10 goals for Manchester United, quite a return from a player whose primary duty is supplier and creator. Even more remarkable is that eight of them have been scored from 20 yards or more - the result of a combination of skill and power that makes Beckham as feared and gifted a long-range striker of the ball as anyone around today.

It would be harder to know where to begin with this plethora of breathtaking goals were it not for Beckham's halfway line effort against Wimbledon on the opening day of the season - a moment of inspiration so extraordinary that it has to be put in a category all its own. More relevant, in a way, is the succession of chips, torpedo blasts, curling free-kicks and swerving drives which have followed. If we ignore the Wimbledon goal and the two Beckham has scored from inside the area - against Rapid Vienna and Fenerbahce in the European Champions' League - it still leaves seven sensational 20- to 25-yard strikes:

Derby (away): Beckham runs from Derby's half, the defence backs off, and from 25 yards the ball sails into the top left-hand corner. United draw 1-1.

Liverpool (home): An instant low strike from the penalty-box arc, the ball arrowing in via the left-hand post. United win 1-0.

Southampton (a): A free-kick from 20 yards, left of centre, over the wall and curling into the top left-hand corner. But it's overshadowed by the result - 6-3 to Southampton.

West Ham (a): A masterful chip over Ludek Miklosko, one of the bigger goalkeepers, from a central position just outside the area. United draw 2-2.

Nottingham Forest (a): There's a party-piece quality to this sumptuous right-to-left chip, the opening goal in a 4-0 win.

Tottenham Hotspur (h): A free-kick similar to his goal against Southampton. United win the FA Cup tie 2-0.

Tottenham Hotspur (a): Last Sunday's effort is like the Derby goal in that Beckham is given space to move forward before shooting from 25 yards, only this time the ball swerves left to right into the top corner. United win 2-1.

So what's the secret? Alex Ferguson has a simple explanation: "Practice, practice, practice. He's been practising all his life." Steve Bruce, the former United captain, watched Beckham stay behind after training many times and pepper the goal from distance. "When he was in the youth team they all had ability, but we always felt he had a bit more," Bruce said. "He's got unbelievable technique."

Beckham is by no means powerfully built. He may be 6ft, but he weighs little over 11 stone, so timing is everything. Malcolm Allison, whose book Soccer for Thinkers includes a study of shooting technique, likens Beckham to Colin Bell, the cultured England midfielder whom Allison managed at Manchester City in the early Seventies. "You'd be surprised how few players really know how to shoot correctly," Allison said. "Beckham is a tremendous striker of the ball. He knows exactly where to hit it."

Comparisons with Bobby Charlton are slightly wide of the mark, as it were. Charlton's long-range shots - most memorably against Mexico in the 1966 World Cup - hardly deviated in flight, but because of the type of ball then in use, few players' did. Beckham uses the advantages of the latest technology to bend shots in either direction. The synthetic modern ball, though no lighter than the leather one of an earlier generation, travels faster and moves in the air more readily. The boots are important too. Beckham's have fins and jets on the upper, of which the claims made by Adidas - that they help impart swerve - should perhaps not be so readily dismissed as hype.

It is still what Beckham does with them that counts - the way the instep curls round the righthand side of the ball for right-to-left movement, and, to create the opposite effect, the outside off his foot almost jams down into the ball in a right-to-left slicing action, with his non-kicking left leg planted a long way forward.

There's another side - the defender's - to every goal, of course. Alan Hansen despaired of the way Derby invited Beckham to shoot by backing off. But Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's new director of coaching, believes the change in the offside law makes defenders reluctant to come out and leave themselves vulnerable to overlapping runs.

"There's no doubt that the quality of shooting from distance has improved enormously," Wilkinson said. "Players have recognised the potential for goals there. Imitation is a great educator, and with the close-ups you get on television now kids have grown up seeing what can be done." They are all watching Beckham, that's for sure.

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