Heads-up Stoke buck European trend

Uefa stats reveal the archetypal centre-forward is dying out – except in the Potteries

Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home." The line may belong to Arsène Wenger but few would want to get into an argument about aesthetics with Pep Guardiola, the coach of Barcelona. The Catalans produced another goal of bewitching beauty in the Champions' League this week when two of Barcelona's little maestros, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, bounced the ball off each other with pair of one-twos before the former struck his team's opening goal against Viktoria Plzen.

Click HERE to view graphic (125k jpg)

One day later Stoke achieved their own European triumph by rather different means against Maccabi Tel-Aviv. It was a victory that underlined their own unique threat to continental opposition. The first long throw of the night caused panic and led to the opening corner from which Kenwyne Jones scored.

Two goals, two contrasting methods, and both capable of leaving defenders like rabbits in headlights. But it is Stoke, visitors today to Arsenal, our very own Barcelona-lite, who are quite evidently bucking the trend in top-level European football. This view is endorsed by Andy Roxburgh, technical director of Uefa, whose report into last season's Champions' League shows the leading clubs following the Barcelona model and suggests that the old-fashioned target man, like Stoke's Peter Crouch, has become an endangered species.

"Twenty years ago, especially in the UK, you would get a lot of crosses from the wings and you would get the classic Alan Shearer-type finishing," says Roxburgh, speaking from Uefa's headquarters in Nyon. "That seems to be less the case globally. For example, in our U19 European Championship finals summer, the number of headed goals in the tournament was zero."

Instead, he explains, the preferred attacking approach "is more about the fast, short passing game, it is more about combinations. It is less about the traditional winger and high crosses into the box. "

One striking statistic that supports his analysis is the number of headed goals by strikers in last season's Champions' League. Of the combined 103 goals scored by the 19 players who posted three goals or more, just three were headers – from Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka, Karim Benzema of Real Madrid and Crouch for Tottenham.

Overall there were 14 different kinds of goal struck from open play, according to the 2010-11 technical report. Of the total of 355 goals, the highest number, 82, came from passes through or over, the defence. Next were crosses from the wing (57) though the prevalence is for low, driven centres rather than the kind that Matthew Etherington delivers to Stoke's front men. "It is far more about players flooding forward so they are arriving in the box late. So a lot of delivery from the wider areas is driven or cut back," Roxburgh explains.

Another noted trend is for mobile front players in a 4-2-3-1 formation, often featuring "wrong-footed" wide players. Roxburgh talks about the "Messi syndrome" where teams favour "playing left-footed players on the right wing, or right-footed players on the left wing". The consequence is fewer wingers getting to the byline. "The tendency is either to come in with the ball, rather than go down the line and cross it, or they run in off the ball because it is a natural instinct to come in on their good foot."

In Tottenham's case they enjoyed success last season with "mobility and fast combination play and driven crosses" yet they also benefited from the aerial threat that Crouch brings, Roxburgh observes, notably his knock-downs from diagonal balls.

It has been a consistent thread through his career that the 6ft 7in England striker has severely troubled foreign opponents less accustomed to dealing with such an aerial threat. Crouch has a remarkable record of 24 goals in 42 appearances for England and his ratio of 24 goals in 53 appearances in European club football – or a goal every 2.2 games – is considerably higher than his ratio of 4.2 in the Premier League where he has 63 from 265 appearances.

"I've found throughout my career that I've done quite well playing in Europe and for England, as the defenders aren't so used to dealing with high balls and crosses into the box," says Crouch. You could say the same of Stoke. It took on average 46 corners to score a goal in Europe last term; Stoke have found the net from flag-kicks in successive home wins over Besiktas and Maccabi.

Stoke have won six of seven matches in their first European campaign since 1974-75. Roxburgh, who as Scotland manger gave Duncan Ferguson his debut, accepts it is effective. "Teams from abroad know the basics of what they are doing but they are not used to it. [Stoke] are doing very well, you use the strengths you've got."

Arsenal v Stoke kicks off at 1.30pm today

Short sharp shots

No longer a target

Only 10 "target strikers" featured among the 19 players who scored more than three goals in last season's Champions League. Only three of the combined 103 goals scored by that number were headers.

Good little 'un or good big 'un

The 11 players to score 13 goals or more in the Premier League last season were of varying stature but included only one old fashioned big target man, Andy Carroll. The others were: Berbatov, Tevez, Van Persie, Bent, Odemwingie, Campbell, Hernandez, Kuyt, Malouda, Van der Vaart.

How mobile Messi downed United

The 5ft 7in Messi has been the Champions' League's top scorer for the past three seasons. "When he plays as the main striker he drops off into the midfield so that either wide players or midfield players fill the space that is left," says Andy Roxburgh, the Uefa technical director. "In the Champions' League final because of what he did, the centre-backs had no reference point, they found it very difficult to know how far to come with him, whether to let him go, and then when he did pick up the ball he was running at them with pace."

Stoke turn the corner

With Peter Crouch to the fore, Stoke have been bucking another trend with success from corners. In the Champions' League a goal is scored every 46 corners. "The element of surprise has almost been removed because of spying," says Roxburgh. Stoke have managed two goals from corners in their last two Europa League matches.

Simon Hart

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