The tall tale of Peter Crouch’s aerial abilities
Peter Crouch is a strange footballer in many ways.
Chiefly, he simply looks very strange. His gangly nature makes him stick out like a sore thumb – he looks awkward when merely running onto the pitch, and at a time when a club like Barcelona are packing their side with quick, mobile, 5′7 players upfront, with other clubs around Europe seeking to move in that direction, the sight of 6′7 Crouch battling with defenders seems somewhat bizarre.
Of course, Crouch is a good footballer. His first touch is generally good, he’s an intelligent player in terms of the positions he takes up when the ball is wide, and on his day he can stroke a ball into the net with wonderful technique. Sometimes he is unplayable – his “perfect” hattrick for Liverpool against Arsenal springs to mind as an example of his all-round footballing ability.
The initial feeling that he has ‘good feet for a big man’ has been exaggerated, to the point that he is seen as uncomfortable in the air. Paul Hayward’s article for the Guardian immediately after the England game focussed upon the Tottenham striker, saying:
“Among the many insults thrown at Crouch is the belief that a pass is best directed at his head. This casts him as a giant fetching balls out of the sky when the reality is that he has spent most of his working life trying to acquire dexterity on the ground. In his own terms, Capello’s fourth-choice striker is a carpet player who would prefer balls to be aimed into his feet…(Capello’s) thinking was that two crossers and dribblers were needed to maintain a supply of balls into the box. This reinforces a misconception about (Jermain) Defoe’s Tottenham Hotspur team-mate. If he were Alan Shearer on stilts you might justify a “direct” approach…for reasons to do with human mechanics, Crouch frequently looks ungainly in his efforts to reach a moving ball…Crouch’s supposed great strength is actually his primary weakness. In the air he seldom punches his weight.”
Especially considering Crouch’s non-impact on Tuesday night, this is a far from controversial claim. Indeed, it seems to be the prevailing attitude. The Two Footed Tackle blog featured a post yesterday that put forward a reasonably similar argument, in response to Harry Redknapp’s column in The Sun. That post said:
“For me, Crouch is far better with the ball played to his feet and I’ve always found his aerial ability somewhat disappointing.”
Neither of these writers are merely repeating the cliche that Crouch has “good feet for a big man”, but that’s the jist. Whilst Crouch does have “good feet” (most international footballers do), he is very dangerous in the air.
Let’s take a look at some statistics from his Premier League career. In MyFootballFacts’ tremendous list of the 100 top goalscorers in Premier League history (correct to the end of last season), Crouch is in 56th place, with 56 goals. We are also given a breakdown of how the goals are scored. Crouch has scored 27 of his 56 goals with his head, that’s 48.2%.
This figure is reasonably interesting on its own, but even more so when we rank those 100 top goalscorers by proportion of goals scored with their head. Here, unbelievably for a player whose heading is supposedly ‘his primary weakness’, Crouch is in third position.
In the history of the Premier League, only Tim Cahill (mentioned here) on 55.6% and Duncan Ferguson on 51.5% are ahead of Crouch. To give more context, here are the records of other English target men – Les Ferdinand is on 28%, Kevin Campbell is on 26%, James Beattie is on 24%, Chris Sutton is on 19%. Only Dion Dublin, on 40%, comes close to rivalling Crouch here.
Furthermore, Crouch’s recent goalscoring record is littered with important headers. He scored away at Werder Bremen with his head. In the qualification game against Young Boys, he scored twice with his head. His crucial winner last season in the “Champions League playoff” against Manchester City was with his head.
In fact, seven of his last eight Tottenham goals were scored with his head. The other was a penalty, so seven from seven in open play. Between those we find an England goal in a pre-World Cup friendly against Mexico, which was put in with his hand after he’d caused initial problems with his head. His most important goal for his national side – against Trinidad and Tobago in the 2006 World Cup, was scored with his head.
Frankly, he is very dangerous in the air. That’s not to say he’s necessarily a superb header of the ball – pure heading technique has no relation to height – Michael Owen, Romario and the aforementioned Cahill were/are all excellent in the air despite being relatively small. Les Ferdinand, amazingly, was only 5′11. But Crouch’s immediate head start makes him a very difficult player to deal with.
And of course, this only deals with goals. Crouch’s aerial dominance can be used to good effect as a provider. In his most recent game at club level, he provided two assists, both from knock-downs in the air, both for Rafael van der Vaart to score:
England’s use of inverted wingers on Tuesday night was particularly frustrating because it meant the wide players came inside, rather than getting down the line, taking advantage of the weaknesses of the two Montenegrin full-backs, and swinging crosses in towards Crouch. At Tottenham recently, he has thrived on two natural wingers – Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon – providing a traditional supply from wide areas.
This is not necessarily a justification of Fabio Capello’s choice of Crouch, either in terms of his simple selection for the first team, or in the specific way he is used. Capello has always been a fan of a ‘big man’ upfront. His belief in Emile Heskey stemmed from a game eight years ago, in which Heskey’s classic hold-up play caused Capello’s Roma side all sorts of problems, in a 2-0 win for Liverpool on the night Gerard Houllier made a return to Anfield after his heart problems.
That same Roma side itself displayed Capello’s preference for a ‘big man’ - Vincenzo Montella was 5′7 and scored a goal every other game under Capello, Marco Delvecchio was 6′1 and scored something more like one in ten. Yet for most of Capello’s time, he favoured Delvecchio.
Regardless, Crouch seems to have acquired a reputation as some kind of no-hoper in the air – when all the evidence suggests he constantly causes sides problems in this respect. It seems strange that we’re so quick to dismiss the idea that a tall player might be a danger with his head, as if we’re so keen to move away from the classic, outdated “English” approach that has brought such little success. But even the World Champions Spain – famed for their beautiful one-touch football – aren’t afraid of having a ‘big man’ in Fernando Llorente to bring on to cause a nuisance in the air.
There’s nothing wrong with using Crouch like that, for that is where he is best. Indeed, you might say that he has a good head for a big man.