Head Over Heels

Goal’s coming. Wes Morgan’s 10cm height advantage didn’t compensate for his bad timing.

It’s been definitely a weekend of headers. Alexandre Lacazette started it by nodding in Elneny’s cross inside just 2 minutes of the Leicester game and, from then on, the aerial spoils of only got bigger, bigger and bigger.

For Premier League, this is nothing new. Before we’ve reached the current era of slick passing and one-touch football, the forwards with a gift for reaching the floating crosses have been terrorizing the league. In the golden days of Newcastle United, the likes of Les Ferdinand (43 headed EPL goals), and later, Duncan Ferguson (35) would perfectly complement legendary Alan Sheaer (46). Around the same time, Manchester United assembled their own colony of prolific target men with Andy Cole (29), Teddy Sheringham (35) and Dwight Yorke (38). And, apart from those forwards, there were also: Tim Cahill, Emile Heskey, Dimitar Berbatov, Tore Andre Flo, James Beattie, John Hartson, Dion Dublin, Kevin Davies, Niall Quinn…

Today, it’s a bit different. The last classic target-men remaining in the EPL are: Andy Carroll (West Ham) and Peter Crouch (Stoke). Both ex-Liverpool forwards are already considered the seasoned veterans – but neither of them has a guaranteed first-eleven spot anymore. Permanently injured Big Andy and 36-yo Crouchy are losing more and more ground to the new wave of aerial juggernauts from abroad. In fact, despite being around only for a limited amount of time, three of those foreigners have already surpassed them:

As underappreciated as he might be, Olivier Giroud not only possesses one of the best goal-per-minutes ratio in the EPL history, but also leads the headed goals chart ahead of such monsters as Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku. The Frenchman’s superiority couldn’t even be undone by his weaker and weaker position as Arsenal’s starter; although he hasn’t been the first player on Wenger’s team sheet for at least a year, he pretty much delivers goals whenever he gets a chance to do so. Friday winner against Leicester was a perfect example of that – and yet, it still might not be enough to earn him more starts…

Benteke and Lukaku do not share a half of Giroud’s dilemmas. Those ex-Liverpool inhabitants are nailed-in nailed-in starters for Crystal Palace and Manchester United respectively, costing those two teams a combined amount of £107 million. This weekend, the younger of those two powered an unstoppable header past Joe Hart, immediately paying off a chunk of his astonishing transfer fee. A day before that, his Londonese colleague was at his element, winning 9 aerial duels against Huddersfield – yet, Palace embarrassed 25 thousand of their fans at Selhurst Park, losing the game 0-3.

At the same time, debutante Steve Mounié demonstrated how it’s done.

Behind the backs of Carroll and Crouch, there are Michail Antonio and Gareth McAuley. The Englishman, linked with Chelsea this summer, has damaged his hamstring in April and could not improve his record since. Him and Carroll not playing at Old Trafford have forced West Ham to look for other ways through than just crossing it into the box. The Hammers have utterly failed to find one – in the end, Javier Hernández, the new, 5-foot-7-inch forward in the Claret shirt, has barely touched the ball. With their towering players not present and new playstyle yet to be found, Slaven Bilić’s lads are now at a huge risk of having another awful season.

The veteran McAuley has more reasons to be optimistic. First, the thigh problem he picked up on an international duty with Northern Ireland should only keep him sidelined for two more weeks. Second, despite his absence, West Brom have yet again displayed their traditional tenacity and beat Bournemouth 1-0. Somehow, despite it’s experimental nature, Baggies defence has managed to hold and it’s brand new member, Egyptian Ahmed Hegazi replaced his 11-years older teammate as an aerial threat, celebrating his Premier League debut by scoring a match-winner from Chris Brunt’s free-kick delivery.

Speaking of deliveries: it’s the quality of those, that largely determined the shape of the chart above. With dead-ball experts like Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil and Granit Xhaka, Arsenal have been the only side to consistently score 10 or more headed goals during the last five Premier League seasons. WBA, though just as efficient overall, had a serious hiccup four years ago – but that was during the rocky 2013/14 season, when they’d barely survive the drop and yet to employ set-piece mastermind in Tony Pulis. As it stands, if it wasn’t for Giroud’s latest goal, Baggies and Gunners would be tied at 64 headers each.

West Ham’s spell of aerial success in the past two years has been heavily dependent on the presence of Dimitri Payet. The Frenchman, now condemned to infamy by the Londoners, used to drastically improve their ability to score from free-kick and corner crosses. To a degree, his January departure back to Marseille has been partially compensated by the abilities of Manuel Lanzini and Mark Noble – but only this campaign will prove how much the team’s been missing it’s hitherto superstar.

Other teams’ headed outputs are fluctuating too. Swansea, despite having a terrific playmaker in Gylfi Sigurðsson, used to be hardly intimidating in the air until Alfie Mawson and Fernando Llorente broke into their starting XI last season. Southampton, menacing two years ago, have heavily regressed since the sale of Graziano Pellè and the long-term injury of their centre-back outcast, Virgil van Dijk. Spurs, dead-last in the chart above, are struggling to find aerial finishers – out of his 78 EPL goals, Harry Kane has scored a mere nine times that way!

Well – at least one of those nine will be remembered for a very long time…

The real question is: whether the astounding number of headed goals will repeat itself in the next few months? Statistically, that is very unlikely. Last term, the league saw 188 such strikes in 38 weeks, which gives an average output of 4.94 net-hitting headers per gameweek. That was when Manchester United still had fit Zlatan Ibrahimović, Leicester still put their faith in Islam Slimani and West Brom were playing all their crosses towards 6-foot-2 Salomon Rondón. Today, that strike force has been somewhat replaced by Okaka, Mounié and Vokes. Somewhat. For how long, though?

And then, another issue is the quantity and quality of the crosses. On the opening day, only Robbie Brady and Wayne Rooney managed to complete 5 of those during the 90 minutes against Chelsea and Stoke, respectively. Neither of them would provide an assist, though – and the same applied to Dušan Tadić (4 crosses vs Swansea), Patrick van Aanholt (3 vs Huddersfield), Ryan Bertrand (3 vs Swansea) and Daley Blind (3 vs West Ham). If it wasn’t for Xhaka’s and Brunt’s contributions, the efficiency of that form of delivery would’ve been zero!

There’s a chance for an improvement, though. The three most convincing sides out wide – Arsenal, Man Utd and Southampton – all have fairly comfortable runs of fixtures and the impending returns of players like Llorente (recently injured), Sigurðsson (soon to be at Everton) or aforementioned Antonio and McAuley, could help at maintaining the trend. So would the current, messy state of anti-air defending we’ve witnessed from Arsenal, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and West Ham…

They’ll be in smaller numbers, but the headers are here to stay. Let’s just hope at least few of them will be as crucial and spectacular as those, that determined the outcome of 2016/17 season:

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