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Saturday, June 16, 2012
Just when we thought tiki-taka was taking over the world, Euro 2012 has re-introduced football to the old fashioned art of heading; and England unveiled potentially its greatest exponent as they mixed beauty and the beast to wonderful effect in a thrilling game against Sweden.
Beauty came in the shape of match-winner Danny Welbeck, whose inspired, clever and creative finish from Theo Walcott’s cross was a spectacular way to win a game; but he couldn’t have done without the beast, his strike partner Andy Carroll.
Carroll’s inclusion in Roy Hodgon’s team for last night’s match was a controversial one given the player’s chequered history both on and off the pitch; it’s a history that has included three arrests for incidents outside of nightclubs, rumours of excessive drinking and three-quarters of a season at Liverpool in which he looked a waste of money.
But the one thing that Carroll does very well indeed is head a football; and Hodgson, who has sat on Uefa technical committees and studied the finer points of the beautiful game, proved himself not too proud to exploit that fact by throwing him in.
Knowing the lengths that Hodgson goes to in a bid to out-think opponents you can be certain his selection was no accident, either; because statistics show that of the last eight goals conceded by Sweden, seven of them came from headers.
He may also have noticed that Euro 2012 has seen a revival in the art of heading, with 10 hitting the back of the net before last night’s match, a fact that prompted England legend Alan Shearer to comment in the build-up: "Right now, this tournament is made for Carroll. Every defence seems to be struggling with the aerial threat."
Different theories abound over why the header is back in vogue. Some say it’s a natural reaction to the possession football adopted by the likes of Spain; others that the Euro 2012 ball — so much easier to control and cross than the disastrous Jabilani of South Africa 2010 — gives wingers and free-kick takers value for money. And there have even been suggestions that having two extra referees behind the goal has eradicated pushing and shoving in the penalty area, giving strikers a better run at crosses.
But whatever the reason, Hodgson got it right; because within 23 minutes Carroll had produced a header of such incredible quality, from a Steven Gerrard cross, that the Swedish defence could only stand and admire it. In fact it was so good that even purists such as Spain, who rarely lift the ball off the floor and concentrate on pass, pass, pass could not have failed to be impressed when the television slow-mo showed Carroll, with absolutely perfect technique and ponytail flying, stuck in balletic pose in midair, twisting his neck muscles and thundering the ball past Andrea Isaaksson.
It launched what has to be one of the most entertaining and enthralling England matches in recent history.
The mix of Carroll’s aerial threat and Welbeck’s clever movement and neat lay-off play made for a fascinating contest; even though England’s generous defending, which allowed Sweden a Glen Johnson own goal and an Olof Mellberg header to go 2-1 up at one stage, was also responsible.
What will give England fans hope, however, is that in Hodgson they seem to have found a manager with the tactical nous to deal with big occasions on the big stage. Not everybody agreed with him returning (for one match only you suspect) to 4-4-2 for this fixture, but it worked. Not everybody agreed with him selecting Carroll ahead of Peter Crouch; but it worked.
Hodgon’s substitutions worked, too, because Walcott came on for Milner and immediately scored a stunning second goal from distance before setting up Welbeck’s goal too; but you have to say choosing Carroll was his biggest decision and biggest success story.
The former Newcastle man gave England aggression up front (after all this is a man who Kevin Keegan once credited as being ‘probably in the top three headers of a ball I have ever seen in football’). And although he gave away the free-kick that eventually handed Sweden a second-half equaliser, his overall contribution was positive.
The irony, of course, is that he will almost certainly return to the bench for next Tuesday’s match against the Ukraine when Wayne Rooney is available after suspension; but there won’t be a team or a coach at Euro 2012 who isn’t feeling nervous now about facing Carroll, as a starter or a substitute, in future.
England are heading in right direction.
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