24 November ~ I was explaining to a visitor from another planet last week that there are many ways to score a goal, and no one correct method. Some goals are better than others, but as the pundits are overly fond of reiterating, they do indeed all count. For stylish goals there are only plaudits, but no extra points. Ah, said the visitor (who's been here watching a few games, and has bought the rights to broadcast the Premier League to the Planet Zog for an undisclosed sum), this must explain why British players at all levels still insist on smacking desperate high balls into the box in the hope that a big striker will get on the end of it, and that if he doesn't score then somebody else might manage to scramble it home.
Wait, though, I said to the alien. Just because there's no standard way to score a goal, it doesn't follow that bad goals are good. But surely every goal counts as one, so it doesn't matter, said the visitor. Then I took him to see England v France at Wembley. He nodded appreciatively at the French goals, but turned restless when the home team, at 2-0 down, started applying late pressure on the Gallic guests by employing the model English centre-forward, Peter Crouch, as a target man. Mr Crouch was a substitute, thrown into the game with the likely instructions from his manager, Mr Capello (the man employed to bring continental sophistication to the England team), to get on the end of some long ones. As Crouch managed to score from a dead-ball situation, you could argue that the policy was half successful. Or you could say the fact this policy happened at all is a continued reflection of full-on, long-term failure. (After the game my alien pal climbed quickly into his spacecraft, muttering something about always having wanted to see the Eiffel Tower.)
We could fast forward 100 years and still find England employing these tactics, and in all likelihood losing heavily to Planet Zog. In British-influenced North America, the same thing happened at the end of last Sunday's extremely poor Major League Soccer Cup final, an encounter that might have disgraced League Two on a bad day. FC Dallas, a decent passing side, dispensed with the neat approach and opted to bang the ball into the Colorado Rapids' penalty area late into extra time when 2-1 down. By chance, it almost worked. But why rely on chance when you could still try playing football? When the clock starts to run down, why does a patient passing game immediately get jettisoned in favour of slamming in speculative crosses? Has it been proven by sports scientists that panicking automatically leads to higher scoring rates?
Let's say you are given a beanbag by an evil maniac who is about to blow up the world, and you have half a minute to throw it into a bucket 20 yards away in order to save mankind. The evil maniac gives you two possible options – you can either try and throw it directly into the bucket, or you can use five friends to form a chain, then gently throw the beanbag down the chain so that the final friend, standing right next to the bucket, can simply drop it in. Presumably, most logical people would choose the latter option. But the evil maniac isn't stupid. He chooses an English football coach to complete the task and we're all doomed…
That analogy's an over-simplification (and in any case, my visiting alien has zapped the evil maniac with his ray gun), but we are always told that football's a simple game. Pass and move. Long-ball football makes no more sense than trying to light a cigarette by ignoring the box of matches in your pocket and striking two stones together. It's strange, then, that latter-day British attacking tactics, such as they are, have long since chosen to ignore effective simplicity in favour of dunder-headed battering at an opponent's solid defence. In general, seeking the bad goal. You wonder how many headed clearances, and how many thousands of instances of easily lost possession, it will take for us to understand that the long-ball game is less of a philosophy and more of a last resort reflecting a crisis of imagination and a tactical stasis regarded with the same bemusement abroad as our kowtowing to a horse-faced aristocracy.
Earlier this month in the San Siro, Pedro León of Real Madrid scored a lovely goal right at the end to give his team a 2-2 draw at AC Milan. The goal was born of deadly, accurate passing. It defied the commonly held British notion that you can only score late in a game by pumping the ball in high. While that may make sense to some in parks football, it's absurd that so many modern professionals are still naive enough to try this desperate ploy time and time again.
For whatever reason, though, we refuse to learn, believing instead in the final frames of the comic strips we used to read as a nipper. Because, you never know, the big lad might just get on the end of one and save the game. While the little lad from his school team who could pass the ball was told he didn't have the physique to make the grade. We're so out of touch that our football's starting to look like it came from another planet. Ian Plenderleith