WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
Some footballers are blessed with good judgement and a huge leap. They arrive in the right place, at the right time, and pick the right defender to isolate. They are the last men in the world an opposition fan wants to see attacking the far stick from a deep cross. We pay tribute to the back-post plunderers…
It might not be the prettiest route to goal, but the late dart to the far post is an invaluable source of goals for the discerning winger with a nose for the aerial ball.
You know the type. The cross comes into the box, but it’s too high for the men in the middle and your gaze is diverted to the back post. Who’s that arriving, right on cue? It’s the big man from the opposite flank! The slight full-back stands no chance, buckling under the leap of his powerful adversary. And as the ball thuds off the wideman’s forehead and into the net, you thank God that your team has a back-post riser in the ranks.
Let’s take a look at five of the best practitioners of this niche knack, beginning with the latest midfield marvel to make his mark with his prowess at the back stick…
After emerging from non-league Tooting and Mitcham and rising through the Football League via several loan deals, Michail Antonio is making his mark on the Premier League with West Ham this season at the age of 25. The winger is just short of 6ft but the timing of his runs and the power of his leaps make him a lethal aerial threat for Slaven Bilic’s side, particularly when he arrives at the far post to overawe the opposition full-back underneath a high cross. Antonio didn’t manage his first Premier League goal until December, but since then he has netted a flurry of them, mostly with his head. For his goal against Liverpool in January, he dealt a blow to both Reds full-backs, first tracking back to dispossess Alberto Moreno, admittedly in questionable fashion, near his own goal line, before making his way up the pitch as his team counterattacked, gradually crossing from the right wing to the opposite side of the pitch as he pushed forward. He reached the six-yard box just as a cross from Enner Valencia sat up just in front of him and Nathaniel Clyne. There was only going to be one winner.
His managers have never quite been sure whether he is best deployed as a wideman, a centre-forward or just behind a striker, but whichever position he has been asked to play, Clint Dempsey has always represented a lurking goal threat, even when he appears not to be in the game. The secret to Dempsey’s success appears to be down to his refusal to be subdued by any opponent. At his peak he had a snarling, determined edge to his character, as though he always had a point to prove, and he matched it with a two-footed spring that bought him hang time at the back stick. Fulham were the chief benefactors of that particular skill. When the cross came in from close to the byline, or a corner kick, Dempsey liked to emerge from behind his marker, neck arched back ready for the moment of impact and then force his head through the ball. But he has also shown that he is just as capable of flicking them over the goalkeeper when surging into the box to meet a deeper cross. Like any good ‘arriver’ in the box, the American also gets his fair share of goals with his feet, picking up the pieces when the ball drops kindly inside the area, and somehow managing to time his runs to bypass the defence at the crucial moment. This collection of his 23 goals from the 2011/12 season with Fulham displays the full array of Dempsey arrivals and marks him out as that most valuable of players – not an out-and-out striker, yet still a natural goalscorer.
Often nominally selected on the left of a four-man midfield at Chelsea, Gus Poyet was very much in the vein of attacking midfielders who – like Dempsey – don’t fit perfectly into any specific role. Very much a forerunner of the Thomas Müller type, he was not quite a mobile central midfield player, nor a wideman, nor a striker, but he drifted in from the left and affected games with neat touches and perfectly timed runs into the box, where he was equally capable of finishing a beautifully crafted passing move, or throwing himself at a cross. Most significantly, he scored crucial goals, and lots of them. His goal against Leeds in May 1999 secured Chelsea a place in the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history and it was the perfect example of back-post brilliance, as he drifted into space between centre-back and full-back to nod Graeme Le Saux’s deep cross past Nigel Martyn. A year later, in the FA Cup semi-final against Newcastle, he scored twice to take Chelsea to the final, which they won to become the last team to lift the trophy at the original Wembley stadium. His first that day was a composed lifted effort with the outside of his right boot from close range, the second was classic Poyet. Jon Harley guided an inviting cross to the back post of a packed penalty area, where the Uruguayan rose to win the game with a signature header, on a day when Newcastle started with Alan Shearer and Duncan Ferguson up front.
It hardly seems fair that the man who has perfected almost every dazzling technical skill in the book should also be a specialist at thundering home headers, but Cristiano Ronaldo is a fine example of the back-post riser. Similarly to Clint Dempsey, he uses both feet simultaneously to get extra trajectory on his spring and has more balance in the air as a result, enabling him to snap his neck into more powerful, guided headers. Any winger – if we can call him that – with height and athleticism like the 6ft 1in Portuguese will be a threat when the ball is delivered from the opposite flank, but when you add the sort of confidence and hunger for goals that Ronaldo plays with, you find the perfect combination for aerial domination. One of his most famous headed goals came on the way to Manchester United’s last Champions League triumph in 2008. It was as much about the element of surprise as it was sheer force, as he arrived out of nowhere – at high speed – to power a lofted Paul Scholes cross into the Roma net in a quarter-final first leg at the Stadio Olimpico in 2008. Soon, such goals became as much his trademark as rapid stepovers, swerving strikes and that pose he strikes before he takes a free-kick. He buried a towering back-post header against Barcelona in extra time of the 2011 Copa del Rey final as Real Madrid denied Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona the treble. Then, in 2013, he sunk his former club with a superhuman effort, leaving Patrice Evra stranded and gaining about five feet of air to direct the ball past David De Gea as Real dispatched Man United in the Champions League round of 16.
The fact that Gary Speed was neither a big man nor a forward made his knack for scoring headed goals all the more noticeable. For him it was all about timing and technique and he delivered on so many occasions, bustling into crowded penalty areas and making sure he got his head on the ball, no matter how scruffy it needed to be. Speed came to prominence as a winger for Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds at a time when attacking play in English football was built around crossing – even more so than today! If he wasn’t supplying the crosses from the left-wing, he could be expected to anticipate the deliveries from his counterpart on the opposite flank and the Welshman was one of the best at doing so. As he got older and moved into a more central role, the headed goals kept on coming, for Everton, Newcastle, Bolton, Sheffield United and, of course, Wales. His trick was to get a run on the taller centre-backs he would be challenging and, rather than springing directly up into the air like Dempsey or Ronaldo, Speed would use one foot to push off into the air and then lean into the ball, so he could keep his marker down and nod it goalwards at the same time, as he did for this effort from a corner against Tottenham.