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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Out-of-the-box skill: Long-range goals in European Championships shoot into footballing folklore

Long-rang attempts and goals are rare these days, but when successful provide thrill and great adrenalin rush

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: June 26, 2021 8:10:00 am
Patrik Schick unleashes his long-ranger for Czech Republic vs Scotland (UEFA)

It took exactly 4.6 seconds for Czech Republic striker Patrik Schick to achieve cult status in European Championship folklore. The time between him receiving the ball inside his own half, rushing towards the half-line and hoofing the ball across 49.7 yards over a frantically back-pedalling Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall, who ended up comically tangled in the mesh, like a captured tiger. It was in a metaphorical sense, his shot to glory.

From an anonymous striker in the Bundesliga, rejected numerous times by the heavyweights, the goal instantly made Schick the rising star of Europe, inundated with suitors queuing up and willing to expend any incredulous sum his current employers, Bayer Leverkusen, demand in exchange for his signature.

Even before the Euros has rolled into the knockout stage, Schick strike, the longest-ranger in the history of the continental championships, is being hailed as the goal of the tournament. It’s unlikely that the distance he covered would be replicated in this tournament, by even Schick himself. It is hard to attain perfection once, let alone twice. The technical demands involved in such goals are stratospheric. For this precise reason, it’s improbable that such long-rangers would turn out to be fashionable in the tournament, even if there is a sudden surge in shies and goals from outside the box, as a shock weapon to catch defending teams off guard.

Since that game, there have been 41 efforts from outside the box in 29 games, of which 12 pierced the nets. The low hitting and conversion rates probably explain why there are fewer shots on goals from outside the box as well as why a minority of the attempts indeed result in a goal. Out-of-the-box hits are rare, out-of-the-box hits that result in goals are rarer. Apart from supreme technique, power, accuracy and split-second decision-making, one needs confidence and ambition too.

Fewer goals though provide as much spontaneous thrill as those from the distance. A dribbler winkling past a maze of legs could bewitch you; a winger’s welting run from the half-line to the six-yard box could confiscate your breath and give lung spasms; a poacher’s strike has a calculated inevitability about it, but long-rangers could make your spine shiver and the hair on the back of the neck do a little dance even when watching it on a loop. A double surge of adrenalin.

The best from downtown

Not just the Schick goal, but those from Luka Modric, the high priest of long-rangers, Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko against the Dutch, or Denmark’s Mikkel Damsgaard against the Russians – to name but a few of the pearlers. They go by different names, but adhering to strict rhyme patterns —pearlers (usually volleys and involving acrobatics), screamers (powerful and slamming into the top corner), pile-drivers (flat and straight), daisy-cutters (all along the ground), curlers (those with wicked swerve) or hoofers (ultra-long-range ones that are hit high). Some are synonymous but each has a slightly different connotation. Some have a mix of more than one attribute.

Each remains stamped in memory, even if more beautiful or difficult goals have been scored in a tournament. Four of the 10 best goals of the group stage were from outside the box, as per a public poll on the UEFA website. Schick’s was consensually the first on the list (a hoofer), the second was Modric’s pearler against Scotland, which was even more difficult to pull off because it was struck with the outside of the boot, so that the ball whirled away before it swirled in, a level of mastery only the best of technicians could master. Yarmolenko’s was a textbook curler, from the edge of the box, left-footed, and crashing into the far corner. Damsgaard’s was a screamer while his teammate Andreas Christensen’s goal in the same game was a stinging pile-driver. As was Italian Manuel Locatelli’s second against Switzerland.

Catching defences cold

An accurately struck long-ranger has many advantages. It could catch a defence cold, especially during defensive transitions, when the goalkeeper and defenders are realigning into shape, and hence are not well positioned to repel the ball. It’s so powerfully hit that it gives goalkeepers’ less time to respond, one doesn’t need to wriggle through congested alleys inside the box. The striker (not the position but the role) is in acres of space and often with a clear sight of goal to fire his shot.

But there are difficulties too. The striker gets just one- hundredth of a second to make up his mind, decide where to shoot and how to shoot, before being converged upon and tackled into submission by defenders. In this age of zonal marking, when no player is left isolated, when teams press and pass in groups, finding space is incredibly difficult.

It’s perhaps the reason most long-range specialists are instinctive hitters of the ball. One sees the same names popping up repeatedly in the list of all-time great long-rangers. Modric’s name will be mentioned multiple times in any list. As could the names of Schick, Yarmolenko and Gareth Bale. Some are just remembered for the knack of finding the net from back and beyond. Like Spain’s Roger García, who during a 12-month period in 2002-03, struck three goals from inside his own half. Or Ronnie Radford, whose goal for Hereford against Newcastle United in 1972 is still considered the best in FA Cup history.

An art out of favour

But why attempt long-rangers when there are more reliable, less risk-fraught routes, to score goals? Even the best favour the much-trodden paths. Of the 778 goals Lionel Messi has scored for Barcelona, only 67 have arrived from outside the box. His great rival Cristiano Ronaldo’s tally is 46 of 674 goals.

There has been stigma too — it’s viewed as a staple of the lower leagues, needing power than finesse. When placed alongside the greatest swerving volleys, delicate chips and flowing team goals, it’s just someone kicking a ball quite a long way, quite accurately. It’s discouraged by managers in this era of possession and pressing game when a long-distance punt is considered a careless wastage of possession. A reason, perhaps, 52 of Messi’s goals from out of the box have arrived in the last five seasons when Barcelona have completely divorced from tiki-taka.

Yet, when a long-ranger zooms into the back of the net, it produces a surge of thrill unrivalled in football. And as Schick’s goal would testify, a shot into footballing folklore.

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