We can’t score goals, but why? Last season, we were scoring goals at the rate of 1 in every 6 shots. This season, it’s 1 in every 9 shots. If we match last season’s efficiency, we have 6 more goals and are almost certainly undefeated.
Here’s something else. This season, we’re averaging 18.75 goal attempts per match, compared to 15.6 last season, and 17.0 the year of the treble.
Guardiola says that we’re playing better than we were in his first season, and it would appear that he’s right. The only problem is finishing, and that’s a problem. A huge problem. People in the comments portions are offering up all sorts of names and players that will solve the problem. Buy this, buy that, add this, add that.
But what if the problem is too much talent, creating too many possibilities, creating a more casual attitude, leading to our frustrating profligacy in front of goal? Let me explain.
I’d like to start with bits of a comment by Bill (not because it’s an ode to Eto’o 😀 ):
…Goals weren’t coming as easily, even though we dominated play and created chances.
With our style of play that forces ‘parked buses’, I noticed that when Eto’o would be inserted into the game…we had a different dimension to the team. It’s the hunger, it’s the energy, it’s the movement, it’s the ability to power in shots when goalkeepers are blocking all other shots, it’s the speed and ability to create 2 inches of space out of nothing to get a shot off. There was a clear difference with him on the team. He made the team much more direct and much more dangerous.
So. Is the absence of Eto’o the problem? Some have said yes, others say no. I say that while his absence isn’t the problem, the absence of what he represented is most definitely the problem. We can’t get him back, nor does Guardiola want him back. But boy, is he trying to find out how to get back what Eto’o represented.
In the world of talented strikers, Eto’o wouldn’t be in most people’s Top 10. In the world of goal-scoring strikers, Eto’o is in everybody’s Top 3, never mind Top 10. See, Eto’o isn’t a guy for the tricks and flicks. He doesn’t think of backheels, or funky ways to put the ball into the net. He’s like a shark, who swims forward, toward the end result. Boot. Ball. Goal. Win.
His shots were always direct, and rarely with any bend, spin or any other funkiness. It was a direct, hand-stinging blast, with interest. That was and is Eto’o. Give him the ball in a good spot, and he will score for you. Early and often.
What that relative lack of talent also means is that, being aware of his limitations, Eto’o always works to make sure that he’s in the position to make a very direct shot on goal, precisely because he doesn’t have the pure talent of many other strikers.
Compare that with Villa or, even better, Ibrahimovic. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is on anybody’s Top 5 list of most talented strikers on the planet. But does that talent make him a bit laconic? Where Eto’o bulls, or powers his way to get to the one spot that will allow him the most direct, effective shot on goal, Ibrahimovic often seems to think, “I’ll just stand here, because I can wrap my leg around a defender and do some ninja thing to flick the ball into the net.” When he’s right, it’s spectacular. Hell, even when he’s wrong it’s spectacular, but when he’s wrong, it doesn’t result in goals.
Villa, too, is immensely talented. The array of shots at his disposal is staggering. I’m sure that in a striker’s game of HORSE, he would kill Eto’o. But in a match, who do you want running at your keeper with the ball at his feet, Villa or Eto’o? Right now, and maybe always, the answer is Eto’o. It’s the directness, the hunger. Goals are vindication for a striker. For Eto’o, they seem to be like oxygen.
So maybe, just maybe, the problem is that we need less talent. Look at the two goals scored on Sunday. We nailed a perfect goal built from the back, with beautiful passing and an exquisite finish that Messi curled around the defense and inside the far post. Wow, right?
Mallorca just crossed the ball in, and the dude headed it past our keeper. Bang. Boot. Ball. Goal. Points. It was as direct and inelegant as can be, but still counted for the same amount on the scoreboard.
Talent sometimes makes you lazy. When a ball comes to Villa or Krkic (Messi is usually very direct, which is part of why he’s so successful … talent+no screwing around=bags of goals), they have the control to reel it in, and the ability to create space to try all sorts of creative shots from seemingly impossible angles. In consecutive matches, both Villa and Krkic missed a backheel attempt directly in front of goal, off a fast-moving cross. It’s a cross that Eto’o probably angles his body to hold off the defender, squares up and taps in. Because that’s Eto’o. His lack of ultimate talent works in his favor to make him a scorer nonpareil.
There is no question that our overall level of play is higher this season, that the addition of Villa has made us more fluent in attack. We see it in every statistic except for goals. Guardiola said yesterday that if we keep finishing as we are, we won’t win squat this season. And he’s right.
I said in the Mallorca match review thread that if we had the hunger and drive of a less-talented side such as Mallorca or Hercules, we’d steamroll everyone, as we did the season of the treble. Maintaining that hunger is hard, because it’s driven by fear and feelings of inadequacy. After two seasons with no silver, we were like a starving man at an all-you-can-eat banquet. “Grrrrrr! Lemme at it!” Our football wasn’t as pretty, but our results were gaudy. Talent+hunger=success.
Talent can also make you complacent. Playing as beautifully as we are, you think that another chance will always come, and this one will go in. Then suddenly you’re hearing the double whistle, and the other team is celebrating. And there are no more chances.
Of course, none of us would trade any of the talent that we had for the world, right? But think about the brilliance of Keita this season, the man who might be among the least talented players on the squad. He thinks, “I must get to their box, because that is how I can score. I don’t have a long-range curler, or the ability to dribble through an entire defense. But I have a foot, and I have a head. And from three to six feet out, I can knock it past the keeper.” And that’s what he does.
That’s also what we need to do, recognize that sometimes, it’s more, or more appropriately less, than talent.