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Sam McGuire

The Unappreciated Talents of a Sniper


Sam McGuire on those special players can strike a ball from 30 yards out with pinpoint precision.

Sam McGuire on those special players can strike a ball from 30 yards out with pinpoint precision. 

A dead shot with unnerving accuracy and precision that could do the damage from distance. No this isn’t a review on American Sniper, but a look at how influential long distance shooters in football are rare to find these days. Before possession football became the be all and end all of modern day football there was a period in time in which many teams had at least one player in their side that had the ability, and skill, to fire a shot goalwards from 25/30 yards and you’d be confident of them hitting the target.

Times have changed though, these players have been replaced as managers look to dominate the ball with the primary objective for many teams being to not waste possession you’d assume shots from distance would be on the decline. However, many teams are still averaging 40-50% of their overall shots from outside of the box. Teams such as Liverpool, Leverkusen, Spurs and Juventus all have 45% or more of their shots from outside of the area.

If you isolate the Liverpool case it’d be easy to say Mario Balotelli could be the cause for all of these shots from distance, which of course was true when he was selected earlier in the season and happened to spend the majority of his time isolated in the oppositions half. You have to remember he hasn’t been playing frequently though, so is this a tactic deployed by Brendan Rodgers and if so, why has he swayed so far away from his ethos of ‘Death by football’?

“When you’ve got the ball 65-70% of the time, it’s a football death for the other team…it’s death by football.”

With no standout long range shooters, since Steven Gerrard rarely hits one these days, it’s an odd tactic to use if that’s the case. Of Liverpool’s 404 shots in the league this season 186 have been from outside of the area, and a measly four goals have come from these. The Liverpool fans got used to a stage when Phil Coutinho would line up a shot from deep and drag it wide, his noticeably marked improvement in that respect must be from extra practice in training which can only be a good thing for the club.

Juventus have 45% of their shots from outside of the box, the difference between them and Liverpool though are the quality of players within their ranks. Paul Pogba, Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal are all capable of striking the ball from distance. It’s no coincidence that those four players are in the top 10 players for Serie A for goals from outside of the area. Pogba, Vidal and Pirlo all have three goals whilst Tevez has two, and collectively Juventus have scored 14 goals from outside the area this season, the highest in Europe.

Bayer Leverkusen have 49% of their shots from outside of the area, but with specialist long distance shooters and a coach that’s fond of this tactic it’s understandable. You play to your strengths afterall and with Hakan Calhanoglu and Heung-Min Son regularly starting it’s an effective weapon for Leverkusen. Calhanoglu has scored four of his five league goals from outside the area whereas Son has scored three of his eight from 18 yards or more.

Spurs have 53% of their shots from distance, the highest of the teams mentioned but when you have Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli and of course the irresistible Christian Eriksen within your ranks you’re bound to shoot from distance. Even Harry Kane has chipped in with three from outside of the area this season. All talented from distance but it’s the standout Dane that’s got everybody talking with six of his nine league goals being from distance. Many pundits class Spurs as a possession based outfit that create their chances but the stats say they see no issue with shooting on sight. That’s a sign of a good manager when he recognises his players have the ability to do this and doesn’t persist with sterile passing.

 

Why haven’t shots from distance decreased with the lack of snipers?

Well, teams are now getting used to partaking in a game of chess. If a team has superior players then the opponents sit deep and absorb the pressure. If you can’t break them down you won’t create any clear cut chances. Frustration inevitably occurs and players start hitting shots they normally wouldn’t. Regardless of your strengths as a player, if you’re 1-0 down in the 85th minute and the ball bobbles out to you from 25 yards it’s hard to resist the urge. Even the best players do it out of desperation.

You also have to factor in how teams that used to be route one sides have adapted so they’re more comfortable in possession. If they have more of the ball it means you aren’t pinning them back and carving them open, so when a chance does eventually prevail you have to take it. You may not get as many chances within a game so if a half chance comes your way you fire one in from distance, again desperation and frustration play a huge part, coupled with the fact many of these players lack composure. Even world class goal scorers suffer from frustration, if they’ve been isolated all game and get a half chance they’ll take it, no matter how unlikely it is they’ll score

Many of the players mentioned above are midfielders, however this is an aspect of the game strikers can also influence. Alan Shearer was a ferocious striker of the ball when he was playing and scored many from distance. Wayne Rooney is also capable of scoring from distance. However, this season, Alex Lacazette, Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben all have four goals from outside of the area. Not only do they influence the game within the area they’re also talented enough to effect the game from outside the area. Honourable mention to Cristiano Ronaldo here who has had 57 shots from outside of the area this season and has two goals to show for it.

Coaches should make a point of having their best strikers of the ball practice at shooting from 20 yards or more as this is a valuable skill to have in your arsenal. With many teams expecting you to play your way into the area it means many sit deep and aren’t proactive in shutting potential shots down meaning if they’re talented enough players can exploit this. Similar to how Phil Coutinho did against Southampton when nobody shut him down and he was able to fire a shot in from 31 yards. This skill makes teams dangerous, if you have a reputation as a long distance shooter not only does it give your team that skill, it also plays on opponents minds who will want to shut you down, thus creating space for the strikers that would’ve been smothered otherwise.

World football may have players with a reputation built up of one or two good shots in their career, but it is becoming rarer to see players utilise the space afforded to them when teams ‘park the bus’. Could managers be putting more emphasis on these kinds of players to help them win the tactical battles.

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