Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Is Peter Crouch actually any good?

Peter Crouch: Dancer, lover, occasional goal scorer.

The lanky streak of piss is an enigma wrapped inside a conundrum that looks like the bloke off the BT adverts after a spell on the rack, and that, I guess, is part of the problem - the way Crouch looks.

While it seems perverse to judge a player on his looks and not his ability, it's not an uncommon problem and one which is identified in Moneyball. The book details the visionary approach to player recruitment by the Oakland A's baseball team under general manager Billy Beane. In it we learn how Beane abandoned the traditional approach to scouting in favour of what was derisively called 'performance scouting' - that is using statistics to judge players.

White men can, oh forget it...

Up until then scouts had relied on instinct, or had favoured certain characteristics - so the 'Good Face' of a chiselled athlete would always be favoured over a 'skinny little guy', a 'fat catcher' or a 'short right-handed pitcher'. As Beane said, the scouts were allowing themselves to be "victimised by what we see".

In a sense that's what's happened to Crouch - he has become victimised by what we see. The Spurs striker simply doesn't conform to the pre-conceived ideas of what of a 'big man' up front should look like. Ironically, he's a little too tall for our tastes, or at least doesn't carry the 'right' weight to match his height.

Commentators and pundits say he's got 'a good touch for a big man', as if somehow the fact his brain's a few inches further from his feet than most people's means he's overcome some huge physical handicap. It's a remarkably odd turn of phrase as it is inconceivable that anyone could play more than 40 times for their country and sustain a career in one of the most competitive leagues in the world without some semblance of skill.

More than that, however, it overlooks his genuine ability.  While Wayne Rooney's deemed to be The World's Greatest Footballer again and well worth his £200,000 weekly salary because of his  'wonder strike' against Manchester City (as opposed to a nurse or a teacher who actually has a worthwhile job) we shouldn't forget Crouch has scored at least three equally spectacular overhead kicks.

The first was for Liverpool against Galatasaray in the Champions League in 2005. To prove it wasn't a one-off, he repeated the trick the following season against Bolton and then did it again for Portsmouth against Stoke in the Premier League a couple of years later. And if you still think he lacks technique check out his third in this 'perfect' hatrick against Arsenal in which he scored with both left and right feet and his head.

Unfortunately, Crouch suffers twice over as another common misconception about him is that despite his height he's not actually very good in the air. This myth was debunked by this post on the Zonal Marking blog which pointed out that in Premier League history (up to the end of last season) Crouch is the third most successful player in terms of the percentage of their goals that came from headers (48.2% in Crouch's case). So, while he may not be a fantastic header of the ball his height is a valuable weapon in his armoury.

But what does his goal-scoring record in general tell us? He's in part defined by the astonishing speed at which he's climbed up England's goal-scoring chart. Yet, despite being the country's joint 15th highest goalscorer (he has one more than Kevin Keegan and just four less than Wayne Rooney from 25 less appearances) there's always a suspicion that Crouch is a bit of a fraud on the international stage.

Of his 22 goals wearing the Three Lions, 12 have come in friendlies and all but three have come away from home. Of the 10 goals he's scored in competitive games only one has come against a team ranked in the World's top 10 at the time of the match - against Croatia at Wembley as the Wally with the Brolly looked forlornly on - and all but one of the rest have been scored against teams ranked 50th or worse which only adds to the impression that Crouch is a flat-track bully.

Good in the air, useless with his feet

Conversely at club level, Crouch does not score as often but has notched up some very important strikes. He has 60 Premier League goals to his name, placing him 53rd on the all-time list with a goals-per-game (GpG) ratio of 0.27 (for comparison Emile Heskey is 16th on the list with 109 goals and a similar ratio of 0.22 GpG, while Darren Bent's is 28th on the list with 84 goals and a ration 0.41 GpG).

But some of those goals have been vital.  Spurs might not be at the San Siro tonight had Crouch not grabbed the winner in the Champions League 'play-off' against Manchester City at the end of last season and early this season he grabbed a hatrick against Young Boys to take Spurs through to the tournament's group stage. Likewise, at Liverpool he played a vital role in their 2006 FA Cup success with the winner in the fifth round against Manchester United and two years later he grabbed a goal against Arsenal that maintained Liverpool's pursuit of a Champions League place.

Quite clearly Crouch is a good all-round player capable of finding the net with head and feet in near-equal measure,  he just doesn't do it consistently. But then perhaps Crouch himself is not the problem. Rather, it might be the case that he isn't used properly because of his physical attributes.

England, it seems, is still wedded to the need to have a 'big man' up front and once Heskey (another multi-faceted player pigeon-holed because of his build) stopped being the big man du jour it was Crouch's turn to be the recipient of punts from midfield or to be used as 'an impact sub' - all of which bypasses his undeniable technique.

While he is good in the air he is arguably better with his feet, but England's focus on direct play means Crouch rarely gets to play to his strengths. Maybe it's English football, not Crouch, that needs to get its head out of the clouds.

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