'He's hit that too well' -- Why striking the ball worse is actually better
One of the most popular footballing cliches presumably makes little sense to anyone watching the sport for the first time. "If anything," the commentator will say after an attacker's shot hasn't ended up in the net, "he's actually hit that too well."
It's difficult to imagine, for example, a runner running a race too well, or a long jumper jumping too far. But there is some logic behind this, especially with the evolution of the modern ball and how players now attempt to kick it.
The cliche is usually uttered in two different contexts. The first is when a player has ballooned the ball over the crossbar, and "hitting it too well" means he has put too much power on the shot. This is a questionable use of the phrase, as it is, ultimately, up to a player to put the appropriate amount of power and elevation on his shot to get it into the net.
But the second usage is increasingly applicable. It refers to when a player connects with the ball so perfectly that it flies straight into the goalkeeper's hands rather than swerving away into the corner. Again, in a strict sense this isn't hitting it "too well" -- the player is in charge of the direction of the shot.
It's notable, however, that modern footballers are now teaching themselves how not to hit the ball cleanly.
Take the example of Frank Lampard, Chelsea's record goal scorer, the Premier League's fourth-highest all-time top goal scorer, its highest-scoring midfielder and, most interestingly in this context, its highest goal scorer from outside the penalty box.
Lampard averaged only six Premier League goals in his first six campaigns but subsequently hit double figures for 10 straight seasons. There were various factors -- he was playing in a better team, in a more advanced role, and started to take penalties -- but Lampard also became prolific because he learned not to hit the ball too well.
"The increase [in my goal-scoring figures] was in part due to changing my technique in hitting the ball," Lampard recalled in his autobiography. "I used to strike it much more 'true,' which is fine if you can direct the ball into the tightest corner of the goal at power. The modern football is lighter, though, and if you hit across it, you can make it move around in flight, which makes it much harder for a keeper to save. Even [Chelsea goalkeeper at the time] Petr Cech ends up palming a shot that is coming straight at him into the net if you catch it right and it suddenly changes direction."
Indeed, Lampard became renowned for a specific type of goal: long-range shots that were scruffy rather than spectacular that deceived the goalkeeper with a late bit of movement.
Incidentally, Lampard was able to devote more of his time on the training ground to practicing this style of shot after Jose Mourinho's arrival, as the Portuguese manager ordered huge nets to be installed behind Chelsea's training ground goals. That meant Lampard didn't have to waste time fetching stray balls from the bushes. It's amazing what a difference small details can make.
It's crucial that Lampard mentions the nature of modern footballs and how they've changed his striking technique. While a new ball design is often mocked ahead of a major international tournament, usually with goalkeepers complaining most vociferously, the evolution of footballs shouldn't be underestimated in terms of how the game is played.
The balls have remained roughly the same size and weight, although they collect less moisture and therefore don't become heavier as matches continue. More crucially, however, they are constructed differently and therefore behave differently in the air.
It's worth remembering, meanwhile, that is was only in the late 1990s that the Premier League introduced a standard type of football. Before then, the majority of clubs used a Mitre ball, but teams sponsored by Umbro and Adidas used their footballs, and goalkeepers reported that they moved in a more troubling manner.
The most infamous football of modern times was the Jabulani, used at the 2010 World Cup and narrowly pipping the vuvuzela and the dreadfully defensive football to become the worst thing about that tournament. The ball was genuinely atrocious, sailing crazily through the air, bouncing too high, and making long switches of play impossible. It was no coincidence that Spain, with their short passing football, suffered the least.
The Jabulani was comprised of only eight panels rather than the old-school 32. According to Craig Johnston, the former Liverpool winger turned Adidas Predator boot designer, this significantly lessened the drag, making it difficult to put conventional curl upon the ball, and therefore "reduced the craft" at the tournament.
No football since has been so unpredictable, although players are increasingly putting swerve on the ball. In the old days, players would achieve curl either in a conventional sense, by striking the ball with the instep (like David Beckham), or achieving reverse movement by hitting the ball with the outside of the foot (most spectacularly performed by Ricardo Quaresma). It was effectively an alternative to striking the ball with genuine power.
But now players achieve late movement by striking hard, slightly off-centre. Gareth Bale is a good example of a player who has perfected this technique, and his approach is particularly devilish because he can swerve the ball in both directions with minimal difference in the way he connects.
Bale scored long-range free kicks against both Slovakia and England in the first two games of Wales' Euro 2016 campaign last summer, with both goals going into the centre of the net rather than the corner.
Bale's technique looked almost identical, but in the first instance he swerved the ball from right to left, past Matus Kozacik, then he swerved the ball left to right, past Joe Hart. Both goalkeepers were made to look silly, but Hart, in particular, can complain that the flight of the ball was almost impossible to read, especially as he would have witnessed Bale's Slovakia strike and expected the ball to move in a similar manner.
Bale's former idol and now teammate at Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo, became a more prolific goal scorer at Manchester United when encouraged to strike the ball differently by United coach Rene Meulensteen.
"He was thinking: 'That ball comes to me, I hit it top corner,'" the Dutchman told the Daily Telegraph. "I needed him to get out of that. I told him: 'It doesn't matter how you score, where you score, as long as the ball goes in the net.' It was time to score ugly goals as well as beautiful ones."
Ronaldo, therefore, was encouraged to strike the ball less cleanly, to score scruffier goals by making life difficult for the goalkeeper with late movement.
It helped Ronaldo lead Manchester United to Champions League success in 2008, following their famous penalty shootout victory over Chelsea. But the more impressive performance was the two-legged semifinal win over Barcelona, where a fine defensive effort, combined with Paul Scholes' long-range strike, took United to Moscow.
"I shot in the general direction of the goal," Scholes recalled of his legendary winner in his autobiography "My Story." "There was no cunning plan. All I was trying to do was hit the rectangle, and this is where I was a little bit lucky. The ball sliced ever so slightly off the outside of my right foot, which took it away from Victor Valdes into the top corner.
"In an ideal world, I would have started the ball outside his opposite post so that it faded back inside it. Of course, if I'd done that, if I'd made perfect contact, it might easily have come back too much and ended up in Valdes' arms."
There you have it -- you can actually hit the ball too well.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.