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What makes a good goal?

February 18, 2011

Much has been made of Wayne Rooney’s goal against Manchester City. It was superb. Considering the player’s performance in the match up until that point, there is no doubting its brilliance or importance. But was it the best goal of the weekend?

What about Arsenal’s second goal against Wolves? If we are simply comparing Rooney’s finish with that of Robin van Persie, there is only one winner. But it is important to consider the build-up to goals. The ball was presented to Rooney via a deflected cross. By contrast, the Arsenal goal in question resulted from a swift passing move which tore Wolves apart.

The issue here is what we value in a goal. Individual moments of brilliance inevitably live long in the memory. Rooney’s recent effort is just one example. Diego Maradona’s second against England in 1986 is a second. Zinedine Zidane’s volley in the 2002 Champions League final is another that will not be forgotten in a hurry.

In football, we appreciate those players who, seemingly against all odds, come up with a goal and drag their team back from the brink. David Beckham against Greece and Steven Gerrard against AC Milan and West Ham spring to mind. We adore one player above the others. We idolise individuals, not teams.

Sometimes though, we need to step back and consider those goals which require far more than an individual’s brilliance. What about those goals which come about either when a team is cut open by precise passing or ground down by the control that sustained possession brings? When a commentator describes “a great team goal”, they do so in the knowledge that while impressive, it is unlikely to be considered equal to a shot finding the net from 30 yards. Often, however, it should be.

In 2001, Barcelona came to Anfield in the Champions League. Despite going a goal down, they finished the game as 3-1 winners. Their third goal was particularly impressive. The Catalans kept the ball for what seemed like an eternity. Liverpool could not get near it. Barcelona toyed with them, and the home crowd became increasingly restless. Eventually the ball was played through to Marc Overmars, who finished the move off.

In 2006, Argentina thumped Serbia and Montenegro 6-0 in the World Cup. Their second goal, scored by Esteban Cambiasso, was the result of a 24-pass move. Just as Liverpool had been reduced to chasing shadows five years before, the Serbians were left helpless as Argentina dictated proceedings. Cambiasso’s finish was unremarkable. The build-up to the goal was anything but.

Cambiasso's goal v Serbia, WC 2006As far as these two examples are concerned, it is not the manner in which the player kicks the ball into the net which is important. It is the build-up to it. The level of passing that precedes the goal suggests a sense of control which few teams can hope to match. On Saturday, Rooney did not have a good game. He misplaced passes and his first touch was often clumsy. The sight of a team being able to keep the ball for minutes at a time without their opponents getting anywhere near it is more striking than the ability of an individual to produce a moment of magic when his team needs it. It is more consistently impressive. A goal from 30 yards is indicative of individual brilliance. A goal on the back of 30 passes suggests something similar about the talent of the entire team.

Alongside goals of this variety, we have goals more akin to van Persie’s second at the weekend. Swift passing moves, often when a side is counterattacking, that slice effortlessly through the opposition’s defence. Examples include Terry McDermott’s header against Tottenham in 1978 and Wesley Sneijder’s goal against Italy during Euro 2008.

There is something incredibly satisfying about watching a team move forward with the ball at pace, the whole team linking seamlessly. To go from one end of the pitch to the other, from defending to attacking, from containing a threat to imposing one on the game, all in an instant, requires intelligence as well as ball skills.

We often do appreciate displays of constant supremacy – such as Barcelona’s crushing of Real Madrid earlier this season – but ultimately more people will head to YouTube to watch a great goal as opposed to downloading an entire 90 minutes, however impressive it may be. ‘Goal of the season’ compilations will undoubtedly feature many a rocket from outside the box. Fluid counterattacking goals are likely to be less common.

Rooney’s goal was memorable. Yet so was Barcelona’s third at Anfield in 2001. So too was Cambiasso’s against Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. Sadly, only the winner in the recent Manchester derby is likely to be replayed countless times over the following decade.

This article first appeared at

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