Every month we bring you the complete Gunners guide to various techniques that make up the beautiful game. This month we take an in- depth look at heading.
A big centre half up from the back to score a towering header is always an evocative image in football – none more so than when that headed goal wins the FA Cup final.
That’s what happened in May 1993.
Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday were deadlocked at 1-1 in the final replay at Wembley, with the game entering the final minute of extra-time. It looked as though the famous old cup would be decided by penalties for the first time in history.
But then Arsenal won a corner, Paul Merson swung it in and Andy Linighan arrived at speed in the area to head home the latest ever goal in an FA Cup final. There was barely time for Wednesday to kick off, let alone score an equaliser. The cup was Arsenal’s.
It remains one of the most famous headed goals in the club’s history, and former defender Linighan has fond memories of it.
“I just thought that I had one last chance to go up for the corner and get lucky,” he recalls. “I remember that Paul Merson put a good ball into the box. The cross had pace and I met it with my forehead. I knew that I’d made good contact and that it was going towards goal.
“We used to practice set-pieces like that – the two centre halves would wait at the edge of the ‘D’, one would spin away to the back and one would make a beeline for the near post. That way, you’re guaranteed to be attacking the ball if it reaches you, and you take a defender out of the game too.”
Linighan was hardly prolific during his six years at the club, scoring eight goals in 156 appearances, so how many times has he watched back this undoubted highlight of his Gunners career?
“I watched it the first few days after the cup final, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve watched it a lot,” he smiles. “It comes up every now and then on some programmes. I would say I’ve seen it 100 times, if that.
“The occasion of it being the FA Cup final, and me scoring the winner, means that one was special. I think there was too much power on the ball for Chris Woods, and the ball was greasy too.
“But I scored a header against Charlton for Norwich, which was quite similar, as was another one I scored for Norwich, against Tottenham.”
Most of the time Linighan’s heading prowess was put to use as part of the well drilled George Graham back line of the early 1990s, rather than in the opposition area, and he says there is a big difference between the techniques for attacking and defensive headers.
“With defensive headers, you need to get height and distance on the ball. When you’re attacking the ball, you need to be a nuisance and often look to nod the ball down to a team-mate. But it all depends on the quality of the set-piece. Getting pace on the ball is crucial. You need to have that because it’s difficult to generate all the power from your header alone. If the ball is driven in, you just have to get up and time your header well.
“As a defender, we were always told to get height and distance on our headers,” he explains. “We had training sessions where we would have to do that when heading the ball away. It was something that George Graham would instil into us – get the ball as far away from the goal as possible.
“We would always practice set-pieces a lot, both attacking and defensive. We would be shown how to back into defenders and make ourselves big, just to be a nuisance in the penalty area really and try and head the ball down for our forward players to latch onto. That happened in the League Cup final, when Paul Merson scored after I was backing in and the defender couldn’t get a free header to clear it.”
Linighan often lined up alongside Tony Adams, Steve Bould or Martin Keown at the heart of the Arsenal defence, so there was certainly plenty or aerial prowess in the Gunners team at that time – and the side were always a threat at set pieces. So what does Linighan think are the important techniques to master when heading the ball?
“When you think that opposition goalkeepers kick the ball out of their hands from their own box, you have to make sure you head it, which can be difficult when you consider that your forehead is only six to eight inches wide. The main thing is to make sure that your eye-to-ball coordination is right. Sometimes the wind can affect where the ball goes, so you have to move your feet and balance yourself too.
"As a kid, I used to practice with tennis balls, which is good for your coordination and footwork too. It helps with technique too, but I think to become a good header of the ball is all about repetition"
“My father used to be a centre back, so I think it came in the genes really,” he adds. “His brother played as a professional for lower league teams too and I think it was just passed down. As a kid, I used to practice with tennis balls, which is good for your coordination and footwork too. It helps with technique too, but I think to become a good header of the ball is all about repetition.”
Linighan believes that the art of heading is dying out gradually, though he says there are two or three notable proponents of the skill in the Premier League currently.
“It will always be a part of the game, because of set-pieces, but I’d say the game is a lot more technical now. You have to want to head the ball. I still like a traditional centre forward – I think Olivier Giroud is really good and has come on a lot. He’s good on the floor, good in the air and holds the ball up very well. Alan Shearer was very good at that too. I think It’s a totally different game now to when I was playing.
“The ball is mainly more on the floor now, but guys like John Terry and Gary Cahill are very good defenders, and are both good at both defensive and attacking headers. Didier Drogba and Giroud are good too – especially at defending set-pieces.”
Five memorable headed Arsenal goals
Arsenal 3, Anderlecht 0
April 28, 1970
Having lost the first leg of the Fairs Cup final 3-1 in Belgium, Arsenal needed a special night at Highbury to claim the trophy. That’s exactly what happened. This Radford goal on 75 minutes made it 2-0 on the night, 3-3 on aggregate and the Gunners were leading on away goals. George Graham released Bob McNab on the left wing and the full-back’s deep cross found an unmarked ‘Raddy’ at the far post who thumped his header home. A minute later Jon Sammels added a third to seal the win, and secure Arsenal’s first trophy for 17 years.
Tottenham Hotspur 0, Arsenal 1
May 3, 1971
The goal that secured Arsenal’s 1971 championship on the final day of the league season – at the home of Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal would still have lifted the title with a 0-0 draw, but Kennedy’s late header meant Arsenal completed the first leg of the double with a victory. With just minutes left Charlie George dispossessed Joe Kinnear before crossing to John Radford. His header was superbly parried by Pat Jennings but Geordie Armstrong turned the ball back into the middle where Ray Kennedy headed home off the underside of the bar.
April 23, 1980
Juventus 0, Arsenal 1
Cup Winners’ Cup
Paul Vaessen was just 18 when he scored the goal that sent the Gunners through to the 1980 Cup Winners’ Cup Final. No British club had ever won at the Stadio Delle Alpi, and Juventus had not lost a European game there in ten years. Having drawn 1-1 in the home leg though, Arsenal needed to score, and Vaessen, on as a 76th minute sub, supplied it. With one minute left, Graham Rix sent in a curling cross from the left wing. Dino Zoff, an Italian defender and Vaessen all rose to meet the ball, and the Arsenal man got there first to knock the ball over the line and into the net. Just two years later Vaessen’s promising career was cut short by injury. He died in 2001.
May 20, 1993
Arsenal 2, Sheffield Wednesday 1
The latest ever goal in an FA Cup final, and it secured the first ever domestic cup double. As the replay moved into the last minute of extra time, with the scores tied at 1-1, it looked increasingly like penalties would be needed to determine the FA Cup winners for the first time in the 121 year history of the competition. But Linighan had other ideas. Paul Merson swung in his left wing corner and the centre half, playing with a broken nose since the 19th minute, rose highest to power his header goalwards. Chris Woods got hands to it but could not prevent it crossing the line. Linighan was swamped by his team-mates and there was barely time to restart the match before the full-time whistle sounded.
Arsenal 1, Tottenham Hotspur 0
April 4, 1993
Two years after Tottenham ended our double hopes in the 1991 FA Cup semi- final, the skipper popped up to exact revenge with the sweetest of far post headers. There were nine minutes remaining of an edgy and tight encounter, when the Gunners won a free kick wide just outside the area. Paul Merson floated the ball to the far post where Adams had evaded his marker to head home past Erik Thorstvedt. It was the only goal of the game and set Arsenal on their way back to Wembley for the final against Sheffield Wednesday.
The EXPERT VIEW
Former Arsenal and Northern Ireland midfielder, Steve Morrow has also managed in America’s Major League Soccer, is a UEFA A qualified coach and has worked as a match analyst for Arsenal. com. Now head of recruitment for the Arsenal academy, he is involved with youth player development globally for the club.
"With defensive headers we are looking for power and distance, but on the attacking side we are looking for accuracy. The technique for offensive technique heading is more difficult and we focus on it a bit more in training"
Heading is an interesting area because generally I think it’s a skill we practice less and less now. Years ago heading was a more important part of the game, especially for defenders. I remember when I was at Arsenal as a young player we practiced it a lot with the coaches. I think it’s a that’s suffered over the years as we don’t tend to see the ball in the air as much as we used to. Even defenders compete for the ball in the air less than they used to.
As a general rule when we talk to defenders about heading the instruction is to head it high and wide – away from the danger zones.
So with defensive headers we are looking for power and distance, but on the attacking side we are looking for accuracy. The technique for offensive technique heading is more difficult and we focus on it a bit more in training.
However we do still practice it, especially with the defenders. You often see the defenders in their positions in training, defending balls into the box from wide or deep areas. Heading is all about timing and technique – we teach them to take three steps forward and attack the ball, trying to get the timing right. Then we add in the opposition, and work out how they can get around the opposition to head the ball before them, which is a difficult skill. You have to keep your eye on the opponent as well as keeping one eye on the ball.
There aren’t too may attackers around now that specialize in heading the ball. There used to be quite a lot, one in each team. When I started at Arsenal we had Niall Quinn, who was one of the best headers of the ball I’ve ever seen. After that you had guys like Alan Shearer who were specialists in heading the ball. The hardest header for a ‘keeper to save is low into the corner, which is what the best forwards look for. Power is important, but accuracy is more so. Heading will always come up, at any phase of the game, so all players in all positions need to practice it.
The BOSS ON...
Best header of the ball he has seen...
I would say Mark Hateley was the best. For defenders it’s more natural, I had a player who is my assistant now – Steve Bould – who was very good at it. Tony Adams was also a very good header, and Sol Campbell too. But for a striker like Hateley it’s more difficult, you have to be more accurate, make your movement and get in there.
"Another who is surprisingly good in the air is Alexis Sanchez, he has the strength and a good leap"
The secret of Hateley’s technique...
I believe it’s a question of timing your jump, protection, and then timing of the header. What Mark Hateley could do really well was that he headed the ball while his body was completely vertical. He always jumped up with his two elbows out beside him, protecting him. The advantage of this is that when the guy jumps next to you, as long as you jump first, he lifts you up. The other advantage is that when you head the ball early, the force is straight.
Most of the time the ball comes slightly off the top of your head, because you don’t header it early enough, but when you hit it with your forehead, you can direct it better. Most players head the ball too early, and it comes off the top of their head. Hateley’s timing though was absolutely perfect. He was very good at jumping up and hitting the ball with just the right part of his head.
Best headers in his current squad...
I think Olivier Giroud is very good with his head. He’s close to Mark Hateley. He wins the ball a lot with his back to goal, makes passes, deflections, holds the ball up well. So you feel he will finish better with his head in front of goal, because his technique is there. Another who is surprisingly good in the air is Alexis Sanchez, he has the strength and a good leap.
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