Best foot forward: What makes the perfect goal?
Did you see Liverpool’s 30-pass goal against Leicester? The ball pinging up and down the pitch, moving sideways from flank to flank, speeding up, slowing down, connecting red dot to red dot, the red flank inching upwards towards Leicester City’s goal almost imperceptibly, like a gecko crawling towards a moth, till Andy Robertson whipped in a ball that curved across the penalty box only to be met by Diogo Jota’s perfectly timed run? It lasted 90 seconds from first touch to last, and each of Liverpool’s players barring the goalkeeper got at least one touch during that time.
A quick aside: What is it about petite attacking players? They are the sensations of the footballing world. A decade ago we had the tiny Spanish midfield magicians, then came the “golden generation” from Belgium who ruled every inch of a football field, and now it’s the turn of the unassuming Portuguese who will sneak past the defensive lines and create havoc.
Why are goals that come at the end of a cluster of passes so fascinating to fans of the game? Is it because they signify complete mastery of the game? The fact that every player in a team can get a touch, move the ball right around the field and then put it in the net without the opponents being able to intercept it is proof of astounding dominance.
Indeed, Pep Guardiola, whose trophy cabinet is likely crumbling under its own weight, says his idea of the perfect goal is one where all 11 players in a team touch the ball before the striker finishes the move. In Manchester City’s record-breaking 2017-18 season under him, the team gave their manager the gift of the “perfect goal” twice. Once with a 20-pass move, and later with a staggering 52-pass goal against an utterly dumbfounded West Bromwich Albion. That move lasted two minutes and twenty-seven seconds — a lifetime on the pitch.
In 2017, those two goals were sparkling proof of City’s overall dominance. But it’s not always so. Often, a goal at the end of 30 passes signifies only a mastery over the moment. When the moment passes, that goal is no more perfect than a goal that comes from two passes. Think of the 35-pass goal Arsenal orchestrated earlier this year. The man who scored was Mesut Ozil. Where is he now? Where are Arsenal?
Perhaps I’m just bitter, because my most enduring memory of a high-volume passing goal, a memory that is triggered every time I see another one like it, is Esteban Cambiasso scoring at the end of 24 passes, for Argentina, in the 2006 World Cup.
As a die-hard Argentina and Maradona fan, as a person whose first clear memories of the glories of a football World Cup came from 1986, that goal woke up the long-dormant hope of an Argentina that could be champions of the world again. I was convinced that no one could stop a team that could score that goal. Twenty-four passes! The incredible movement on and off the ball! A Jackson Pollock masterpiece! (Remember this was before Barcelona introduced tiki-taka, so it was highly unusual for a team to do something like this.)
This was also the first time the world at large got a glimpse of Lionel Messi, then 18, coming on as a substitute to make his World Cup debut.
Argentina crashed out in the quarterfinals at the hands of stolid Germany, a heartbreak I have never quite recovered from.
I will concede that lots of passes leading to a goal has a certain beauty to it and a certain enduring quality — post-match, this is the kind of stuff that provides geeky pleasure, an obsessive plotting of passes and movement, the visual beauty of the pitch map with criss-crossing lines tracking the ball. Jota’s goal for Liverpool looks like a cross-hatched hourglass laid right across the pitch.
But it is not the perfect goal. The perfect goal is Dennis Bergkamp whirling past a Newcastle defender like a tornado at the end of a superb pass from Robert Pires. Arsenal, 2002. Look it up.