TORRES v West Ham & SUAREZ v Norwich City
I’ve chosen two goals by two different players, but only because they illustrate the single point I want to make. Both were scored at Anfield. The first was scored by Fernando Torres in early March 2008 and the second by Luis Suarez in December 2013.
They are not the most spectacular Liverpool goals I’ve ever seen and they’re certainly not the most significant. They didn’t turn the course of the games they were scored in, let alone the respective seasons, nor did they send me into rapture – for the purest example of uninhibited ecstasy I have to go back to Alec Lindsay’s goal in the 1974 FA Cup Final, and because that goal was wrongly disallowed I’ve always, ever since, instinctively applied a little mental brake after we score until I check that the ref is running back to the centre spot with his arm out. Only then do I surrender to joy. In fact you could say that the ref who disallowed Lindsay’s 1974 goal has spoilt football for me ever since.
So: neither spectacular nor especially significant nor a source of personal rapture. And yet these two strikes will live with me for as long as I still like football. This is because both goals seem to me to illustrate the art of goal-scoring, and indeed centre-forward play, almost perfectly. They are prime exhibits in the travelling show ‘Why Strikers are a Special Breed’.
They were also scored – and this is not coincidence - by players who were, at the time of scoring, the best strikers in world football. Torres of Liverpool in 2008 was the envy of every big club in Europe. Suarez of Liverpool in 2013 was fast becoming the same. Both goals - and this is
coincidence - were also parts of hat-tricks. The Torres goal I’ve chosen was the first of his three that day and the Suarez goal was the middle of the three.
On the face of it you might say I’ve chosen to pay homage to the two dullest of the resulting six goals. That certainly seems to be true of the Suarez goal which was sandwiched between an inter-stellar lob from near on the half-way line and an outrageous dribble-cum-juggle-cum-shuffle-cum-rocket blast. But it’s arguably true of the Torres hat-trick too, since his second goal was a cute header and the third involved a nutmeg followed by a disguised pass into the corner of the net.
However…..this is what I love about the goals.
Nando’s came in the 7th minute of what had been a scrappy affair until then. The great Dirk Kuyt received the ball out on the right wing after Alonso had switched play with a raking pass and Arbeloa produced a bit of nifty work with the outside of his boot followed by a clever forward run which opened space on the flank. When Kuyt got his head up and saw what was in the box he probably didn’t fancy the team’s chances of scoring. West Ham were well organised with four defenders holding a line and patrolling the penalty area and only Torres in there for Liverpool. Kuyt decided to cross it anyway. In truth it was a nothing cross and might have even been mishit. What happened next was pure genius. I described it on RAWK at the time: “Torres's first goal should be goal of the season. It won't be because there was no step-over or bicycle kick involved. But I can't think of anyone else in the Premier League who would have scored it. It perfectly illustrated Torres's great gift - his astonishing reflexes and his killing pace over 3 or 4 yards. The goalie did not move an inch for the simple reason that, like 44,000 other people, he just couldn't see it coming. What the poor defender thought, god only knows. He wasn't just beaten to the cross by a fraction of the second. Torres was almost in a different time-zone. It was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.”
The “poor defender” was Anton Ferdinand – not a great centre back but, actually, no slouch in those situations. I look at the goal now and wonder if he could have done anything else, but I don’t think he could. It was the speed with which Torres picked up the trajectory of Kuyt’s bumpy cross and the spring heels that took him from a standing start to a blur in the space of a nano-second (or nando-second as I like to think of it).
Luis Suarez’s second goal against Norwich in 2013 is from the same, precious, playbook. It’s a Coutinho corner which, like Kuyt’s cross, bounces in front of a clutch of players. And it is a grease-lightning thinker, as well as mover, who emerges from the crowd to lash the ball home.
Two little steps backwards from Luis, like a dancer or boxer on his toes, which succeeds in putting the defender momentarily on the back foot, and then a piercing dart forwards. Suarez takes the defender out of the equation but then meets a ball that is ‘on the up’ and with his ‘wrong leg’. Yet he connects in such a perfect way that the ball hits the net before anyone realises he's even got his foot cocked. Most players, of course, would either have missed the ball completely or shinned it. If they were fortunate enough to connect with the rising ball it’s likely that the thing would have been fielded by a Kopite on the 15th row. Not Luis.
Suarez, at this point in his career, was scoring every 33 minutes against Norwich and it might seem this one was just ‘another goal’. But the reason it figures so highly for me – and this is true of the Torres one too – is that it meant Liverpool were capable of scoring from nothing. And that’s a demoralising thing for your opponents.
It’s my belief that most defenders can tolerate a demonstrable act of genius against them – a piece of football panache that leaves everyone gasping for air. The James goal in the World Cup, say, or indeed Luis’s first and third against Norwich. Defenders see these things and they shake their heads in wonder like the rest of us. What they can’t tolerate, indeed what they find crushing and frightening, are players who can score the kind of goals that I’ve singled out. A regulation cross in a situation where the defence is doing everything right is turned into a goal by a centre forward who simply possesses a higher order of pace – both brain pace and foot pace – than you do. When that happens the most innocuous situation can be transformed into a crisis in the blink of an eye. There is no rest for you. Pandemonium is always round the corner. That bastard forward will always be there, threatening to destroy you. Eventually he will.