I’ve been inspired by a recent spate of headed goals from my amateur team’s diminutive midfielder Mike Bouton and it got me to thinking about small players who punch above their weight in the aerial side of the game. As the Australians would say, Mike is knee-high to a grasshopper, but he’s scored three headers in two games, ghosting in between defenders and powering it into the net. Many pro soccer players in recent memory have a similar knack of defying the cut and dry statistics of the measuring tape. So who are the best sub six-footers when it comes to attacking the ball at altitude and putting it in the onion bag. Here’s my countdown:
5. Javier Hernandez (5″9)
Chicharito’s first goal for United was the most bizaare header I’ve ever seen as he shanked it off his right foot against his noggin and it rebounded into the net. Since then, however, he’s displayed an incredible knack of finding space between defenders and guiding the ball at goal with glancing headers. It helps having the kind of service that Nani, Valencia and Giggs can provide, but the little Mexican is a force to be reckoned with in the air, even for teams who have towering center backs.
4. Lionel Messi (5″7)
It just doesn’t seem fair does it? The true master of all skills pertaining to “playing it on the deck”, Lionel Messi is not content to rest there and insists on being good in the air as well. It’s a bit like Napoleon conquering most of Europe and then deciding he fancied a bit of Russia too.
I remember watching the 2009 Champions League Final from my flat in North London with some friends. Already spell-bound by the little Argentinian I dropped a slice of pizza in amazement when he looped a header over Edwin van der Sar. He had to stretch every sinew in his body to reach Xavi’s cross on the corner of the six yard box and arch it over the Dutchman into the far corner. I can’t really remember Maradona ever being much use in the air (then again he was even shorter at 5″5) – over time, it could be this attribute that differentiates the two Argentinian number 10s.
3. Robbie Fowler (5″9)
I never thought of Fowler as being short and maybe that’s just because he is slightly taller than Michael Owen (see below). He just knew how to score in any and every way possible, including with his head. If FIFA had changed the rules to only allow scoring with the back of your neck, I’m pretty sure Robbie would have been the first to master it. He scored some scorching drives from outside the box, he scored some crucial tap ins with his feet… but he also scored some fantastic headers in his days at Liverpool (no wonder they called him God). He might still be doing so in Thailand for all I know but there’s not much call for the Thai Premier League on U.S. television.
2. Michael Owen (5″8)
Michael Owen has been interviewed and talked about how he has always struggled with high balls, and who can forget when Brazilian legend Carlos Alberto waded in and started calling him a midget. But what Carlos Alberto might not have noticed (especially as it was in Owen’s Real Madrid days where he spent most of his time in a tracksuit), Micky was, and is, actually very good attacking the ball in the area. A bit like Chicharito he has the knack of judging the flight of the ball from hard crosses and finding that space in between defenders. The two headers he scored in an England friendly against Argentina back in 2005 spring to mind. Or the perfect hat-trick (right foot, left foot, header) he scored for Newcastle against West Ham in 2007.
Clearly the vast majority of his goals came from being played in behind and getting in one on one situations, but he was always a fox in the box too and seemed to make room for a free header an awful lot.
1. Tim Cahill (5″10)
So at 5 “10 you couldn’t really call the Australian diminutive, but he is certainly a few inches shorter than the average center back picking him up on corners. But he’s lethal in the air. Deadly. He attacks the ball with such cavalier aggression and his timing is so perfect that it is virtually impossible for defenders to stop him getting in front of them and connecting.
There is a nice example of his aerial prowess against Newcastle in this YouTube compilation (about 45 seconds in). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1lWm7z14dI
The only drawback to his scoring great headers is that you have to watch him do that ridiculous celebration where he pretends to box with the defenceless corner flag.
Suggestions in the compiling of this list were provided by my old Keble College teammate Richard Craig, himself sub-six foot but a very good headerer of the ball. Thanks for reading and stay strong (in the air)!
p.s. The best ever headed goal (regardless of height)… could it be this one?