Tactics: In defence of Emile Heskey

Why does Emile Heskey get into the England team?

It certainly can’t be for his goals. In 363 minutes of Premier League football this season he has scored just one. Jermain Defoe, one of his main rivals for a place in Fabio Capello’s starting XI, averages a goal every 83 minutes. For Darren Bent the figure is 138 minutes. For Carlton Cole, 152.

It was the same story in England’s World Cup qualifiers. In seven matches Heskey scored once, a figure bettered by Defoe, Joe Cole, Theo Walcott, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney and equalled by Shaun Wright-Phillips, Gareth Barry, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry.

Goals are clearly not what Heskey brings to the party. But he does bring something, because despite his goal-shy tendencies he spent more minutes on the pitch for England than any other striker apart from Rooney. And despite the strong claims for inclusion currently being presented by his rivals, Heskey is probably the only forward alongside Rooney who is currently guaranteed a place on the plane to South Africa.

“I think Fabio is a big fan of his,” said Bolton Wanderers striker Kevin Davies, a long shot for a World Cup call-up but a similar player in style to Heskey.

“He’s been in there ahead of strikers who are playing better and scoring more goals but I think as a target man, Fabio fancies him and likes the way he plays. I think he will be on the plane regardless…”

The diagram below, a screenshot from the ESPN Soccernet website, is a ‘heat map’ showing every touch Heskey made in Aston Villa’s 1-1 draw at Everton on October 31 (the last time he played a full 90 minutes in the Premier League).


For a centre forward he covers a remarkable amount of ground and spends very little time in the opposition penalty area. Clearly, Heskey’s role for Villa involves occupying defenders, drawing them out of position and dragging them away from goal to create space for players like Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and James Milner to run into.

This is a heat map of Defoe’s involvement in Tottenham’s 2-1 win at West Ham at the end of August (the closest comparable fixture to Villa’s game at Everton):


The difference is striking (if you’ll excuse the pun). Where Heskey’s involvement is spread out across the field of play, Defoe’s game is very tightly concentrated on the edge of the opposition penalty area, right in the middle of the pitch. Textbook striker, textbook goalscorer.

Heskey also plays a much bigger role in his side’s build-up play. This diagram compares Heskey’s passing from the game at Everton to Defoe’s passing in Tottenham’s 9-1 thrashing of Wigan.

Even in a game that Tottenham completely dominated, and in which he scored five goals, Defoe managed just 10 successful passes and gave the ball away six times. In a difficult away game for Aston Villa, Heskey made almost twice as many passes (18) and conceded possession on just two occasions.

A picture is beginning to emerge. While Heskey works, and hustles, and tackles, and makes runs, Defoe waits. When chances present themselves Defoe springs to life and his statistics prove that he is currently the English top-flight’s most lethal marksman. But he plays alongside a partner and with a steady stream of crosses coming into the box from both sides of the pitch.

Heskey, on the other hand, is often asked to plough a lone furrow for England. As the tip of Capello’s 4-2-3-1, his job is to create space for the attacking triumvirate behind him – Rooney, Gerrard and Walcott or Aaron Lennon. This is England’s real attack, not Heskey. His role is to drag defenders around, link the play at the top end of the pitch and generally make a nuisance of himself.

“He is really important to the system we play, both in terms of our movement and the way we press to win the ball back,” said Capello. “I accept he is not the greatest finisher. But the others can do it. If he opens the door, they will arrive.”

The most impressive performance of England’s qualifying campaign was the 4-1 victory in Croatia in September last year and Heskey’s role was crucial. He played a part in all four goals, teeing up Rooney for the pass that led to Walcott’s second goal and distracting defenders with his astute movement for the other three.

“He’s ideal for me to play with because he gives me the freedom to get on the ball and get in good positions,” says Rooney. “He’s big, strong and holds the ball up.”

It is a role that Defoe cannot perform. In a team set up to create chances for him, he is lethal. But in a system where he must play a role in the creative process himself, he is nowhere near as effective.

The 27-year-old has precious little experience of playing up front on his own, having been paired with a strike partner wherever he has played, but a lone frontman is what Capello needs to make his system work. And when Heskey is in the side, the system undeniably does work. With an average of 3.4 goals per game, England were the most prolific side of the 31 teams that qualified for South Africa.

So why the need for debate? How could England possibly score any more goals? Replacing Heskey with Defoe or Bent would not just add their goals to a successful formula. It would tear up the formula completely.

8 Responses to “Tactics: In defence of Emile Heskey”

  • tim:

    ok, rooney is our best striker, fact. But i bet if you looked at his heat map it would be more similar to heskeys than defoes. So the question is where will the goals come from in the tight games of the world cup finals? what wud be good to at look is heskey and crouch’s heat maps and rooney and defoes. Then at least on paper we can find the ‘perfect partnership’!I have always thought Heskey is a great player and won lots of games in the early 00’s for an average liverpool team, Owen got most of the goals and all of the praise.

    Maybe if Owen can find form he could be the 5th
    striker coming of the bench to nick games, but i think he will have a fight with the wingers for a place to south africa.

  • You forgot to mention Gerrard’s goal contribution in the qualifiers….

    In response to the previous poster, Owen is not going to South Africa, whether he finds a bit of form or not.

  • With reference to what I’ve written above, I think that Heskey and Rooney will without doubt be England’s first-choice strike pairing when the World Cup begins. If Capello picked his squad tomorrow, I reckon he’d take Rooney, Heskey, Crouch and Defoe, with Walcott probably named among the midfielders.

    The great thing about having Crouch and Defoe on the bench is that they give you completely different options for changing the game, which is priority number one in tournament football. I can only see Defoe featuring as a substitute though. To accommodate him in the starting XI you’d have to put Heskey or Crouch alongside him and sacrifice one of the attacking midfielders.

    I agree with Arthur’s point about Owen. Capello clearly doesn’t rate him and there would be no point taking him and Defoe to South Africa when they’re so similar.

  • I understand why you believe Heskey has earned the right to start for England. Although I would argue that yes England have done well within qualifying with Heskey’s inclusion, but that’s because they have been apart of a very weak group with an under-par Croatia and Ukraine offering wafer thin competition.

    Anytime we have played any half organised International team we have crumbled.
    Spain lost 2-0
    France lost 1-0
    Holland scraped a 2-2 draw
    Ukraine lost 1-0 away
    To a lesser extent lost 1-0 to Brazil.

    Once you are at the World Cup the level of quality notches up several levels. England can’t be judged on one of the weakest qualifying groups ever. While Croatia were not the force from last year and were without arguably their 3 best players Eduardo, Modric and Kranjcar.

  • Of the matches you mention, only the game against Spain was of real concern. The performance against France was awful but it was early in Capello’s tenure, the Holland game wasn’t a bad result for an early-season friendly, the Ukraine defeat came after England had already qualified and England played Brazil without nine key players. Italy won the 1982 World Cup despite not having won a match in six months!

    And I don’t think England’s group was any weaker than Group Two (Switzerland, Greece, Latvia), Group Three (Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic) or Group Nine (Netherlands, Norway, Scotland).

    I’m not sure that the quality of teams at the World Cup is ‘several levels’ higher than what England have faced in their qualifying matches and friendly games either. There are a fair few average teams going to South Africa and England should comfortably get through the group stage, provided they avoid a horror draw. They then need to win two matches to reach the semi-finals and make it a successful tournament, and I think a coherent strategy (as they currently have with Heskey) and a few attacking options on the bench are all they need to do that, given the quality of the players they have.

  • When Heskey plays it’s alll about movement and dynamism which only the first choice XI can give, hence the losses against big teams in the freindlies. I’ve always advocated playing the big man; kind of like RVP’s contibution at the start of Arsenal’s season but then started adding goals too (7 assists and 7 goals). That’s where fans and media start to criticise Heskey for, missing the point altogether.

    Rooney and Heskey operate closely the same but have different styles. The key maybe will be if Heskey moves a bit higher to give more directness and along with the intricacy down the left, open up space for Walcott to cut in and provide a goal threat.

  • […] Debate over who should be named among England’s forwards at the World Cup revolves almost exclusively around who scores the most goals. But what about who brings the best out of the team? The problem for Davies, Heskey and their ilk is not that they don’t score enough goals, but that fans and pundits expect them to do so even when that’s not why they’re in the side. The popular expectation alluded to by Strachan – that strikers exist purely to score goals – demonstrates the damaging effect that Britain’s linguistic uninventiveness has reaped on our collective appreciation of the different roles a forward can be asked to adopt. […]

  • […] Rooney finished as the second-top scorer in the European zone with nine goals in as many matches. Key to that formula is Emile Heskey, whose movement and industry create the space for Rooney and Steven Gerrard to get on the ball in […]

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