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.