There is an unspoken truth in the Premier League. That is that for all the crying and howling about “diving foreigners” English players are among the most easy to topple – as long as they are 30 yards from the goal. There is even a set tactic used by many of the so called tough teams like West Brom, where a midfielder will go down from a wide area after the slightest touch so that his team can win a free kick. They can then march their big lumpy center backs up the field and try to score a goal off a free kick. The other well worn tactic is, of course, winning corners.
All of these approaches are fully legal and endorsed by this author. If you can draw a foul, get your opponent to play foolishly, then you should. If your strength is your giant center backs, then you should play to your strength. It’s up to the opponent to not foul, not concede the corner, and defend the set piece.
Unless the set piece is taken by Gylfi Sigurdsson. In that case, just go ahead and give him the goal.
Sigurdsson is the Icelandic David Beckham. He had an uncanny knack for scoring or assisting from set plays last season. His basic stats look great 9 goals and 13 assists is outstanding from a midfielder. But under the hood you see that Gylfi is a dead ball specialist. Firing in crosses to the 6’9″ Fernando Llorente, Gylfi chalked up 8 assists from corners and set pieces. Sigurdsson also scored 9 goals, however 3 of those were penalties and two more were from direct free kicks. Take away his set pieces and Sigurdsson scored 4 goals and had 5 assists.
Sigurdsson’s numbers look very plain indeed if you remove his set piece prowess. Sigurdsson was 7th in the League with 80 key passes last season. However, he created just 25 of those chances from open play. 39 key passes from corners and 16 key passes from free kicks. Don’t misunderstand here, those are insanely good set play numbers. Swansea were 4th in the League in key passes off corners with 41, 39 of which were delivered by Sigurdsson. They were also 4th in the League in key passes off free kicks, again with Sigurdsson delivering 16 of their total 17 in that category.
And Sigurdsson will fit right in with Everton’s philosophy: they led the League in key passes from free kicks last season with 21 (Ross Barkley delivered 11), so I expect them to ramp up on this tactic, despite selling on Romelu Lukaku. After all there’s an old saying about having a hammer and everything looking like nails.
What Sigurdsson doesn’t offer is defense, he had a career season with 1.2 tackles on 2 attempts per90 last season. and even added 0.9 interceptions per90. He can’t dribble the ball, averaged just 0.9 of 1.8 dribbles last season and won’t be used to pick locks against opponents who close the gates.
Sigurdsson also wasn’t the kind of midfielder who demands a lot of the ball. He averaged just 28 passes per90 last season, on a Swansea side that was 10th in the League in passing. And he’s not even a Pirlo type player, averaging just 0.9 long pass per90 (on a 45% completion rate). As a means of comparison, Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka averaged 6.6 long passes per game, and completed them at a 70% rate. In fact, Granit Xhaka had more key passes from open play (27) than Sigurdsson and the same number of key passes from through balls (4).
Sigurdsson is not a dribbler, he’s not a passer, and he doesn’t do defense. What he does do exceptionally well is take free kicks. He is like the field goal kicker on an American football team: a guy you wheel out when you need three points from a 50 yard kick.
£45m is a lot of money for such a specialist player. And one who doesn’t at all fill the hole left by Lukaku and Barkley.