Eye on England: Snodgrass and the odd exoticism of left-footed footballers

Every Monday, playsarea’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the week that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”

The name Robert Snodgrass has a rather fictional quality. It belongs to a ruddy-cheeked child created by Roald Dahl, or on the list of potential names for Harry Potter’s comic-relief classmate before author J.K. Rowling settled on Neville Longbottom.

Snodgrass certainly isn’t the kind of surname reserved for bronzed, chiseled hunks straight out of mushy beach reads.

But a romanticism still remains with Snodgrass the footballer. He stands out for West Ham United. While Michail Antonio bolts and barges, and Manuel Lanzini’s jittery artfulness is characteristic of a No. 10, Snodgrass steps back and coolly surveys the situation. Then, when the ball is played back to him, he wraps his foot around it in a manner few right-footed players can. His arrowed assist for Issa Diop on Saturday, before his two deflected goals against Brighton & Hove Albion, was typical of the Scotsman.

Perhaps lefties themselves don’t get this, but there is an alluring exoticism to footballers who use that hoof.

They’re a rarer breed. Morten Gamst Pedersen revealed in an interview with Planet Football last year that he deliberately worked on his left foot as a youth because it would give him the best chance of making it. By the time of his 2004 transfer to Blackburn Rovers, the Norwegian winger’s right trotter was no longer his most dominant, and his left was a source of set-piece and crossing wizardry.

Pedersen wasn’t clairvoyant, though. It was quite obvious: there were fewer lefties. Behind his natural position, right-footed left-backs were common before his English move – Manchester United’s Denis Irwin was a ruthless penalty taker with his right – and when he was gone, Cesar Azpilicueta was keeping the left-footed Filipe Luis out of the Chelsea XI. Even in Italy, a country obsessed with tactics, Paolo Maldini, Gianluca Zambrotta, and Javier Zanetti were all right-footed players who appeared at left-back.

Michael Steele – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

There was also England’s long-winded search for a left-winger in the 2000s. The national team was wedded to wide play, and, despite the dearth of left-wing options, tweaking this approach didn’t seem up for consideration. A host of uninspiring players who were natural in that role, such as Celtic’s Alan Thompson, fell flat. But then-manager Sven-Goran Eriksson was undeterred in his search for a left-sided solution, so Michael Carrick soon followed fellow right-footed defensive midfielders Dennis Wise and Nicky Butt in being trialed there.

But when the left-footers do take their less competitive route to the top of the game, they seem to do things less conventionally. Perhaps it comes down to unimaginative coaching: they’re pushed to the left flank from a young age, and, when they’re involved in play, everything revolves around their stronger peg. They work and work on their left foot.

Arjen Robben is an obvious left-footed example, as his game revolved around cutting inside from the right, and then cutting inside some more, and a bit more again, until he could shoot with his left. Laurent Robert’s best goal for Newcastle United was against Fulham in 2004, where “scorpion kick” doesn’t do justice to the way he desperately twisted his body to avoid using his weaker foot. He clearly felt his back-right paw wasn’t up to the task, but what he was capable of with his left – while he performed a contortionist act – was otherworldly.

Rarely have righties challenged the power with which Tomasz Hitzlsperger and short-lived Manchester City left-back Michael Tarnat belted the ball in England. The late Gary Speed distributed with a pleasing, distinctive crispness. And then there are the many players who appear very average, like Chris Brunt and Matt Ritchie, until they regularly post crosses with a dip and curl that only the greatest right-footers can consistently muster.

Left-footers seem to strike it better. Snodgrass doesn’t merely cross. He drives, swerves, and whips his balls into the danger area. That’s how his hits are described in match reports, at least.

Either some left-footed footballers are curiously different, or it’s just a work of Dahl-esque fantasy – an involuntary fetishism by those who write with their right.

Further thoughts

James Baylis – AMA / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Shrews’ blues

Shrewsbury Town’s comeback to draw 2-2 against Liverpool on Jan. 26 rekindled some love for the FA Cup, but it also bought time for Sam Ricketts as manager.

Following Saturday’s late defeat to Rochdale, Salop are now without a win in seven straight League One matches. They were two points off the playoff places on Christmas Day. Now, they are 13 points below those coveted positions.

The potential of Ricketts’ roost was on display in the famous fourth-round meeting with Liverpool. Josh Laurent was a driving force in midfield and Jason Cummings is among a group of talented strikers on the Shropshire club’s books. But Ricketts’ tactics are often too negative.

Barring a miracle at Anfield, Ricketts could be sacked if Tuesday’s replay with Liverpool is followed by poor showings against Milton Keynes Dons and Accrington Stanley – two clubs also struggling for form – in Shrewsbury’s next two games in the third tier.

Igha-low expectations

Manchester United are used to having backup strikers with the quality of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Teddy Sheringham, Louis Saha, Javier Hernandez, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. So how did United reach the ignominy of scrambling to sign Odion Ighalo on January’s transfer deadline day?

That in itself is a long story rife with antagonists from the Old Trafford boardroom, but, the truth is, Manchester United are desperate for short-term firepower to cover Marcus Rashford’s time on the sidelines. A striker was needed – even one that’s been playing in China for three years

After United drew 0-0 with Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday, their last 50 shots have failed to result in a goal. Ighalo, 30, is an underwhelming arrival, but, with a hatful of goals off the bench to earn a top-four finish, he would be an unlikely cult hero.

Pep’s problems persist

Earlier in the season, Pep Guardiola was frustrated by teams defending narrowly against Manchester City and therefore forcing his team to punt crosses to their vertically challenged forwards. Normally, the balls from out wide were grossly overhit by Angelino.

But, sometime after the Manchester derby defeat in December, Guardiola changed things. A back-three was utilized more often in a system which often shaped up as a 3-2-5 in possession.

Aside from one-sided results in the FA Cup and against Aston Villa, City are still wasteful. Only this time, it’s an issue of personnel rather than tactics. The chances are there – City’s xG in Sunday’s 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur was a huge 5.3 – but there is too much pondering in front of goal and too much moaning at officials when introspection is required.

City have now fired 31 shots without scoring in their past two matches – the first time the club hasn’t scored in back-to-back outings under Guardiola – and Raheem Sterling is the biggest casualty of City’s issues. After an incredible start to the campaign, indecision has ruinously crept back into the Englishman’s game.

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