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Football without headers

Imagine a game with no crossbars and the player who retrieved the ball first was awarded the throw in. Football has had some strange concepts for rules over the years, many of which are now things of the past. Even today the game continues to evolve, with the offside rule tweaked, and VAR introduced seemingly to both confuse and simplify the laws of the game.

But what about football without heading? Countless heavy set men will tussle on half way lines, jump in unison and ‘stick their name on it’ only for nothing to happen but the ball to fly beyond them, the other on-rushing centre forward latching on to it to slot past the keeper. More goals? Deeper defending? Or would it even make a difference at all.

There have been countless articles published around the potential (and we use this term as a disclaimer as research continues, though it’s been conclusive so far) damage repetitive heading can do. Rugby is confronting the same issue; of high impact physical contact with recent retirees sharing their own stories, suffering the onset of early dementia in their forties. Since, there are growing concerns in football following the passing of Sir Bobby Charlton, Ray Wilson and Martin Peters to name a few.

The Guardian in particular focussed headers per each of the top four leagues in England and how often a player heads the ball more than twenty times in a game. The data suggests the higher up the pyramid you go, the less heading there is overall. On this basis, let’s explore some more data sets and assume the same trends apply lower down the football pyramid even if at a slower pace.

In the Premier League already, less heading is taking place. When considering all goals scored in England’s top flight, 17.5% of them came from headers in 2015/15, versus 13.6% last year, a reduction of around a quarter.

Football, and more so how it is played is ever changing. A contributor to that, even at a marginal level has been the solo centre kick and the shorter goal kicks. The former allows the team kicking off to get the ball moving and under control faster. Less lumps forward by the right back no longer dealing with the opposition winger looking to make an early mark. The latter, shorter goal kicks, does the same. To combat this, defending sides have to press higher and risk leaving less space behind their back line.

So whilst the portion of goals coming from headers are going down, are actual headed goals reducing? The trends are conclusive. Headed goals were down 8% (180 to 153) across the same five season period noted above. What’s also interesting was the reduction of crosses (15,615 to 14,453) and it’s no surprise either. Whilst not all goals from crosses are headers, the success rate of scoring from a cross is low, particularly with the head.

Only 1.06% of crosses in 2019/20 culminated in headed goals. Further analysis needs to be done on how poor Premier League players seem to be at getting corners past the front post, but that’s for another day. In 2015/16 the success rate was higher, but still a measly 1.15%.

There are variables in the data here, noting these are Premier League goals, and the twenty sides that make up the division vary year on year. But even when you focus on the fourteen everpresents of the last five campaigns, the trends are exactly the same.

Do we miss headers? Do we need them? It seems unthinkable that the game could exist without them. Arguably only the removal of pass backs has been an improvement on the flow of the game in modern times, and football administrators when working to a venn diagram that meets game flow with rule improvement struggle to find anything that goes in the middle.

Throw ins to kick ins in certain parts of the pitch, and towards the end of the game make sense, as posited by Arsene Wnger. The team in possession are arguably a player down accounting for the thrower and stats suggest the throwing team often loses the ball anyway.

Corners, that swing out of play and back in, won’t be retaken. When you think about it, why should they be? What difference does it make?

Both of these ideas are innovations of Wenger, the professor of football if you will, and they focus on making the game flow without compromising anything.

Whilst we think about rule changes, it seems equally obvious and appalling the head injury substitute (whereby a player can be replaced without the teams allocation of permitted substitutes being reduced/impacted) by another player isn’t an already established part of the game.

Coming back to heading, perhaps there is a compromise and inspiration can be drawn from other kicking based invasion sports. In Australian Rules Football a player who catches a pass kicked from a team-mate wins a free kick, provided the ball has travelled fifteen metres. Play stops momentarily, with a time limit the player can hold the ball restarting. If the ball hasn’t travelled far enough between team mates, the player is fair game to be tackled in open play. When a player is on the move, they must bounce the ball every fifteen metres. In failing to do so the ball is turned over. There’s no technology for this, just mutual understanding and the final word of the umpire that fifteen metres has or hasn’t been travelled.

So back to headers, and their future in the game. A phasing of rule changes could be monitored; whereby the ball travelling greater than fifty metres cannot be headed, with this distance being potentially reduced, all the way down to under twenty or even ten metres, measuring the impacts on quality of the game as a spectacle and more importantly cognitive health of players.

The benefits are huge. The game, it’s flow and quality of passing would only improve, and per the stats, the game is moving in a direction of less headers anyway. So why not accelerate it, and protect our players at the same time?

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