Some unique insights from David James
When someone who has made 977 appearances in senior football and played 53 times for England offers an opinion on the game, it tends to be worth listening to. When that opinion is intelligent, original, unexpected even, it makes it all the more appealing.
“I’d want no more than three men in my wall,” said David James as Liverpool’s Brad Jones lined up his defenders to cope with a Gareth Bale free kick. “And I wouldn’t want any of them to jump.”
James, who was working Sunday’s Premier League TV studio shift alongside Clive Allen, went on to explain that, in his opinion, a wall is all too often a hindrance to the goalkeeper. With the aid of various replays, freeze-frames and the experience gained from a 25-year career, James said the key to saving any free kick is the amount of time the ‘keeper has to do something about it.
Positioning, he insisted, is vital. Too often, goalies put too many players in a wall, then stand behind it, so their view is obstructed and they don't have enough time to deal with a shot they might otherwise catch comfortably.
As it happened, Jones just about managed to cope with the Bale effort, even though the ball’s late swerve had him beating it away rather unconvincingly instead of catching it. That swerve in turn led us into a discussion of the recent trend toward players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba and even David Luiz striking the ball in such a way that it acts erratically on its way towards the goal.
James reckons it has something to do with hitting the ball without follow-through, putting a sharp burst of energy into it and then seeing how it reacts. Robbie Fowler, he said, did it almost without thinking.
Of course we dug out Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2008 screamer of a free-kick at Old Trafford for United against Portsmouth and it was clear James was still angry about, as well as admiring of, the stunning strike. “Apparently it was the first time he had ever hit the target with one,” he muttered. He went on to admit he had found David Beckham more dangerous from set pieces.
The reason? That ability, described earlier on, to use to the wall as an obstruction to the ‘keeper. James explained that the free kick he can do nothing about, no matter how well positioned he may be, is the one that the taker is able to curl over or around the wall into the unguarded part of the goal.
For the record, the man who is still involved in top-flight football (for League One outfit Bournemouth), rates Bale and Lampard highly as free-kick takers because of their consistency when it comes to actually hitting the target. Mention was made of the fact that Brazilian fullback Roberto Carlos may have scored one out-of-this-world goal from a dead-ball strike back in 1997 but also that he only ever scored one after that from countless attempts.
As anyone who reads David James’s column in the Observer newspaper knows, the man brings a rare degree of intellectualism to any discussion of football issues. He is a student of sports psychology and an advocate of specialised coaching and preparation, especially in his area of expertise.
So it might come as a surprise to learn that he hasn’t moved all that naturally into the role of pundit. In fact, James has admitted that when he found himself out of contract last year upon leaving Bristol City, he tried a bit of TV work and decided that even at the age of 42 he would still be happier playing football than discussing it.
That said, he is prepared to offer an opinion if pushed, especially when it comes to goal-keeping. Take the current crop of Premier League ‘keepers for instance. He struggles to say who is the best (“Joe Hart on last season’s form, but not this season”) and has a lot of time for United’s David de Gea, whose save with his feet from Juan Mata at the end of Sunday’s FA Cup quarterfinal had James raving about his ability. No outright favourite though.
Having a ‘keeper on the punditry panel also gave us a different perspective on incidents such as Hugo Lloris’s apparent blunder that allowed Stewart Downing to run in and score Liverpool’s equalizer on Sunday.
James insisted the biggest mistake was made by Kyle Walker in mis-hitting a back-pass-cum-crossfield-ball that the Frenchman simply couldn’t deal with. Lloris was right to come and try to clear it, said James, but because it was hit so badly it faded away from the goalie and meant he couldn’t get his foot on it. A shrug of those broad David James shoulders, followed by a admission of “maybe I’ll always defend the goalie”, but he had made a valid point – one accepted by fellow panelist Clive Allen.
Whether David James will have a regular chance to bring that unique perspective of his to punditry remains to be seen. After all, he is still a Bournemouth player. And while he is currently out of favour, he is just 23 tantalising appearances in professional football away from “doing a Giggs” and making it to the magical 1 000.
“I’d better have a word with my agent,” he grinned. But, as tends to be the case with David, one wasn’t quite sure whether that meant he wants more time on the pitch or in the TV studio. Either way, keep an eye out for the next move made by this most charismatic of footballers. It’s bound to be an eye-opener.