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The End of the Wonder Goal

It certainly seems like the long-range howitzer/exocet/belter/screamer is gradually becoming a thing of the past, so let us honor the greatest group of golazos the Premier League has ever seen

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Arsène Wenger mentioned expected goals in a press conference. Barcelona have perfected the art of passing up a shot from inside the 6-yard box in exchange for an empty-net tap-in. Real Madrid — well, they don’t count. But the long arc of soccer, like every other sport, seems to bend toward efficiency, and clubs are realizing that every shot from distance means one fewer shot from, well, a closer distance. We don’t have the numbers to prove it — available shots data only goes back to 2009 — but allow us to recklessly speculate: Wonder goals are going extinct.

Sure, over the course of a 38-game season, it’s smarter to, you know, not step on the ball, look around, realize you’re 45 yards from goal, and decide it’s time to dial your own number. But try telling that to Clarence Seedorf.

So, in honor of the waning legacy of Morten Gamst Pedersen, it’s time to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the best month of goals in Premier League history: December 2006.

Here are our six favorites:

Matthew Taylor: Portsmouth vs. Everton, December 9

Micah Peters: When you watch Matthew Taylor — then age 25 and in the top flight, now not 25 and adrift in League One — wallop a full volley into the top corner from forever yards out, remember that it wasn’t supposed to work out that way. Sol Campbell played Taylor a short incisive pass to build an early move against Everton, and Taylor let it run under his foot on some AYSO shit. If Taylor collects that with even a passable first touch, maybe he sprays it wide to Gary O’Neill, who puts a decent cross on Nwankwo Kanu’s foot with the goalmouth yawning in front of him, like the second Portsmouth goal in this game.

Instead, a flailing challenge on Kanu from a trailing defender makes the ball sit up nicely, and it somehow occurs to Taylor — against literally all conventional wisdom and logic — that he could have a go from there, first time. If you listen closely enough to the replay, you can actually hear him thinking, “Now that we’re here, we may as well go too far.

Every coach I’ve had would have advised me to take a touch in a situation like this. But Matthew Taylor taught me that “taking a touch” is for cowards, and people that score wonder goals … eventually get two full sleeves of tattoos and end up playing for Northampton Town. Which I’m going to interpret as the English football version of gangsters getting chubby and moving to Miami.

In the match recap, The Guardian said this was “on the short-list for Goal Of the Season,” which, as we get further out from it, seems cuter and cuter, because this was definitely the best Premier League goal of that season. And in my weaker moments — like right after watching it 53 times in a row — I catch myself thinking that maybe it’s the best Premier League goal of all time.

Michael Essien: Chelsea vs. Arsenal, December 10

Sam Schube: The last half-hour or so of high school soccer practice was given over to individual training. That was the idea, at least. After a couple of hours of sprints and possession drills, the Oakwood Gorillas were free to work on whichever aspect of the game we found most bedeviling, or beguiling, or fun, or simply closest to the parking lot, where we could fire up a post-practice spliff. Usually it meant a lot of fucking around: excessive rabonas, maybe, or a head-juggling contest. In December 2006, though, we were all doing the same thing in that formless final 30 minutes. We were all trying to be Chelsea’s Michael Essien.

Here’s the stupid thing Essien did against Arsenal:

The execution is breathtaking, and so is the audacity. But what’s really fucking great about it is how wrong it looks, until it doesn’t. Arsenal hold a 1–0 lead as time ticks toward 90, and Essien charges toward a loose ball something like 25 yards from goal. He puts his foot through it, and the ball’s trajectory looks like its headed somewhere in the 10th row of the stands, a little ways to the keeper’s right. Good seats. Bad spot to shoot.

But then it dips and swerves, somehow picking up speed, and catches enough of the post to rattle into the net. It’s a goddamn wonder goal. A thunder-bastard. It drove our coach crazy.

Keep passing, he liked to say. Even against the clock, a desperate shot from distance is bad math. Coach — George, the stats teacher at school — knew math. Math was work rate, and movement, and short passes. I’m sure José Mourinho preached something similar to Essien: Don’t do something stupid, even if it’s cool; play smart. He didn’t listen. We didn’t, either, and spent those last minutes of sunlight lining up from 25 to rocket cannonballs over the net and down to the other end of the park.

Chelsea finished second in the league that year. We made a decent run into the playoffs, and then our penchant for last-minute thumpers ran headlong into the sneering god of probability. Essien struggled with knee injuries and last played in Greece. I tweet.

David Bentley: Reading vs. Blackburn, December 16

(BT Sport)
(BT Sport)

Donnie Kwak: “David Bentley, remember his name.” In 2004, it was advice from the astonished commentator calling the midfielder’s first professional goal, an impudent, left-footed chip from outside the box at Highbury. At 19, Bentley had arrived — Arsenal’s next Bergkamp, England’s new Beckham.

David Bentley, remember his name. If you do, it’s not because he turned into a great player — he never did — but because he scored a handful of great goals. The thunderous strike 10 years ago for Blackburn was one. Ditto this, in the UEFA Cup. The Becks-lite free kick that christened new Wembley. That volley for Spurs in the 4–4 NLD at the Emirates. He was a performer with a specialty: long-distance, audacious, spectacular goals.

But he wasn’t a machine. He was a prodigy, then a journeyman — the only Englishman to ever play in Russia’s top flight — and, in 2014, a 29-year-old retiree. To most, he remains an enigma. What went wrong? Nothing, really. He was a little too cocky, sure, an inveterate freelancer who could never deal with having a boss. The abnormal talent was there, but not the abnormal temperament. Being an English football star is not a particularly fun job. “Mentally, you got to be really strong,” he said earlier this year when reflecting on why he left the game so early. “It got to a point where I was just like, ‘This is boring.’”

Today, Bentley, still only 32, lives in Marbella, Spain, with his wife and three children. He’s a restaurateur with seven England caps and a YouTube collection of footballing glories. It sounds like a cautionary tale, and it very well may be — but not in the way it seems. Who do you think is happier, him or Wayne Rooney?

Tom Huddlestone: Manchester City vs. Tottenham, December 17

Chris Ryan: Back in 2013, then–Sunderland manager Gus Poyet had this to say about Hull midfielder Tom Huddlestone: “Tom’s one of the few players, if not the only one, who can hit a ball 70 yards without moving 10 [centimeters]. Left, right, ping it around, outside of the foot.”

How you feel about Huddlestone depends on what part of that assessment matters to you. Tom does not move much. Never has. And that, along with injury issues, has undoubtedly kept him at the lower Premier League level despite his obvious creative gifts. (Manager George Burley once called him “the best passer of the ball I’ve ever seen.”) He was emblematic of a mid-to-late 2000s Spurs generation — Michael Dawson, Aaron Lennon, Jermaine Jenas — that never quite lived up to expectations (Gareth Bale being the exception). Huddlestone’s career is a what-if. But sweet George Best, he could stroke it.

When Huddlestone scores a goal (this has happened just north of 20 times) it looks like you are watching an angel scythe wheat in an unreleased Terrence Malick movie about the Premier League. It happens in real time, but in slow-motion, with the strike usually coming from great distance, to the complete shock and ecstasy of everyone in the vicinity. The Man City goal featured above is not even in the top five of Hudd’s greatest hits, but hell, at least he moves more than 10 centimeters before striking it.

Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba: Everton vs. Chelsea, December 17

Ryan O’Hanlon: First, here’s the lede from the BBC’s match report:

As for the cast: Drogba just spent the last year playing for the Montreal Impact. Arteta is now an assistant coach at Manchester City. Boulahrouz retired a year ago and still hasn’t apologized for injuring Cristiano Ronaldo at the 2006 World Cup. Anichebe is … 28 years old? Ballack’s doing occasional commentary for ESPN. Howard is playing for the Colorado Rapids. Yobo is making headlines on Nigerian Entertainment Today for procreating. And Terry, who missed this game due to recurring back problems that had already begun flaring up 10 years ago, is still playing for Chelsea.

Poor Howard, who’s in this video three times despite notching the second-most clean sheets in the Premier League in 2006–07. Lampard’s goal hits him with a knockout jab — there’s no room for a full windup or follow-through, but he still turns the ball into a brick. Then Drogba’s given enough time by Everton’s defense to harness the power of the Earth’s rotation and slingshot a finish past Howard before his brain can even tell him to dive.

Although Chelsea were in full-on “we’ll drop 43 million euros on Andriy Shevchenko and start him only 30 times” mode at this point, their matchday squad for the Everton game included the aforementioned Cannibal, Henrique Hilario, Geremi, Wayne Bridge, Magnus Hedman, and Paulo Ferreira. December 2006 wasn’t perfect, but Lampard and Drogba could make it look like it was.