Rory Delap: How do you stop the Human Sling?
Long throw-ins from Stoke City's Rory Delap are spreading panic among Premier League defences. Glenn Moore, Football Editor, analyses why they are so dangerous
Arsène Wenger is not a man who normally leaves anything to chance. The Arsenal manager's attention to detail is legendary, whether it be his stopwatch-timed coaching sessions, designing the training ground redevelopment, or dictating the players' diet.
So maybe he was just being disingenuous when he said, before Arsenal's match at Stoke City on Saturday: "We won't make a fuss about it. They score maybe one like that every two months." The reality is Delap's long-throws had been responsible for five of City's 11 Premier League goals this season. Wenger did, in fact, pack his team with what passes for giants at Arsenal including Nicklas Bendtner, Abou Diaby and Alex Song. He also said yesterday that Arsenal "had a plan to deal with [Delap's] throw-ins and we had worked on it".
When it came to defending against the Delap missiles, however, his team seemed clueless. Despite packing the box with players – of which more later – they conceded to a deft flick-on by Ricardo Fuller and a scrambled second goal by Seyi Olofinjana, which was ultimately chested over the line.
That brought the number of Stoke goals this season originating in Delap's elastic arms to seven, or 54 per cent. The next highest proportion of goals scored via throw-ins belongs to Portsmouth, with 18 per cent.
Next to face the Delapotron are Wigan Athletic, although it is West Bromwich Albion who have most to fear as they are the next visitors to the Britannia Stadium. Only one visiting team has kept a clean sheet in the Potteries this season, Chelsea, and that perhaps owed less to the presence of Petr Cech, John Terry et al than the absence of the injured Delap. Six of his seven assists have been at home and there are natural and artificial reasons.
Stoke's ground appears to be freakishly windy – a consequence perhaps of having open corners, now rare in the Premier League – which can add further distance to Delap's giant throws. Tony Pulis, the manager, has also narrowed the pitch to the bare minimum allowed, 64 metres. This makes it easier for Delap to reach the middle of the six-yard area, makes it more likely that opponents concede throw-ins as there is less width to play with, and also suits a Stoke team which lacks natural wingers.
Albion at least know all about Stoke, having faced, and lost to, them in the Championship last season. Their match programme controversially suggested Stoke "train with cannons rescued from local medieval ruins ... footballs are fired into the distance for Mamady Sidibe to head and Ricardo Fuller to run after".
But forewarned is not forearmed. As Wenger, after his week's training, added: "They fly into the box and it is difficult with 20 people in there. That sort of thing is not our greatest strength. We were punished and I believe we were unlucky as well."
Up to a point. One problem is that there are not "20 people in there". For Stoke's first goal on Saturday there were only 14 players in the 18-yard box, 10 of them from Arsenal, four from Stoke. This is a point that everyone appears to miss. Stoke do not pack the box. They put in some key players who are tall and strong in the air and ask Delap to aim for the front two while the others look for the second ball.
It is the defence who flood the box, making it difficult for their own goalkeeper to catch or punch. That was the case in Stoke's opening Premier League win, against Aston Villa. Their last-minute winner was scored by Sidibe after John Carew and Martin Laursen blocked Brad Friedel's attempt to reach Delap's throw.
"It was a problem all day but we thought we had resolved the problem of coping with them," said Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager. "We had one last [long throw] to deal with and whether it was a bit of luck or what, the ball ended up in our net."
Andy Gray, having studied Delap's throws for Sky TV's The Last Word, reckons there are two distinct varieties. One, delivered parallel to the goal area, should be treated like a corner, "usual men on the posts, mark up". The other, delivered from nearer the halfway line, has a higher loop which means there is less pace on the ball, although that also means it is more likely to be taken by the wind – making it difficult to read the flight.
Despite that, Gray believes the goalkeeper should claim the ball if it is near his six-yard box. "It's the responsibility of any goalkeeper worth his salt to say, 'That's mine guys, I can deal with that'," he said. The much-maligned Spurs goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes did just that, unconvincingly at times but successfully. Arsenal's Manuel Almunia did not.
The balls which drop further out, said Gray, are the "responsibility of the defenders because the goalkeeper cannot come through all those bodies [most of which are his own team's]".
If a defence cannot win the first header, they should try and win the second ball, the way teams have always played tall strikers like Peter Crouch or Duncan Ferguson.
"It's not easy to stop them," admitted Gray, "but they do not score from every corner. I do think teams cause themselves problems worrying about it.
"If I was John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Nemanja Vidic I would go in that front area and say, 'I'll head that'. It's difficult to defend against but not impossible. Arsenal were mentally and physically vulnerable."
One of the odd aspects about Delap's sudden prominence is how late in his career it has occurred. Like many a jobbing rock band catapulted into the limelight he is an overnight success whose rise has been more than a decade in the making.
It was 10 years ago that the now 32-year-old Midlands-born Republic of Ireland international had his first shot at glory when Jim Smith brought him into the Premier League with Derby, paying Carlisle £500,000 in the process. Three years later Southampton, also then in the top flight, laid out £4m for Delap. He was signed because he was an energetic and versatile midfielder, but both clubs sought to utilise his long throws.
"The Derby fitness coach had me throwing medicine balls, trying to get a little more out of me, but it started hurting my shoulders and neck," said Delap. At Southampton he met up with Crouch but, while some goals were scored, the partnership was not as devastating as might be expected.
A schoolboy javelin thrower, Delap recalled he first became aware of his gift while in the youth team at Carlisle. He took a quick throw against Liverpool and noticed the centre forward was unmarked in the middle. "It went flying across and he headed it in. It was the last minute and we won 3-2," Delap said.
Delap won 11 caps for Ireland but, although manager Mick McCarthy later signed him for Sunderland, he never played consistently enough for his long throw to be a regular tactic at international level. Only when he came to Stoke, with its phalanx of six-footers, did his freakish ability become a devastating weapon.
Even as late as last season some Stoke fans wondered whether he was worth his place despite his long throws – but he is not just a one-trick pony, like a kicker in American football, or the now banned short-corner specialist in hockey.
In October 2006 Delap broke his leg in two places and it takes time for a 30-year-old footballer to come back from such an injury. Now, with his fitness improved, and his confidence high from knowing he has a key role in the side, he is playing some of the best football of his career. Defences beware, he could be around for a while yet.
Delap's assists: Seven of Stoke's 13 goals have come from throw-ins this season
v Aston Villa In the final minute of injury time, Mamady Sidibie rises highest to head Delap's throw past the Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel to give Stoke their first Premier League win, 3-2.
v Everton A poor defensive clearance from Delap's throw lands at the feet of the midfielder Seyi Olofinjana, who volleys home to give Stoke some hope after trailing Everton 2-0.
v Everton Another Delap throw is not dealt with by the Everton defence and Phil Jagielka heads the ball past his own goalkeeper to make the score 2-2. Everton, however, go on to win 3-2.
v Portsmouth The only goal away from home. Delap's throw causes panic at the back, allowing Dave Kitson to flick the ball on for Ricardo Fuller to equalise. Pompey recover and go on to win 2-1.
v Sunderland Ricardo Fuller again jumps highest to head home Delap's long throw as Stoke finally break through Sunderland's resolute defence. Stoke win the game 1-0.
v Arsenal Fuller scores his fourth goal of the season and his third from a Delap throw-in, heading the ball past Manuel Almunia, who was rooted to the spot. Stoke lead 1-0.
v Arsenal Another Delap throw is flicked on by Ryan Shawcross and finds Olofinjana, who bundles the ball into the net. Stoke lead 2-0, and win 2-1 after a late goal from Gaël Clichy for the visitors.
When it comes to pitches... size does matter
One way Premier League teams could stop Rory Delap would be to increase the width of their pitch.
All but one of the Irishman's long-throw assists have come at the Britannia Stadium, where the width of the pitch was shrunk by a metre at the start of the season to give the midfielder the best chance of using his throw to greater effect. The Stoke pitch is now only 64 metres (70 yards) wide.
In fact, Chelsea are the only team to have kept a clean sheet at the Britannia this season, and guess what ... Delap was injured.
The proof of the pudding came in Stoke's 3-0 defeat at Manchester City last month. After Everton at 71.3m (78yds), the City of Manchester Stadium is the second widest in the Premier League at 70.4m (77yds) and City's defenders Richard Dunne and Tal Ben Haim coped well with Delap's bombardment.
This will not be good news to West Ham fans as the Hammers have the smallest pitch in the league at just over half a metre smaller than the Britannia.