There were plenty of positives to be taken from Arsenal‘s League Cup victory over Nottingham Forest, but none looked quite as impressive as the link-up play for their opening goal.
A youthful Gunners XI put five past their Championship rivals, helping blank out the memories of a humbling 4-2 loss to the same opponents in 2018.
The game also brought the welcome return of Héctor Bellerín, Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney to the home defence, after an assortment of injury issues have kept the trio on the sidelines.
It was another defender, though, who took the plaudits for his delightful cross to create Gabriel Martinelli’s opener.
After Reiss Nelson drops back and pings a diagonal ball out to the wing with the grace of a golfer chipping onto the green, Calum Chambers could easily bring the ball down and take his time over the cross.
He could even run at Forest’s left-back in an effort to get a better angle, or drive to the by-line before drilling across the face of Aro Murić’s goal and hope for a touch.
Instead, though, the Arsenal man wastes no time at all, volleying a perfect cross onto the forehead of Martinelli. 1-0 in the blink of an eye. Simple.
The volleyed cross is a strange beast: its nature suggests it should always be a thing of beauty, an incredibly difficult combination of technique and execution whose rarity matches its skill.
And yet, while we dismiss the poorly-executed variant as if it’s something quotidian, the same also goes for the 10 out of 10 version on the grounds that, when broken into its composite parts, it too is ‘normal’.
Essentially, it’s the kind of play which is at its best when the execution looks so effortless you assume it must be easy. Pinging the ball from left to right and right to left? That’s the sort of thing they do all the time in training, right?
Of course, if it was really that straightforward, we’d be seeing it in every second attack. It requires a lot of different moving parts to fall into place at once, like a 2p machine at a seaside arcade. Every time it works perfectly, your mind convinces you this kind of perfection ought to be possible on a regular basis, even if you know deep down there’s a reason we don’t see this kind of success every day.
Aubameyang after he saw Tierney and Chambers can cross well… pic.twitter.com/34hiTWz0nX
— Claude Wu 🔴 ⚪️ (@claudewuAFC) September 24, 2019
We witnessed a similar moment in Barcelona’s victory over Levante in 2018, because it’s the first rule of football that whenever there’s a fantastic piece of technique, Barça did it first.
Pinging the ball onto the forehead at the perfect moment is impressive enough, but when you have Luis Suárez as your target in the middle then a ball to feet is just as much of a sure thing.
The volley from Sergi Roberto, following Javier Mascherano’s lofted ball into the right channel, feels like one fluid motion, continued by the Uruguayan’s control and finish as opposed to being punctuated by it.
The quality of the finish in both instances provides us with a healthy reminder that there must be so many more instances where a perfect delivery isn’t met with the closure it deserves.
In the same way we forget a 70-yard touchdown pass if it’s fumbled, or overlook a 30-pass move if the overlapping runner is bundled into touch, the volleyed cross is at the mercy of the next touch.
Had Chambers’ ball flicked off the top of Martinelli’s head, or if Murić had got in position to make the save, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it today. It might have garnered a few extra minutes of attention on social media as fans replayed the moment, but as soon as something else of note happened it would be tossed aside.
To paraphrase Sideshow Bob, no one gets awards for attempted assists. Just ask Marcos Alonso and Álvaro Morata.
We probably still won’t remember any element of Martinelli’s goal for all that long, be it the Brazilian’s header, Nelson’s angled ball or, the piece that tied it all together, Chambers’ first-time cross.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t commit it to memory, though. Many of football’s most beautiful moments are those whose beauty isn’t as immediately obvious, and we love the game for that.
By Tom Victor