Michael Cox is the editor of the award-winning tactics site Zonal Marking. He also does regular chalkboard analysis for the Guardian and appears on their Football Weekly podcast. But then, you probably knew all that. So let’s just hear about Michael’s favourite goal …
First, let me acknowledge that this is a strange choice of goal. It is neither a goal for a side I have any particular affiliation with, nor a spectacular strike you want to watch again and again. It is simply a header from inside the six yard box that won an ordinary league game 1-0.
This game did matter, though. This Milan side was fantastic – excellent defensively, brilliantly efficient users of the ball and often cramming four playmakers into the same midfield, Milan’s 2003/04 side was their best of the decade – far better than the 2002/03 or 2006/07 sides which actually won the European Cup. They rather got overlooked, and for good reason – at the same time, Arsenal were going the season unbeaten, and Jose Mourinho’s Porto came from nowhere to become the best side in Europe.
The title’s significance was huge. That Scudetto was Paolo Maldini’s last, and incredibly it is the only Serie A title won (so far, at least) by the likes of Andrei Shevchenko, Manuel Rui Costa, Kaka, Rino Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf. For Shevchenko and Rui Costa to have finished their careers in Italy without a league title would have been disastrous, so for the sake of pure justice, Milan had to triumph.
This game wasn’t a title decider (Lazio finished 6th that season) but it was a tricky away fixture for Milan, at the time of the season, late February, when sides can suddenly morph from ‘contenders’ to ‘nailed-on favourites’ with a couple of tight wins. This game was something of a stereotypical Serie A game – cautious, patient, lacking in goalmouth action – but the tension was fantastic, and the game was one of those finely balanced 0-0s that could have gone either way.
This goal owed something to design from the manager. Carlo Ancelotti was desperate to win this game, and went in search of the winner with a strange substitution midway through the second half. He removed Rui Costa, his main playmaker, and introduced Gattuso, the midfield terrier. In theory it was a ludicrous decision, but Ancelotti’s judgement was spot on. Lazio had been secure all night in the centre of the pitch and down their right (where Lazio right-back Jaap Stam gave such a superb performance that Milan promptly went out and bought him in the summer), and the only way to attack them was down Lazio’s left.
Milan played with no true wingers and therefore relied on Cafu for width, but at half time Lazio boss Roberto Mancini had brought on full-back Luciano Zauri to play left wing in order nullify Cafu, and the Brazilian was quiet in the second period. Ancelotti’s change got around this – Gattuso played a very, very deep right-sided midfield role, allowing Cafu to push amazingly high up the pitch from full-back, stretching the play. Watch the replay of the goal, and the apparent right-back is the second furthest player up the pitch, after Pippo Inazghi – and it’s generally impossible to be further up the pitch than Inzaghi without being offside…
The goal itself is a thing of beauty. The move flows from the centre circle to the net with just five touches between four players – the accuracy of the passes and the timing of the runs are perfect.
It also displays the stereotypical brilliance of three separate players in the build-up – Pirlo’s long, diagonal pass, Cafu’s attack-minded positioning, and Seedorf’s clever ball into the box. The Dutchman’s vision is fantastic – watch the position of Massimo Ambrosini when Seedorf shapes to play the pass – he’s actually behind the ball. For Seedorf to be aware of that run is impressive, for Ambrosini to time his run so well that he ends up in the six-yard box by the time he reaches the ball is astonishing.
In a way, this goal is brilliant because of its presentation visually, rather than the technical ability. The camera is at a perfect position to see the arc on Seedorf’s ball, whilst Ambrosini arrives from nowhere to get on the end of it. The microphones pick up the thump of the header, whilst the bulge in the net simply looks brilliant from the first angle. Ambrosini’s lack of celebration appears heroic compared to his more illustrious teammates jumping on him and gesturing to the crowd, whilst – best of all – Ancelotti reacts to one of the pivotal moments of the season with a quick puff of his cigarette.