As Gennaro Gattuso butted and pushed his way along Tottenham’s bench following their 0-1 defeat of Gattuso’s AC Milan on Tuesday night, an altogether more docile character was busy celebrating yet another successful European night.
Peter Crouch, Tottenham’s most unorthodox of strikers, notched his eighth goal in seven Champions League appearances this season, with a simple finish from Aaron Lennon’s cutback, to put Tottenham in pole position to qualify for the quarterfinals.
Crouch’s impressive goalscoring form began with a hat-trick against Young Boys in the qualifying rounds and he has not looked back since. He scored twice against Werder Bremen, notched against reigning champions Inter and made it a Milan double with his 80th-minute strike in the San Siro.
For most players, a 114 percent strike rate in the Champions League would automatically lead to an unquestioned starting berth for the national side and see them linked with the world’s biggest sides—especially when coupled with an international record of 22 goals in 42 appearances, from only 19 starts.
The Crouch conundrum, however, is that his domestic scoring record pales in comparison to his exploits elsewhere.
Crouch has made 249 career appearances in the Premier League and scored 61 times, just shy of one in four. He has topped 10 league strikes only twice in ten seasons and has a paltry two goals from 24 appearances this campaign.
Yet, he has managed to maintain an exceptional scoring rate for England and in Europe. His eight goals as part of the Liverpool side that reached the final in 2006-07 put him second-highest goalscorer that season, behind Kaka, and he scored four in eight the following year. He also added a further four in seven with Portsmouth during their 2008-09 UEFA Cup campaign.
So, what is behind his baffling inconsistency across competitions? While some may argue that Crouch’s role is different in the league, this appears unlikely given Harry Redknapp’s consistency of tactics and team selection.
Neither is it a struggle to deal with the physical demands of the game in England, especially as he has bulked up significantly since his early appearances.
There are perhaps two main reasons as to why Crouch is such a prolific European and international marksman: one concerning his opponents and one concerning his own mentality.
The first explanation is that European and international defenders are clueless as to how to play against him. While those plying their trade in the Premier League have had a decade to get used to Crouch’s unique style, many of those he has faced in Europe and for England have had no experience of a player like him before.
They are unprepared for the challenge and it has caught out defenders of the quality of Lucio, Walter Samuel and Alessandro Nesta already this season. If Crouch had moved league or country every summer, perhaps he could have doubled his domestic strike rate and trebled his value.
Crouch is so hard to defend because he has a rare mixture of target man and playmaker attributes. Defend him as you would normally against a big centre forward and it allows him to display his tidy footwork and awareness.
But treat him like a fleet-footed creative and the fear is that he can destroy you aerially thanks to his 6'7" frame.
Most of the top centre-backs in the Premier League now recognise that Crouch should be pressured and allowed little time on the ball, but this is not necessarily the best way to negate Tottenham. He is regularly man-marked, but the catch-22 is that this has the effect of creating space for the likes of Rafael van der Vaart and Gareth Bale to fill their boots from deeper positions.
The second reason, though, is the psyche of the man himself. Crouch appears to be a man for the big occasion, what is commonly termed “a big-game player.”
But in Crouch’s case, it is not that he raises his game in the way his former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard did in the 2005 Champions League and 2006 FA Cup finals or Roy Keane in Manchester United’s 1999 Champions League semi-final triumph over Juventus.
After all, aside from a fantastic hat trick against Arsenal in his Liverpool days, Crouch rarely dominates games through force of will.
What Crouch has is the ability to maintain his performance at a consistent level whatever the occasion and keep his head while all around him others are losing theirs.
There is a view gaining popularity that “big-game players” are only rarely those who raise their performance above their normal level, and often individuals who remain calm enough to play their usual game.
In big games, some players are prone to mistakes due to the pressurised environment. It can lead to greater chances for the opposition than in smaller fixtures, and Crouch is an accomplished finisher who has benefited greatly from this.
Most of Crouch’s goals on the big stage have been simple finishes, like Tuesday. He doesn’t tend to run long distances beating players or drill shots from 30 yards into the top corner.
He simply does what he always does, only his opponents are less adept at stopping him.
The man’s mental strength is surely beyond question too. With an appearance like his, adolescence must have been full of ridicule and he would have needed a thick skin. He also appeared unaffected at being disgracefully booed at Wembley on one of his early international appearances.
Whatever the reasons, Crouch has proven himself a valuable asset in the biggest club competition of all. The only surprise is that, given the large squads that most of Europe’s top side carry these days and their prioritisation of the Champions League, the likes of Jose Mourinho or Massimiliano Allegri have not thrown their transfer budgets at Tottenham to secure his services.
After all, if you want a guaranteed Champions League goalscorer, few have a better pedigree than the big man.