I’ve never seen a player like Dennis Bergkamp. I moved right, a caviar; I moved left, a caviar. I was squeezed by two defenders, another caviar. Moving deep – another one…
As Philippe Auclair says in his biography on Thierry Henry, “caviar” is the French footballer’s word for a pass so sumptuous, so opulent, that it would be a shame to waste it. You already know what a caviar pass is, you’ve seen them hundreds of times, it’s the pass so perfect that a player can shoot without breaking his stride, a pass that might not look right at first but slips into the perfect space (probably the only space) and gifts the player a chance, or a pass that is just so magical that wasting the chance on the other end is tantamount to being offered a bite of caviar and throwing it away saying ‘too salty’ or ‘bring me the tin of Gervinho sardines instead!’
What caviar isn’t is a simple pass that ends in a shot: a key pass. The key pass as a stat has its merit but like all stats leaves part of the story untold. If Özil leads the League in Key Passes but 95% of them are for shots outside the 18 yard box then he’s not much of a threat in reality because those shots are low percentage (~3%) conversion. Thus, while I like Key Passes and think it’s a useful number, I prefer a stat which quantifies those passes which are of such high quality that both sets of fans involuntarily let out a gasp.
A caviar is also not an assist, it can be an assist, it really should be an assist, but it’s not lways an assist because sometimes a bit of caviar goes to waste. Assists are another stat which can be dubious at times. If a goal is scored it is now customary to award an assist to the player who last passed the ball. Sort of. If the goal scorer still had a lot to do, sometimes they won’t award an assist but I’ve seen assists given to Walcott for dribbling into the box, being tackled, and the ball popping out to another Arsenal player and them scoring. Did Walcott assist the goal in that case? Well, his dribble made it happen even if his final ball wasn’t intentional, so I guess it could be counted as an assist.
But with a caviar, there is never a doubt. It’s a pass of rare quality. There’s a famous Arsenal goal against Juventus which illustrates caviar perfectly.
Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal’s most prolific purveyor of fine caviar, takes a pass from Freddie, stalls, jinks one way, then back, his defender now turned inside out, and then in a moment of brilliance flicks the ball over his marker’s shoulder with the outside of his right boot, into the path of Ljungberg, who chips over the keeper.
It’s an assist, but of course it’s an assist, wasting that shot there would have been wasting a caviar.
One Arsenal player who got short shrift for the caviar he often served up was Alex Song. His ability to lay on a lavish pass from deep was often decried as “Hollywood” from the Arsenal fans who wished that Song was more of a destroyer in the defensive midfield role, but after Cesc Fabregas went on strike to force a move to Barcelona, Song stepped up his game and became Arsenal’s main assist man. What’s incredible is that Song had the ability to create those shots from deep early on in his career but rarely showed it off until Cesc left. One memorable caviar from Song was the Eduardo goal against Burnley. The goal is almost always remembered more for Dudu’s cheeky samba shot but he could have scored simply with his right foot, the pass was so pinpoint perfect.
On Tuesday in the Beşiktaş v. Arsenal match there were only two outright caviar passes: Özyakup’s lob to Ba and Ramsey’s flip to Giroud. There were plenty of fantastic passes, passes which probably should have been better shots or maybe even goals but only those two passes rise to the quality of a caviar.
Özyakup had a great game. His pass to Ba in the opening stages of the match probably would have resulted in a goal had Arsenal not been blessed with a great shot stopper in Szczesny. Özyakup curled in a ball from the angle, over all of the defenders, which Ba took off the volley and forced a brilliant stretched save from Szczesny. Özyakup also created a great chance for Sahan in the second half, which the Beşiktaş man tried to curl home but just missed the post wide. And then, of course, if was Özyakup’s trickery which got Ramsey sent off: first getting a yellow card for a petulant display and then moments later, that brilliant dive to make it look like Ramsey got more than a finger on him in “holding him back”.
It was brilliant because no one else on Arsenal looked likely to score or create a goal except Ramsey and Ramsey had been kicked all over the pitch (including a blow to the family jewels moments before being sent off) clearly indicating that Ramsey was targeted for harsh treatment. Still, Ramsey should have won the game for Arsenal in the opening minute of the second half. Playing deep, he whipped a to Alexis up front, kept running, ran to the top of the box, collected the return pass, and then in a moment of Bergkamp-esque brilliance, flipped the ball up and over the defenders right to Giroud’s feet. Literally all that Giroud had to do was get any touch on the ball and it was a goal. Instead, the Frenchman turned up his honking nose at the caviar and the ball was collected easily by the keeper. It was typical of Giroud’s game that night and if there’s a sniffy lining its that the Frenchman will never have a worse game.
Alexis was the creator of a handful of great passes in that game but no caviar. He had the early ball in to Giroud which nutmegged his marker and which Giroud stumbled over, almost impossibly failing to score from two feet away from goal. And Alexis also had a through ball to Debuchy which I thought the fullback should have shot instead of getting to the end line and trying the drag back. Those passes were fantastic but in the end only illustrate how rare the caviar pass really is.
Watching the games over again I wonder, is caviar a once a game occurrence? Is it something that happens more often than we think? I don’t know, but I’m going to have fun tracking it as a stat this year.
Where are my pearl spoons?