Ince goal, Zanka assist: The most improbable winner?

Date published: Monday 16th April 2018 8:34

Huddersfield Town are now no more than three points from survival, and the goal that got them there was scored by Tom Ince and assisted by Mathias Jørgensen, known as Zanka. In stoppage time. It all strains credulity just a tiny bit.

Let’s look at the scorer first. Of the 517 players that have taken the pitch for a Premier League team this season, Ince ranks a clear #1 in the ‘frustrating to watch’ table. He’s an attacking midfielder, and he loves to attack, which in his mind means scoring goals. He makes aggressive runs and gets on the ball, or vice versa, and thinks back of the net. Nearly every time the ball goes to his feet, you get excited. And nothing happens.

A few stats will tell the tale. First, Ince takes more shots/90 than any other player in the Terriers squad, strikers included. If we’re talking raw shot totals, he’s ahead by a huge margin: 23 more shots than second-placed Steve Mounié. He’s let fly 67 times. And if we include Saturday’s game-winner, he’s scored a grand total of two goals. Even Christian Benteke has a better conversion rate.

It wasn’t always thus. For Derby in the Championship he finished in double figures three straight years, and Huddersfield, upgrading for the Premier League, were happy to get his signature. But at the top level he hasn’t been able to force his way into the best shooting positions, and the results have been off the scale, and not in a happy way.

So Ince was the least likely of scorers. But look at his only other goal of the season, against Stoke City, and you’ll see it was identical to the game-winner against Watford, only from the other side of the pitch. A teammate gets possession near the by-line, and slips a short cutback into the middle. Ince arrives at the right spot and finishes with ease. Rather than try to do it himself, he lets others make the goal. Coming on as a late sub Saturday afternoon, did he have the muscle memory of that moment three-and-a-half months ago?

But if Ince’s goal was improbable, what can we say of the assist? Zanka is a central defender, so he only gets forward on set-pieces. He’s not a ball-playing defender, either: more an old-style physical type. Christopher Schindler plays a lot more long balls and still has a noticeably better pass completion percentage. Zanka did have an assist on a Mounié goal in December, but that was from a header – and needed a misplay by Mat Ryan of Brighton for the ball to get over the line.

But there he was, in a perfect position to get to the ball in an attacking sequence. Why? Because he had been trotting back from his position on the throw-in and smartly got level with the back line when the ball was sent back in by Terence Kongolo. Still, what price a no-look outside-of-the-boot nutmeg to put it on a plate for the onrushing scorer? If Kevin De Bruyne does that against Manchester United, he breaks the internet.

Stoppage time? Well, what would you expect? After all, this is never-say-die Huddersfield we’re talking about. Except it isn’t never-say-die Huddersfield. Before Saturday, the latest game-winning or game-tying goal the Terriers had scored was in the 64th minute.

Of course, Huddersfield’s story has been improbable from the outset. Remember, last year they finished 13 points behind champion Newcastle, and scored 29 fewer goals. They had a negative goal difference on the entire season. They were an underdog in the play-off semi-finals against Sheffield Wednesday (levelled on an own goal, won on penalties) and in the final against Reading (won on penalties).

So it’s only fitting that the most important goal of the season stretches credulity as well. Still, let’s not go for the poetic justice cliché quite yet. Town probably still need a few more points. But that just gives them a chance to come up with something more improbable, right?

Peter Goldstein

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