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Where Have Europe’s Strikers Gone?

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An old footballing adage states that strikers win games while defenders win titles. Nevertheless, if you were to survey fans of every Premier League club about their hopes in the transfer market, a majority would express a desire for a new striker. This can partly be explained by a culture that has developed around the transfer window in which the business of buying new players is seen as a competition in itself; clubs can ‘fall behind’ rivals or ‘beat’ another club to a prized asset. The modern day fan is also something of a Neophiliac; they get bored easily and pine for a shiny new toy to marvel at, working on the tenuous presumption that any type of purchase equals improvement. But strikers are also objects of desire because, at the highest level, there are very few of them.

There is a curious situation currently in the Premier League where each of last season’s top four teams are light in the forward department. Chelsea have replaced Didier Drogba with Radamel Falcao, to add to Diego Costa and Loic Remy. Given Costa’s taut hamstrings and Falcao’s inability to rediscover form since a serious knee injury many pundits are unsure of whether that triumvirate will be enough to serve Chelsea for a whole season.

Arsenal possess good depth, with Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and even Alexis Sanchez capable of playing as the lone striker. Giroud, Walcott and Welbeck are three very good forwards but all have limitations. Giroud lacks mobility and therefore doesn’t threaten the last line of defence. Walcott gives Arsenal precisely that threat but there are concerns about his hold up and link play as a lone striker. He is also not much of an aerial presence. Danny Welbeck combines some of Giroud’s and Walcott’s best attributes; excellent in build-up play and linking with his partners, the pace to stretch defences and is competent aerially. However, his finishing remains erratic and unpolished.

In the Autumn of 2013, Manchester City looked to have assembled the best stable of strikers in Premier League history. The quartet consisted of Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic. The latter three have since been sold, having been let down by either form or fitness. This leaves just Sergio Aguero and January signing Wilfried Bony as the club’s only recognised centre forwards. Arguably the best player in the division, Aguero would be the envy of every opposition fan or manager but it seems a tall order to ask him to play such a volume of games especially given his propensity to pick up muscular injuries.

A similar scenario can be seen across town at Manchester United. Following the sales of Danny Welbeck and Robin Van Persie and the failure of Falcao to establish himself, the decks have been cleared for an attacking purchase. So far, it hasn’t arrived. This could be good news for Wayne Rooney who looks certain to be a starter in his preferred no.9 position. The back-up options however are Javier Hernandez, who looked surplus to requirements a few months ago, and the promising James Wilson. There have been rumours that new signing Memphis Depay could be utilised through the middle. Given Louis Van Gaal’s complaint last season that he lacked a 25 goal striker, he will surely want an acquisition.

With all the money in the world to throw at the problem, our top four teams have found adding to their forward line extremely difficult. The basic reason for this is the fact that there are extremely few top class strikers; though curiously this issue is a distinctly European one. Arsene Wenger spoke last Autumn about the dominance of South America when it comes to striker production and how they are leaving Europe behind. Neymar, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Aguero, Diego Costa (though he plays for Spain, he’s a Brazilian), Carlos Tevez, Alexis Sanchez, Gonzalo Higuaín and even Falcao are a roll call of the very best. Karim Benzema and Robert Lewandowski are the only two credible European candidates for the tag of ‘world class’. Perhaps Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though he is an acquired taste.

Of course, the definition of the term ‘world class’ dictates that only a few can be so categorised, or else the plaudit would become meaningless. However, a glance across the national teams of Europe reveals the extent of the issue. Germany won a World Cup relying on a 35 year old Miroslav Klose for goals; whether you wish to categorise the excellent Thomas Muller as a striker is a matter of debate. Italy have struggled to find a reliable centre forward for a long time, Ciro Immobile and Mario Balotelli have endured tough times with their respective clubs and Antonio Cassano has long had a reputation as a bad apple in the cart. Graziano Pelle is currently first choice. Holland still rely on the ageing Robin Van Persie with Klass Jan Huntelaar as back up, a player who has flattered to deceive for most of his career.

By hook or by crook, Spain have managed to get themselves a top class striker through the adoption of Brazilian born Diego Costa. Not so long ago they had a strong crop of centre forwards consisting of Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado. However, the stock of all four players has fallen dramatically. Portugal have lacked a striker to add to their creative players and quality wide men for many years.

The root cause of this problem isn’t clear, but there are a few factors worthy of discussion. The first is changing tactical trends in the game. Many a team places great emphasis on numerical superiority in midfield, a response to the success of Spain and Barcelona, meaning one up front is frequently a preferred option. Youth teams are used to prepare young players for the style of play that they will be expected to integrate into once they make the first XI. If more first teams are playing one up front there is a greater need to develop promising attackers as wide players or no.10’s to fit into the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1.

Moreover, especially in England, there has been a gradual change in footballing aesthetics since the turn of the millennium. Traditional, aerially strong centre forwards are very much out of fashion and there is less of a reliance on crosses to create chances. The path of causation is difficult to track. Are less centre forwards produced because they are redundant within a modern style of play, or have styles of play been forced to change because of a lack of strikers?

Arsene Wenger also spoke about the differing character of South American players, noting their hunger for the game and desire to fight and scrap in every duel as if there life depended on it. This is not to say that their European counterparts aren’t fully committed or don’t love the game, it’s just that there does seem a special mental or emotional aspect that separates the likes of Costa, Sanchez, Suarez or even Tevez. Their love of the game appears childlike, but they are also street wise and cynical when they need to be.

Wenger speculates that the austere upbringings endured by these players, and the fight or fly nature of street football in South America, engrains a toughness and win at all costs mentality that he views as a crucial attribute for a striker. He described Diego Costa as a ‘killer’. Though the notion that poverty breeds virtues sounds like a legacy of Wenger’s Catholic upbringing, the trend he highlighted about Europe’s struggle to produce forwards was an important one.

For our top teams in the transfer market, such a predicament poses a dilemma. Do they wait until the absolute ideal scenario becomes available, Benzema or Lewandowski, and risk leaving themselves short in the meantime? Or do they search a bit further down the food chain and gamble on a player with potential, as Liverpool have done with Christian Benteke, and hope they develop into a ‘world class’ forward. United’s purported pursuit of Harry Kane would fall into this category. Don’t be surprised to find our top clubs frustrated by the end of the window. More money than ever to spend but a dearth of options on the market, is a recipe for either reckless spending on substandard players or complete inactivity.

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University of Nottingham History graduate. Freelance sportswriter specialising in Football, Cricket and Golf. Interested in the politics of sport.

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Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech

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Bournemouth
Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth came from behind to claim a much-needed victory over Arsenal, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have suffered another blow.

After an insipid opening period at the Vitality Stadium, the action sparked into life when Hector Bellerin broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

But Arsenal’s lead was short-lived, as goals from Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe – his first for the club – secured the Cherries’ fourth home win of the season, which lifted them to 13th in the table.

Arsenal, meanwhile, slipped further adrift in the battle to finish in the top four after their third consecutive league game without a win. Here are three talking points…

Alexis Sanchez moves closer to the Emirates exit door

All the pre-match talk centred on a player who wasn’t involved in the contest. Not only was Alexis Sanchez not named in the starting XI, he wasn’t even on the bench having not travelled to the south coast.

Manager Arsene Wenger was ambiguous when pressed on this in the aftermath of the defeat, but the insinuation was clear; the want-away Chilean will not be an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Sanchez, whose contract at the Emirates expires in the summer. Despite his uncertain future, this match was crying out for his never-say-die attitude.

Arsenal controlled the first half and deserved to be in front when Bellerin fired home. However, the Gunners were unable to add a second and Bournemouth capitalised with two late efforts. Arsene Wenger’s side are now without a win in four games in 2018 as their troubles mount.

Bournemouth buck the trend against the ‘Big Six’

Before this fixture, Bournemouth had lost all of their matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, scoring only one goal in seven outings.

While those are not necessarily the games that will define their campaign, it was a worrying statistic that Eddie Howe needed to address. Facing an Arsenal team without Sanchez or Mesut Ozil looked like being the Cherries’ best opportunity to buck that trend, and so it proved.

With only nine points separating all the teams in the bottom half, an unexpected win can do so much to alter the picture. The Cherries didn’t fold after going a goal behind and they merited the three points for an enterprising second-half display.

Having beaten Arsenal for the first time in their history, Bournemouth are now four points clear of the drop-zone. They are by no means safe because of this result, but the psychological impact could be immense.

Jack Wilshere getting back to his best

Returning to the club at which he spent last season on loan, this was not the afternoon Jack Wilshere would have hoped for. Though it didn’t go well from a team perspective, the 26-year-old was close to his best at the Vitality Stadium.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch and also completed more passes. After a frustrating start to the campaign where he struggled for minutes in the Premier League, Wilshere is now establishing himself in the starting XI.

He was Arsenal’s best player against Bournemouth and in a team that lacks leaders, he was one of the few who looked like he wanted the ball. Wilshere ran the show in midfield and was always keen to move forward with purpose.

England manager Gareth Southgate surely can’t ignore Wilshere’s form and, fitness permitting, he must be a shoo-in for the next squad. In a World Cup year, Wilshere is peaking at just the right time.

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An absence of progress at Arsenal leaves Arsene Wenger in danger of becoming the villain

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Reuters

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

So says Harvey Dent, a character in the 2008 DC Comics action movie The Dark Night Rises, which portrays the story of the fictional superhero Batman as he fights against organised crime in Gotham City.

There may be no men dressed as bats around the Emirates Stadium but it is a quote that might resonate with the thoughts and feelings of a growing number of Arsenal supporters regarding the position of Arsene Wenger in recent seasons.

The Frenchman is one of the most influential and successful managers in the club’s history, having secured ten major trophies since his appointment in 1996 and overseen the transition from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, but has come under increasing pressure over the last three seasons as The Gunners struggle to maintain the pace set by their title rivals.

The previous campaign was tainted by calls from from a portion of the Arsenal fan base for the 68-year-old to resign, although the club eventually opted to hand him a new two-year deal.

However, eight months on  and Wenger’s position has never been more fragile and the number of dissenting voices in the stands is beginning to increase.

The frustration around the Emirates Stadium is completely understandable. The Gunners are 23 points behind league leaders Manchester City, face an uphill task to qualify for the Champions League next season and suffered an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Nottingham Forrest.

Furthermore, Arsenal are in danger of losing two of their prize assets in the summer for nothing after allowing the contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to run down into their final year. The unwillingness of the duo to remain in North London is a definitive sign that the club are no longer considered to be a significant threat in the domestic game.

With the club slipping behind their title rivals and struggling to retain key players, Wenger is in danger of turning from a hero into a villain.

A lack of forward momentum

The one thing that Arsenal have lacked this season, and arguably for a number of years, is a sense that the club is making progress or moving in the right direction.

The Gunners have been on a gradual decline that is only now beginning to come to the fore and there has been nothing to suggest that Arsene Wenger has the vision or prowess to reinvigorate a club that is anchored in stagnation. Even success in the FA Cup has felt like a brief moment of respite rather than a signal that a corner had been turned.

The Frenchman has failed to correct the issues that have undermined the team on the pitch, exemplified by his inability to purchase a top-quality central defender or defensive midfielder, and it has now been nearly thirteen years since the club last won the Premier League title.

A sense of progress is why Jurgen Klopp and Mauriccio Pochettino have sustained their positions at Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, despite failing to secure any silverware between them and have retained the favour of their club’s supporters.

Both have implemented a clear philosophy and playing style whilst creating the feeling around Anfield and Wembley that the team is moving forward in the right direction.

Wenger has secured more silverware than both Klopp and Pochettino combined since 2014 yet he finds himself under increasing pressure due to a lack of any forward momentum at the Emirates Stadium.

Whilst there is a general feeling that Liverpool and Tottenham are improving, the perception of many Arsenal supporters is that the club is standing still at best and certainly slipping behind their counterparts.

There have been question marks around Wenger’s future for some time and yet this feels like the 68-year-old is on the edge of cliff.

Success in the FA Cup has provided him with a degree of respite in recent years which made his team selection for the defeat to Nottingham Forrest appear especially bizarre.

With Arsenal already out of the title race you would have thought that Wenger would have put extra emphasis on winning the competition which, arguably, allowed him to negotiate a new contract in the summer.

However, such is the obvious disparity in quality between the Gunners and Manchester City that Wenger can no longer hide behind domestic cup success.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League for a second consecutive year would signify how far the club has fallen and the pressure on the Frenchman has been further exacerbated by the seemingly imminent departures of Sanchez and Ozil.

Whilst Liverpool and Tottenham are moving forward, Arsenal seem to be moving backwards. With Wenger’s position appearing increasingly fragile and the club in decline you have to wonder whether the Frenchman has now become the villain of the piece.

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