At this point in time, attacking football normally comes down to a pivotal part of the front-line; the striker. Now you and I both know that, but this decade is showing us that there has been a seismic change in the way the striker plays.
Gone are the ways of a traditional number 9 such as Alan Shearer, Duncan Ferguson etc, where their prowess in the box and poacher’s instinct which made them iconic on the domestic and international scene is now all but extinct. Now I could go on to mention that these players were statistically target men who are more renowned for their aerial ability and hold-up play, but the target man alone hasn’t disappeared from the modern game. It has evolved.
Within the last decade, the two greatest “strikers” have been Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. One is a converted winger; aka the Thierry Henry treatment, and the other an inside forward, famously developed into a false nine.
Lionel was a marquee production of Pep Guardiola’s stint at the Nou Camp, from having an out-an-out striker; such as the original Ronaldo and latterly Eto’o, to becoming more of a deep-lying de facto striker. However, as opposed to being a main focal point for the team, the false nine was all about being more of an outlet, more so than a finisher. It proved so popular that Spain adopted a philosophy based around this role, which has seen them become the international powerhouse they are today.
There are a few top strikers who could be classified as a traditional number nine’s, with only Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, Everton’s Romelu Lukaku and Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain making serious dents in Europe’s top leagues. Big, strong and possessing impressive hold-up characteristics, technically this trio would have thrived in a 1990’s 4-4-2 system. Higuain especially, is proving extremely prolific in Serie A at present and his interplay with Lorenzo Insigne is the driving force for why Napoli are in a position to go all the way in the title race.
Presently, the modern day striker is normally alone at the top of a packed five-man midfield, with the attacking duties focused on the team’s wingers and advanced midfielders. However, back to when the Premier League was first created, the attacking responsibility fell to two strikers. One formed more of a poacher mould, who would find himself tucked deep in the six yard box, and the other a bit of a beast, useful for knocking and holding on the ball.
A poacher from the past wouldn’t necessarily have the strength to ensure that he could hold the line against a back-four, which is why he needed a team-mate to play off. A modern day striker is now required to ensure he can hold up play, create chances, outpace defenders and on top of all that, score instinctively.
Strikers such as Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez demonstrate this. Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck would be an English equivalent to this type of striker, but more often than not, find themselves on the treatment table, largely due to the demands of playing this lone role and the added responsibly it brings. But when it works well without injuries, it works very well. A season of a fit Sanchez, Sturridge and Aguero would have made telling changes to the league this season.
There are of course, cases where fatigue can be avoided, as shown by two of England’s best modern day strikers, both of whom are thriving on an injury free season. Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy are pushing Tottenham and Leicester, respectively, to the very limits. Both are now shoe-ins for Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad and both have shown little of slowing down the form that they are in.
The individual cases behind this duo’s rise to prominence are intriguing. From being a mere fringe player, just two seasons ago, to the centre-piece of Mauricio Pochettino’s title-chasing Spurs team, Harry Kane has become a Premier League favourite at White Hart Lane. Vardy, meanwhile, is set to have a Hollywood production filmed in his honour, documenting his miraculous rise from non-league football – with Stocksbridge Park Steels – to a record-breaking striker at the summit of the English top flight table.
Between them this season, Kane and Vardy have notched a mightily impressive goals, having beaten the opposition shot-stopper on 19 and 16 occasions, respectively. It is the first time in what seems like forever, that an Englishman – let alone two of them – has lead the race for the Premier League Golden Boot. Nonetheless, with Vardy successfully converting 27.1% of his attempts so far this term, and Kane 22.2%, the duo look set to top the charts for the remainder of the season.
The one concern for their respective clubs is the possibility that they may move on in the summer window in search of silverware, although based on the current league table, the chances of this occurring are increasingly slim. Due to an apparent dearth of top-level out-and-out strikers, teams like Manchester United will pay a premium for a French, semi-untested striker (Anthony Martial), despite their being as talented options, who are playing slightly closer to home.
There is no question that changes to the traditional number ‘nine’ position have occurred since the retirement of Alan Shearer and co., and whilst a new breed of front-man has emerged, they appear to be few and far between. Finding a player capable of carrying out multiple roles up top is a rare occurrence in the modern game and those who have successfully mastered said skills will surely only be sold at a premium.
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