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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.

Arsenal

It is too soon for Mikel Arteta to be considered for Arsenal job

The 36-year-old has been linked with the Emirates hot seat.

Jake Jackman

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Mikel Arteta
Photo: Getty Images

Arsenal have a huge summer awaiting them as they will need to appoint a successor to Arsene Wenger and rebuild a squad that has missed out on Champions League football for the second season in a row.

It won’t be an easy task and the board must act swiftly to make sure the club are prepared for the 2018/19 campaign.

Considering Wenger’s departure was announced weeks ago, Arsenal should have made progress in their search for a replacement.

There will be a number of names under consideration and it is important that they do their due diligence to ensure they can start to move in the right direction again.

BBC Sport report that Manchester City coach Mikel Arteta is one of the options being considered by the hierarchy at the Emirates Stadium.

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

As a former player, he would be well received by the fanbase, but it would represent a huge gamble by the club.

The 36-year-old was part of the playing staff under Arsene Wenger as recently as 2016.

Although he will know the problems that exist at the club, he may struggle to exert the authority to correct them considering many of the current squad were his peers.

It has only been two years since the Spaniard retired from playing and he wouldn’t have expected to be in the running for a job of this size this soon.

Upon retiring, he took up a coaching role at Manchester City and the experience will stand him in good stead to move into management one day.

After all, he is working with one of the best managers of all-time in Pep Guardiola and Arteta will have played a role in the team’s record-breaking Premier League season.

That coupled with his history with Arsenal makes him an attractive left-field option for the Gunners.

However, the size of the risk attached to an appointment means that the club should look elsewhere this summer.

The club will want stability, but first and foremost, they will want success.

The fact that Arteta has no managerial experience means that he would be learning on the job and the North London side can’t afford to allow that.

(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Arsenal are a huge club and as the man following Arsene Wenger, the next manager will be scrutinised closely.

It would be a job better suited to a manager with experience and know-how at the top level.

The article goes on to mention both Luis Enrique and Massimiliano Allegri. Either of them would be a better appointment for Arsenal at this time, as they have both managed big clubs previously.

For Arteta, the fact that he is being linked to a job like Arsenal shows how highly he is thought of within the game.

If he wants to go into management, he needs to leave Manchester City and gain experience as a number one.

If he does that, whether it be in England or abroad, he could be ready to take the hot-seat at the Emirates Stadium at a later date.

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Exclusive: Havard Nordtveit – Hoffenheim move, Julian Nagelsmann and facing Liverpool

The Norwegian international discussed his time at Hoffenheim and his experience of English clubs.

Mathew Coull

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Havard Nordtveit
Photo: Getty Images

This summer West Ham United utility man Havard Nordtveit called time on his career with the Hammers, after just one season.

Signed from Borussia Monchengladbach on a free transfer he suffered from the London outfits’ own struggles, the change of stadium and being asked to play out of position at right-back.

After just 21 games for the Hammers, he headed back to Germany, where he had such success previously.

Now, speaking exclusively to The Boot Room, the Norwegian international has discussed working under an exciting new manager, facing Liverpool in the Champions League and coming through the ranks at Arsenal.

Plenty of teams in Germany would have wanted Nordtveit this summer.

He built a fine reputation in the Bundesliga during his time with Gladbach.

In fact, just hours before his July transfer was announced, he was being linked with Bundesliga rivals Hamburg.

In the end, it was Hoffenheim who snapped up the Norwegian. They had just finished fourth in the Bundesliga and it was a brilliant move for the 27-year-old.

(Photo by Patrik Stollarz/Getty Images)

But, as the former Hammer explained from Germany, it has been a topsy-turvy season:

“It went well in the first couple of months. But then my games weren’t as good as I was hoping for,” he admitted. “Then obviously I was not good enough for the team. I have been training hard and lately, it has been back to normal again.

“It’s good to be back in Germany and also I needed half a season to get to know the new coach and the new system. I am looking forward to the rest of the campaign.”

Nordtveit started the season playing in the Hoffenheim back three, but found himself out of the squad entirely from mid-December until last month.

Despite his problems, he did not sulk and simply worked hard to get back into the first-team:

“I am not that person,” proclaimed the Norwegian international. “I have been in that situation before with West Ham and Gladbach. It’s all about giving everything you can instead of moaning.

“You have to be positive,” he continued. “This is a team sport. You have to give your best for the team. If that means you are playing or not you know that you will get the chance in the end.”

This season Hoffenheim and Nordtveit were challenging for the Europa League.

However, at the start of the campaign, the Bundesliga outfit were in Champions League action for the first time in their history.

They took on Premier League side Liverpool in the qualifying rounds, with Nordtveit playing in both games.

Liverpool were not yet working under Mohamed Salah power but still proved far too strong for their German opponents over two legs:

“We knew they were strong. With their attacking forwards they are brutal. We had a very good home game. But in the end, it is a little better a feeling to know we went out of the play-offs against a team that reached the finals,” Nordtveit explained, with a sense of vindication for his club’s exit.

“What Klopp has done with the club is massive and also Salah, at this time, maybe is Europe’s best player.”

(Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Hoffenheim’s entrance to the Champions League was masterminded by their brilliant young coach Julian Nagelsmann. The 30-year-old is just a few years older than the Norwegian but has proven himself a top manager:

“He is fantastic,” said an excited Nordtveit. “He has great experience and his own style of play. It is a lot of tactics for every new player. Also when I came in then there was a lot of new things I had to learn quite quick.

“I am now starting to see that I learn something in myself to get into the rhythm that he wants. He is like a young, bright, football professor.”

He then gave him high praise, by comparing him to his former Gladbach boss Lucien Favre:

“He reminds me a little bit of Lucien Favre. He thinks about football 24/7. Small details, always, which can mean we take the three points.

“If I could compare him with someone it would be Lucien Favre, which is not a bad comparison.”

Nagelsmann’s clear ability has seen him linked with taking over from Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.

The Norwegian came through the ranks at Arsenal, but made it clear that he spent most of his time working with the current Arsenal assistant Steve Bould:

“I spoke with him of course but he was more observing the training. I was more with the reserve team.

“I was more with Steve Bould, the legend. He was quite important for me, a really good guy. I think he was one of the more important guys in Arsenal when I was there.”

Working under the Arsenal legend as a young defender must have been a big learning experience for the Hoffenheim player, who speaks highly of his time at Arsenal:

“I went quite early, about 16,17,” remembered the talented utility man. “It was perhaps the most important choice I did in my career because there I learnt how to do the basics in football.

“I did not play much with the first-team but the experience of training with the first-team and getting to know English football and a really high standard was really important to me.

(Photo by Nikolay Doychinov/Getty Images)

“From there, when I moved to Germany, I had the perfect base to have an OK career.

“Jack Wilshere was there before he finally broke through to the first-team. We had Wojciech Szczesny now second goalkeeper for Juventus. Many of the players are having big careers.  

“For me and a lot of the players we were quite lucky to have this opportunity.”

But Nordtveit still remembers his time fondly. He still follows the club, where good friend Granit Xhaka is also playing.

The Gunners have been unable to put a smile on the face of Nordtveit by picking up the Europa League trophy in Arsene Wenger’s final year.

However, with London outfit set to compete in the competition again next season, under a new manager, the two could well come face-to-face. 

That would be an opportunity Hoffenheim’s intrepid Norwegian would relish.

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Arsenal hero Patrick Viera would be an underwhelming appointment for Everton

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Photo: Getty Images.

The managerial merry-go-round is warming up ready for another summer of action and it looks increasingly likely that Everton could be involved as fans grow more and more unhappy with the management of Sam Allardyce. What may come as a greater surprise is that the club could turn to Arsenal hero Patrick Viera to replace him.

According to Metro, Viera is admired by Everton owner Farhad Moshiri and fits the profile that the Toffees are looking for of a young and dynamic coach to take over at Goodison Park.

Viera has also been linked with the opportunity to replace his former coach Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, where he remains a legend, but is currently under contact with New York City, part of the Manchester City group.

(during the UEFA Youth League Quarter Final match between AS Roma and Manchester City on March 17, 2015 in Latina, Italy.

The Citizens would reportedly not stand in his way of a Premier League move and Everton would be happy to offer more than the £2 million that he currently earns per year, but it would be a hugely underwhelming appointment for the blue half of Merseyside.

Whilst Viera has done well in Major League Soccer in New York, he has not achieved enough to have caught the eye of such a high profile club were it not for his playing career.

Given the finances reportedly available to the next Everton manager and the huge pressure to get an underperforming squad up to scratch and matching expectations, it would be a big gamble if the club were to put their faith in Viera.

He may well have potential, but it would be a surprise to see a club of the size and resources of Everton being the ones to give Viera his first opportunity as a Premier League coach.

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