Where Have Europe's Strikers Gone?
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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