Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Case Study - The Modern Striker

Football, like all sports, progresses and evolves from year to year. As new fitness regimes are designed and playing surfaces are improved, the styles of players change along with the roles of each position on the pitch. And the forward-position is one that has seen a considerable change recently.

In the last half a decade, the role of a forward has been redesigned by many clubs. They are no longer expected to just score goals, and must contribute to other aspects of the team as well. Reasons why this change has taken place vary but most would point to the ever increasing importance of midfield supremacy. Less and less teams are playing a style involving diagonal, high balls to the forward line for strikers to compete for, and midfielders to win at the second phase. Instead the game is seeing a renaissance.

Teams who play the aforementioned style are considered archaic and regressive in modern footballing society. The accepted style of the modern game is based around controlling midfield and using this foothold as a platform for breaking down opposition defences. The 'passing game'. The most common aspect of this style is having a three-man midfield and one striker instead of the traditional two-man midfield and forward pairings. This increases the pressure a team can place on opposition midfields - particularly those of the two man kind - as the extra player provides another tackler and an additional option for simple five-ten yard passes. The striker must also be able to contribute to the midfield's cause and can no longer be idle until the ball is around the penalty area.

This means a striker in the mold of a Van Nistelroy or Inzaghi no longer provides enough to merit a start in most football teams. Whilst goalscoring prowess is still essential, it is no longer the deciding factor in who most managers will start up front. Finishing off moves must now be supplemented with contributions in build-up play. A striker must either have the competence of a mifielder in possession or must be able to stretch backlines and provide openings for other players to penetrate. The traditional no.9 role in football is obsolete in most teams. And the fall of Andy Carroll's fortunes is a fitting example of such. 

A big, powerful centre forward, Carroll was able to bulldoze his way through defences in his time up front for Newcastle. And the team was more than happy to provide the long, high balls and crosses for him to use his height to maximum effect. Now the most expensive player Liverpool have ever signed, Carroll is completely out-of-sorts. He does not have the technical efficiency to impose himself on Liverpool's style of play which requires players with pace and nimble feet in order to be effective. His stats for this season reflect this with the player starting only 12 league games for the club and contributing poorly with two goals and one assist.

Consequently the most successful forwards in modern football aren't big and powerful. The era of strikers like Didier Drogba and Alan Shearer will most likely end with the Ivorian's retirement. Players like Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi are now here to take over the mantle of those players. These strikers are as comfortable on the wings and deep in midfield as they are playing off the shoulder of an opposition centre back. Wayne Rooney's recent stints as a midfielder for Manchester United are an example of such versatility. But they are all devastating goalscorers on top of their contributions in other areas of the pitch.

Robin Van Persie plays as a lone striker for Arsenal as well as the Netherlands. The player is a fulcrum to his teams' attacks as he rotates with his wingers and comes deep to support his midfielders to help start attacks. But he finishes his fair share of them too as he scored an astonishing 50 goals in all competitions last year. And this is despite having none of the physical traits that were essential to Shearer and Drogba. Van Persie instead relies on his abilities to identify weaknesses in opposition defences as well as his perfect technique and instinctive reactions. His goal against Everton combines all three of these attributes. Former Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas described him as "the perfect striker":

"For a midfielder to have a player like him, it is fantastic because he gives you all the options that you need."

The best modern strikers represent a change in footballing philosophy that sees more technically-adept players being preferred to physically imposing ones. They are also the ultimate multi-taskers of the game and represent a new headache for defences who must devise ways of stifling them.

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