There’s nothing better than an accomplished center forward. A selfish, two-footed goal-scoring machine; a Gerd Muller or a Marco van Basten. Strikers score goals and goals win games, or so the cliché goes. Of late, however, strikers have become expendable. Indeed, the position seems to be going out of fashion.
When David Villa broke his leg at the Club World Cup, Spain manager Vincente Del Bosque was left with a tactical conundrum. Should he take a risk on misfiring Chelsea striker Fernando Torres, or field fatiguing Athletic Bilbao front man Fernando Llorente instead? In the end, Del Bosque rejected both options. When Spain kicked off against Italy, they did so without a recognized striker. Flanked by David Silva and Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas started through the middle as a false nine – Lionel Messi’s position for Barcelona.
That approach proved unsuccessful: Italy’s back three coped easily with the toothless Spanish attack, and Torres returned to the starting line-up for the next game, versus the Republic of Ireland. But the willingness of the reigning European and World champions — football trendsetters for the last four years –to countenance a striker-less system raises important questions about the future of the position.
So far, Euro 2012 has yielded a total of 59 goals, with roughly half of them scored by center forwards, including two by a Spanish striker, Fernando Torres. That ratio is down slightly from Euro 2008, where 41 out of a total of 77 goals (53 percent) were netted by front men. In a more qualitative sense, though, Euro 2012 has been all about strikers. Even discounting the inevitable arguments sparked by Spain’s unorthodox setup, a huge amount of media attention has been devoted to classic goal scorers.
In England, Wayne Rooney’s suspension triggered a massive debate over the relative virtues of Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll. Germans have relentlessly analyzed Mario Gomez’s performances, clumsily attempting to understand the mindset of world football’s most sensitive character. And in Holland’s camp, Bert Van Marwijk spent most of the group phase ignoring calls to introduce Klaas Jan Huntelaar into the tepid Dutch attack. It’s not surprising that strikers get so much attention, given the over-hyped nature of their position, the popularity of attacking football and the inherent glamour of goal-scoring.
The public still loves center forwards – but do the people who matter feel the same way? Barcelona’s aesthetically pleasing approach to the game has marginalized the classic, up-and-at-em’ striker, a footballing type most prevalent in England’s top flight. Now is the age of the little guy. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi – the poster boys for Barcelona’s tiki-taka revolution – all stand well under six feet tall. So do the next crop of Spanish passers, led by Chelsea’s Juan Mata and Manchester City’s David Silva.
In the final paragraph of Inverting the Pyramid, his history of tactics, Jonathan Wilson writes, “As system has replaced individuality, the winger has gone and been reincarnated in a different, more complex form; so too has the playmaker; and so, now, might the striker be refined out of existence. The future, it seems, is universality.” Wilson’s book was released a year or so before tiki-taka claimed dominance over all modern tactical thinking, and thus before Messi’s emergence as a false nine, but his closing chapter is nevertheless illuminating. Wilson cites the Manchester United team of 2006/07 – particularly the line-up that demolished AS Roma 7-1 – as an example of a fluid, striker-less attack, before concluding, “Assuming a rough parity of ability, the team that wins will almost certainly be the one that best balances attacking fluency with defensive solidity, and in the pursuit of that the center-forward may be the next casualty.” Barcelona exemplify that notion more absolutely than any other team. Players like Messi –versatile attackers capable of fulfilling complex roles – seem to be the future of football.
Modern tactical thinking has even reached the Premier League, an institution renowned for its stubborn, two-striker play. In 2010, the media questioned Darren Bent’s place in Fabio Capello’s England team, despite Bent’s impressive goal-scoring record. Critics argued that Bent, in many ways a typical English forward, wasn’t “complete enough” to play international football. Clearly, merely scoring goals is no longer enough.
This attitude, like so many others, is a result of Barcelona’s recent success. Short-termism is modern football’s defining theme. In our world, what works now – and tiki-taka is certainly working — immediately becomes The Only Way To Play Football. Barcelona’s dominance has hastened the demise of the striker.
Since their opening day struggles, Spain have reverted to a more orthodox approach. The system that failed against Italy is unlikely to flourish in the knockout rounds. But, 20 years from now, when we reflect on Euro 2012, Spain’s experiment in doing without a striker may seem a watershed moment, a significant nail in the striker’s coffin.