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Goals, goals, goals. Cast your mind back a decade or two and this is what you would hear when asking what the role of a striker is. But as we enter the first full season of the 2020s, we are seeing the emergence of a new philosophy.
Over the years, we football fans have seen many revolutions: Arsène Wenger coming into the English game with an emphasis on nutrition and health (as opposed to half-time pints and pre-game steaks); Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka with Barcelona (and, more recently, with Manchester City); and the introduction of ‘playing out from the back’ – to the point where even your average run of the mill Crystal Palace-type Premier League teams are adopting this style.
But the development in the game which goes against the grain and grates on the traditionalists the most, perhaps, is the lack of the need to rely on a classic, clinical, ‘Number 9’ who hangs around the box and bangs in every chance.
There is much more movement, flexibility and versatility within line-ups nowadays and you’re often expected to rotate between wingers, forwards and attacking midfielders. Players are rarely just ‘Number 9s’, ‘Number 10s’, or ‘Number 7/11s’; they are any and all – all at once.
Myself, I saw the value of a striker who wasn’t scoring goals when ‘£50million flop’ Fernando Torres was at Chelsea. He was ridiculed and almost vilified for missing chances and not being the prolific finisher that we saw when he was at Liverpool. But what he brought to the team; with his movement off the ball, his link-up play, his hold-up play, and his creation of space for the players around him was vital and was often ignored and unappreciated.
Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino is the perfect example of a non-goalscoring striker who has been accepted as just this. Although he has plenty of critics, largely due to his disappointing Premier League goal total of just nine last season, he fits the system that Liverpool play, and he does exactly what Torres did at Chelsea. Liverpool is not the same team when he is not on the team. As opposed to your Gary Lineker and Alan Shearers, Firmino doesn’t put himself between the post and poach goals. Instead, he often drops deeper as a false 9 or even a 10 at times to create space from overlapping wingers (Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah) who cut in with diagonal runs. This versatility and free-flowing movement create a multitude of problems for opposition teams – whether they mark man-to-man or zonally. Olivier Giroud has done similar jobs on both the domestic and international stages – although with more focus on hold-up play than the manoeuvrability.
You can see examples of this across the footballing globe and even filtering down into the less prestigious leagues. Rodrigo Moreno has been the number one choice upfront for the Spain national team and Valencia for a few years now and has shown versatility in playing across the front three and in the hole as a No.10.
Even in the Championship, we have seen Leeds United challenge and succeed in gaining promotion with a non-prolific and non-clinical striker, Patrick Bamford, leading the line. Anyone who followed the Championship last season will have vivid memories of Bamford missing chances left, right and centre. Leeds created the highest number of big changes in the division (with 92 big chances created in 46 games), so it was inevitable that Bamford was going to score goals. But with 16 he was far from prolific. Regardless of this, Leeds won the league by 10 points and this was a testament to his work off the ball, the hold-up play, and the creation of space – this is now the role of a modern-day striker.
The commonality between all of these examples is that they play with three across the front – or at least play with advanced wide players. Formations relying on advanced wide players is becoming more commonplace and moving towards ‘the norm’ across the footballing world nowadays – how far it has come from the introduction of the humble 4-3-3 courtesy of the 90s era Dutch national side.
There is no doubt that football will always have out-and-out goal-scorers. The fact that players such as Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane are still enjoying success, and the emergence of new players of the same vein (such as Erling Haaland), illustrates that they aren’t becoming extinct any time soon. But, perhaps in the coming years, we will see kids playing at the parks pretending to be midfielders and wingers and dreaming about making assists and darting runs, as opposed to the focus just being on putting the ball in the back of the net every time the ball hits their boot.
The beauty of it all is that perhaps counterintuitively, football is becoming more exciting. It’s the increase in chances created, as opposed to merely conversion rate, that is revolutionising the game into a faster-paced, more intense, and more exciting sport. The world of football moves fast, so lets strap-in and see where this journey is taking us.