Death of the Strike Partnership?
Like every other walk of life, football is a constantly evolving entity. Fads and fashions are adopted and just as quickly dropped and sometimes there is a permanent seismic shift in philosophy. For instance, the patented Herbert Chapman WM formation sped up the evolution of world football and facilitated a shift in the way the game was played. Nowadays, you'd be hard pushed to find a single team in the world that persists with this system. Recently, we seem to be witnessing another implicit shift.
Strike partnerships have long been a celebrated facet of the successful team. A gander back into Arsenal's history will throw out Kennedy and Radford, Wright and Smith and Bergkamp and Henry. At the dawn of the technicolour Premiership era, Shearer and Sutton, Hughes and McClair and Rush and Fowler were dominating the league. The imports of Cantona, Bergkamp and Zola, together with the evergreen guile of Teddy Sheringham and Matt Le Tissier saw the dynamic alter slightly, as the deep lying striker facilitating the arch marksman became all the rage. At Arsenal, it is difficult to think of a more complimentary and talented front two than Bergkamp and Henry. Both players concur in a swooning of mutual admiration. However, in the last couple of years, we have seen the presence of the deadly strike duo evaporate. This is partly to do with the modern adoption of squad rotation as the demands of top flight football together with the inestimable wealth of football's superpowers meant resting players became all the rage. Teams were forced to become more fluid in their approach to attacking. However, despite this trend, teams still tend to favour a solid centre half and central midfield partnership. Carvalho and Terry, Gallas and Toure, Fabregas and Flamini, Rio and Vidic. Stability still rules in other areas of the pitch.
Some might point to the recent trend for negative football, as the lone powerful striker has ushered in a new era. Hitting long balls to Drogba worked a treat for Chelsea, just as Charisteas' eye for goal helped a mean Greece side to Euro 2004 glory. But the signs were there a lot earlier. In the late 90s, a flood of continental strikers emerged. Virtuosos who redefined the role of central striker. Raul, Henry, Shevchenko and Ronaldo (the fat one) were strikers who did more than just loiter in penalty boxes. Even van Nistelrooy gets through his fair share of work on the half way line. All are roughly the same age. The sight of a central striker drifting out to the left wing to get involved in the build up play would have seemed fanciful in the days of Rush, Lineker and Shearer. France managed to win the 1998 World Cup with the ignonimous Stephane Guivarc'h playing as a lone striker, the current Portuguese 'golden generation' is hardly stacked with Eusebios. In more recent times, the likes of Eto'o and Torres have taken their queue from the early millennium trailblazers. Both tend to play as lone strikers, despite not having the physical attributes of a Drogba or an Adebayor as a result of this shift in the role of the striker.
This is much to the detriment of Michael Owen for example, who burst onto the scene as a poacher when Shaearer and Wright were entering their twilight years. But it is no longer enough for a centre forward to slide into anonimity awaiting a chance in the six yard box. Even arch goalhanger Owen has recently looked to reinvent himself into a withdrawn striker in an attempt to refamiliarise himself with a game that looks to be passing his outmoded talents by. Our own Eduardo has a fearsome reputation as an ice cold penalty box predator, perhaps no coincidence that Adebayor's goals dried up in coincidence with Eddie's injury. However, this sidesteps the fact that Eduardo has spent the majority of his Arsenal career to date on the left wing. Eduardo is a player in tune with a role that would have been much different to his striking idols when he was learning his trade. Arsenal spent many a season floundering in the Champions League until, by happy serendipity, Wenger stumbled upon the 4-5-1 formation which took them to the final in 2006.
Mainly as a consequence of van Persie's persistent injuries, contemporary Arsenal often line up with Adebayor as a lone striker, aided and abetted by playmakers Fabregas, Hleb, Rosicky and now Nasri. This allows for a more fluid approach. Jose Mourinho found success by using Drogba as a lone battering ram, flanked by two raised wingers. A look at the movers and shakers in football reveals no tangible strike partnerships. Spain and Liverpool deploy Torres as a lone frontman backed by a five strong midfield, Chelsea never did amalgamate Shevchenko and Drogba as a feared duo whilst poachers such as Kezman and Pizarro fell by the wayside. Manchester United seem to have hammered the final nail in the coffin by winning the league and Champions' League without playing a fixed striker. Tevez and Rooney work the opposition half and liberate Ronaldo to wander into the box. In the 1980s it would have been unfathomable to see a side win the league without a predator extraordinaire. One would have to wander how Lineker and Rush would adapt to the demands of the modern game.
Whilst someone like Pipo Inzaghi might be quite glad to be in the twilight of his career given the current climate, his ex team mate Gilardino seems to have been left behind in the modern game. A couple of seasons back, Arsenal's reserves featured Bendtner and Lupoli as a complimentary and prolific duo. But Wenger chose to give the more rounded Bendtner his chance, whilst the more one dimensional Lupoli has been consigned to the scrapheap. United's Giuseppe Rossi has suffered the same fate. It seems as though we might never again see a terrible twosome tearing up the top flights of European football. The goal poacher has become ousted by his leaner, fitter and more energetic cousin. Is this a constant shift in the world of football? Will my children look at me blankly when I utter the words 4-4-2 the same way I am a tabula rasa at the suggestion of the five man forward lines of the 1930s? Time, as ever, will tell.LD