As Strikers Disappear
Given Wenger`s declaration after van Persie`s injury that he would be on the market for a striker in the January window the reference on the Arsenal website last week, to a chapter in Uefa`s technical report into last year`s Champions League competition entitled The Disappearing Striker, might seem ironic to some. However the reference related to the changing nature of forwards rather than transfer policy.
Sometime ago Wenger made an observation that the problem with having a player in the team only to score goals is that when he isn`t scoring the team are only playing with ten men. The news piece last week over on Arsenal.com "Why Wenger won`t rely on strikers for goals" brought this to mind. Truth is Wenger has never relied entirely on strikers for goals.
That might seem bizarre given that for much of Wenger`s time at Arsenal Thierry Henry was setting scoring records but Henry was just the most complete example of Wenger`s philosophy. He knew that if Thierry wasn`t scoring he was assisting others to do so. It might all seem pretty obvious now but it hasn`t always been standard thinking. In a training video produced for Uefa Graham Taylor credits Wenger with changing thinking towards strikers in England.
"Arsene Wenger has changed the face of English football. When he came in 1996 pretty well everybody was playing 4-4-2 but we were playing a static game and Wenger has to be given great credit for getting the movement of players - the flexibility of teams" says Taylor "He produced a side that did play 4-4-2 but it was a very flexible 4-4-2. The front 4 were able to exchange with great movement"
This movement, Taylor claims enabled Pires, Henry, Ljungberg, Overmars and Bergkamp to play as strikers and midfielders at the same time with anyone of them likely to score. The static game that Taylor refers to was possibly illustrated in Blackburns title triumph in `95 when Shearer and Sutton scored 60+% of the sides goals whereas a combination of midfielders and wide players often have the majority of a team`s goals in this last decade or so. In recent seasons players like Lampard, Gerrard and Ronaldo have featured prominently in the scoring charts as have other players, such as Wayne Rooney, who don`t fit comfortably into the out and out striker mould. The Uefa report ackowledges this adaptability of players in last year`s competition with Andy Roxburgh the report`s author observing "Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as strikers, or Samuel Eto`o and Wayne Rooney as wingers, or even Carles Puyol as an overlapping fullback"
The technical report considers that the adoption of a quick passing game in which teams look to use possession in order to dictate the pattern of play has the consequence that "the classic centre forward has become almost extinct." Instead the forward is a more rounded player becoming a midfielder when needed as midfielders become strikers. Only 3 teams in last season`s CL last 16 deployed a 4-4-2 system but as Fabio Capello observed "It is usually one striker, no matter how they line up."
Wenger`s attitude to goal scorers is a little different from the conventional fan`s approach of signing a proven `20 or 30 goals a season man`. In Wenger`s philosophy a goal is simply the final pass at the end of a passing movement and can come from almost anyone. In the last decade the PL title has been won most often by the side that has the greatest number of players scoring 5 goals or more. Some feel that this passing style is over elaborate and isn`t a match for physically stronger sides but Samuel Eto`o thinks it is precisely the style of play that gave Barcelona superiority over such teams claiming last season "Our greatest weapon against powerful teams is our ability to pass the ball."
It is perhaps this that influences Wenger`s quest for a forward to fit into the Arsenal style. It isn`t as simple as scrolling down the individual scoring charts and picking those at the top. Wenger didn`t sign Henry because his goal scoring feats in France and Italy were irresistible nor even Adebayor because his record at Marseilles or Metz was an impressive one. Players like Huntelaar, Defoe or Owen have their qualities but the need is to sign a player that doesn`t require the other players to alter their style of play dramatically. Some might see just that option as the mythical Plan B but if it`s the only play available dictated by the needs of one player then Plan B is less flexible than Plan A. It`s this fine balance and a shift in the way the modern game is played that makes the search for a striker to fit into the side immediately less straightforward than many supporters would wish it to be.
The Uefa technical report can be downloaded from http://www.uefa.com/trainingground/gr/reports.html
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