The man who is supposed to be the scorer of goals, the "striker", appears to be a dying breed in the game
The decline of the “poacher” in modern football
Many argue that the game of football has changed, that new tactics and styles are being created in order for teams to be ahead of the rest. This is somewhat false, in all honesty previous styles which went out of favour have come back into vogue. Yet what is for sure is that the game is in a constant state of flux, coaches try new things to be innovative and to give their a new edge and dynamic. Players too attempt to adjust to the modern game in order to be ahead.
However, for all the varying styles and tactics employed in the game, the outcome of football is very much the same for everyone. To win. In order to win you will need to score more than the other side. Which means the scoring of goals is very much an essential act in football. It is therefore surprising and puzzling that the man who is supposed to be the scorer of goals, the "striker", appears to be a dying breed in the modern game.
What Bent and Torres' troubles tell us about the modern game
The examples which appear most significant to highlight are the cases of Darren Bent for Aston Villa and Fernando Torres for Chelsea. In both cases these players are famed for their ability to score goals. No wonder therefore that they have totalled over £100m in transfer fees combined. Quite staggering and a clear indication of their value. And yet, they are currently being criticised by their fans and the media for being nothing but a waste of a player on the pitch.
For many people the idea that a “prolific” goalscorer can be deemed worthless for their side appears ludicrous. How can Paul Lambert believe that Darren Bent offers nothing to the Villa side, when it has been his goals which have helped keep Villa in the league? His 18 league goals for Villa before this season were certainly key in helping Villa survive relegation. Yet Paul Lambert believed that he needed a new centre forward this season. In came Christian Benteke side lining Darren Bent.
Perhaps Bent’s situation can be seen through what is happening with Torres at Chelsea. Fernando Torres arrived at Chelsea on the back of an impressive time at Anfield with Liverpool. 65 goals in 102 games for the Reds made Torres one of Europe’s most prolific strikers. It was his performances at Liverpool which made Roman Abramovich spend £50m on him to take him to Chelsea. However, Torres time at Chelsea has not been pleasant viewing. In fact it has been quite painful.
It was clear that Torres’ arrival was going to cause an issue between Chelsea's current striker Didier Drogba. The Spanaird clearly struggled to adapt and compete with Drogba in the side and a measly 11 goals in his almost two years at Chelsea indicates that his time at Stamford Bridge has not been enjoyable.
With Drogba’s departure many believed Torres would find him form, and although he has four league goals this season, his performances have been poor, lacking in desire, confidence and skill. The case of Torres therefore shows that if this type of centre forward is not scoring, he is doing very little else. This is what many have put down to Bent’s absence, without goals he gives the team very little and for a manager like Paul Lambert, he cannot afford to have a “luxury” player like this.
Why a "Drogba" has become an essential for success
The Torres and Drogba situation allows for a near perfect comparison between two different types of centre forward. For me Drogba has been the best forward in English football this past decade. His strength, power and ability with the ball have made him at times unplayable. Added to this his ability to score in the biggest of games, notably cup finals and Drogba’s presence on the pitch has been a blessing for Chelsea's owner and fans.
I remember a game between Liverpool and Chelsea when Torres was at Liverpool. They made the comparison between the two and showed at that time both had 12 goals each. Yet when comparing assists Drogba had 12 to Torres' none. For me this showed how valuable a Drogba style player was for a team. Simply he gave more to the team and was thus more important. Chelsea's success with him in the side would show this.
In my opinion Didier Drogba is the perfect centre forward. He scores goals with his feet and head, he sets up goals, holds the ball up and defends for the team. He is certainly no “luxury” player, in fact he is very much an essential player for his side.
Teams today are seeking players similar to Drogba, they want players who offer more than just goals. This change is starting to show that players like Bent and Torres are becoming obsolete in the game. Previous “poachers” of the like of Michael Owen, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Andy Cole, players who were prolific for their team and brought success to their side are no longer seen as essential for top sides. It appears the poacher is becoming a dying breed.
Right now in England the Drogba type player can be seen in players like Eden Dzeko, Christian Benteke, Andy Carroll, Grant Holt and Ricky Lambert. Powerful with the ability to hold up the ball, bring others into the game and score goals with their head and feet have made them essential to their teams.
It is clear when you see Benteke play that Lambert needs and desires this type of player over the “poacher” Bent. Just like when Lambert was at Norwich and he used Holt in a similar vein. The Scot requires a powerful centre forward to hold up play and bring others in to the game.
Why Jose and Pep saw the value in Drogba
Perhaps the best example of Drogba's "influence" was that Pep Guardiola, after winning the treble in 2009 believed he needed a Drogba type player. He spent almost £60m on Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He felt this type of player was so important that he was willing to allow a prolific centre forward in Samuel Eto’o move the other way.
Now much criticism has been pointed at Guardiola for this transfer, especially when Eto’o was so influential in bringing success to Inter that following season. Yet Guardiola had seen how powerful and influential a player like Drogba was against his side. In his mind he believed that having a Drogba type would be essential for his sides future success, the famed "plan B". Yet, it became a flawed decision as Zlatan was not able to be adapt to the culture of Barcelona and the tactics Guardiola wished to employ.
Jose Mourinho saw in Zlatan a player who at that in his career was not helping the team but hindering it. His self obsession and selfish style enabled Inter to defeat many in Serie A yet was their undoing in Europe. He made a shrewd decision in allowing Zlatan to leave and having Eto’o come in his place. Yet it was the purchase of Diego Milito from Genoa who was key for Mourinho.
Like Benni McCarthy at Porto and then Drogba at Chelsea, Mourinho wanted and needed a centre forward who worked for the team. They needed to score yet they also needed to bring others into the team. Milito was the foil for Eto’o, Sniejder and Pandev when Inter would counter attack. He played for the team and enabled Inter to defend in numbers while having a “target” man up top to play to. It proved successful as Inter picked up an unprecedented treble that season.
Without doubt the influential style of a Drogba type player can be seen in players like LLorente, Mario Gomez and Eden Dzeko. These players have become the modern centre forward; goalscorers of course, yet they bring players into the game, they play a major role in helping the team, in building attacks and bringing others players into the game. They are not just looking for goals, playing little or no part in the build up or game until a chance to score comes available. No, these modern centre forwards mix goals with helping the team and allowing others to score.
How Henry showed English football how the modern "forward" was evolving
While the big target man has become a necessity for many of Europe's top sides, there has been the desire for many sides to have a deep lying forward. Unlike the "poacher" these forwards eagerly get involved in the action and wish to play a part in the build up. English football was introduced to a real gem of this type of player when Arsene Wenger moved to Arsenal.
When Thierry Henry came into the English Premier League few could have really known the impact he would have on English football. Along with his manager Arsene Wenger, Dennis Bergkamp and many of the French national team, Arsenal's style would transform the English Premier League. Technical excellence mixed with strength and intensity would epitomise Arsenal and as the club rose to become a major force in England, Henry’s development would epitomise this rise.
As "complete" forwards like Ronaldo, Romario and Litmanen were dominating the 90's, Thierry Henry would show what English football had been missing. The Frenchman showed us where modern football was going.
A converted winger into a centre forward was what Henry was and his ability to move into wide and deep positions to receive the ball was revolutionary in a very rigid and fixed English league. He found space and with his pace and dribbling ability Henry terrorised defences and put Arsenal to the top of English football. Henry would be voted 2nd two years in a row in prestigious World Player of the Year awards in 2003 and 2004. He scored 174 goals during his time at Arsenal. Not bad for a "converted winger".
Since Henry there have been many top players who have become world class forwards after starting in wide areas. Ronaldinho showed how effective the new type of winger could be when he was allowed to cut inside and a player who scored goals as well as create them. His skill, speed and creativity made him World Player of the Year 2004 and 2005. It was the evolution of the modern forward; dynamic, with freedom to move between units and possessing skill and finishing abilities which mesmerised defences and fans alike.
As the 2000’s gave birth to the inside forward, more of these “type” of players emerged and there is no doubt who have been the most complete and prolific of these players. Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were wingers, yet both were regarded as “inverted wingers” who would come inside from wide positions onto their favourite foot. It would give them the ability to attack centrally with the almost single mindedness to score goals.
Their evolution into “inside forwards” has changed how football is currently seen. The modern forward is not just the classic number 9 who waits for the chance opportunity to poach his goal; the Inzaghi style of centre forward. No, the Inzaghi’s and Owen’s are in decline, they are becoming extinct. The modern game needs modern forwards who are more than just a poacher.
The modern game requires functionality and versatility to a player’s game. In players like Messi and Ronaldo there is a universality to their style of play. They are wingers, number 9’s and 10’s, they are playmakers and goal scorers in one (even showing the aerial ability of the classic centre forward). It is why these two players are the world’s best and arguably the best two players the world of football has seen. Comparisons of these two to Pele and Maradona are justified. Earlier I said how football has not thrown up any real radical changes, instead the game goes in cycles and in Messi and Ronaldo we see the modern Maradona and Pele.
Look at the evolution of players like Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie at Man Utd. These two players are now seen as playing the “9.5 role”, possessing the ability to play as playmaker and goalscorer. Their ability to interchange, to be fluid and flexible has given the ability to play at the top level, their world class ability comes from being able to do more than one job. The same can be said of a striker like Karim Benzema at Real Madrid who has become a much more rounded forward at the Bernabeau. In an ever changing game involving evolution and adaptation, these strikers have become much more than that. They are now complete forwards.
Adapt and evolve or risk extinction
In the past decade we have seen the changing and ultimate decline of the “poacher”, the classic number nine. There is no doubt that goals are essential to the team, yet in the modern game coaches have sought more from their forwards than just the ability to score goals.
The modern forward comes in different shapes and sizes; we see players like Aguero, Falcao Eden Hazard, Neymar and Luis Suarez, small in frame yet quick and skilful, they move deep to receive the ball, seek to dribble and create goals as well as be prolific goalscorers; they are the "false nines".
We also have the Drogba types, those players like Llorente, Dzeko and Mario Gomez who offer their side the physicality and strength to hold up the ball, to bring others into play. Managers from Jose Mourinho to Paul Lambert see the value in these type of players as they offer their side so much more than just goals.
In the cases of Darren Bent and Fernando Torres one can see why their “style” of playing the game has become obsolete. They are simply one dimensional, they are too inflexible. Although goals are important, coaches require all their players working for the team.
For these "poachers" the answer is simple, evolve or become extinct. As Darwin said “it is the one most adaptable to change” which survives. The modern game has evolved from the “poacher” and is now very much needing players with the ability to be flexible and varied in their approach to playing the game. Both can take heart from seeing how a player like Miroslav Klose has evolved his game in order to stay at the top of the game.
Never has universality being so important to football, the number nine has been replaced by the "9.5", the player who can be both creator and scorer. Bent and Torres should take note, their type is in danger of becoming extinct.