Strike a Chord

 
 

Daniel Keenan looks at the strikers roll, on and off the pitch.

Strikers have been traditionally the focal point of a football team. Previously judged purely upon their goal tallies and goals per game ratio, the position has evolved to incorporate the Emile Heskey type figure; a player who scores little but can cause problems for opposition defences and create goals by presence alone, without even touching the ball. A manager’s dream, but any fan’s nightmare front man.

One trend which has been developing at Europe’s top clubs is the abolishment of what has become known as a traditional Number 9, or poacher: a striker whose primary objective is to score, to play off the back foot of opposition defences and apply the finish to a team play or opposition mistake.

The poacher Number 9, the likes of Alan Shearer, Ruud van Nistleroy and Michael Owen, are becoming scarce at the top level, as teams steadily abandon a 4-4-2 system in favour of a 4-3-3 (with two attacking wide men, and a centre forward) or 4-2-3-1 formation, wherein a more complete forward is required to lead the attacking line.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo do this job to great effect for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, while Wayne Rooney often occupies this lone striker position, when fitness allows Ferguson to play his full team. Danny Welbeck has leapfrogged Javier Hernandez in United’s pecking order. When injuries dictate that Rooney must play in midfield, because of his more physically imposing presence and ability to hold the ball up for attacking players running towards goal, Hernandez is an out-and-out poacher.

In Robin van Persie, Arsenal have followed the trend of dropping a poacher, though whether this was due to the failure of Gervinho and Chamakh to score enough goals is up for debate. Chelsea have always preferred a powerful striker, and have continued this in their positioning of Daniel Sturridge or Didier Drogba at the heart of their attack.

Roberto Mancini’s attacking options mean that his frontline is often changed, but even at that, Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli and the forgotten Carlos Tevez are not poachers, and to call Sergio Aguero simply a goal scorer would be an insult to his immense skill.

The change hasn’t exactly staggered goals, as the change to 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formation means much more attacking opportunities. Ronaldo and Messi average about a goal every game, while van Persie and the collective Man City attack have been scoring goals for fun in recent months.

Strikers are now a hotter commodity than ever, so inflated transfers are now the norm. Since Chelsea opened their chequebooks to buy Andrei Shevchenko, who was probably the best striker in the world at the time, for £30 million, the price for strikers has shot up.

Young English strikers are incredibly overpriced, as exemplified by Connor Wickham’s £13 million move to Sunderland in the summer, as well as the combined totals that Tottenham, Sunderland and Aston Villa have paid for the services of Darren Bent.

Nowhere is the inflation more obvious than with Liverpool’s £35 million buy of Andy Carroll, whose value probably shot up by £10 million because he has won an England cap. Since arriving in the northwest, he hasn’t looked half the player he did at Newcastle.

Liverpool put the pressure of one of the highest transfers in the world on Carroll when he was in the  best form of his life and recovering from an injury. When his form dropped, so did his head and it seems the pressure keeps mounting on the Tyneside native with each passing game; no matter how many Liverpool players claim that he’s as good at training as he was on the pitch with Newcastle last season, the chance of him reclaiming the form he was in last season is questionable.

Liverpool managed to offset the massive transfer fee by receiving one of their own for Fernando Torres. Chelsea has become a graveyard for big name strikers in their prime in recent years; Hernan Crespo, Andrei Shevchenko and now Torres have all failed to fire at Chelsea after huge transfers.

Torres, as an out-and-out poacher, could be feeling the effect of the football world evolving without him, although the remarkable Demba Ba’s goal scoring in the last year squashes that theory somewhat. Like Carroll, Torres could be failing to live up to his ability because of his massive price tag, but he has looked drained of confidence  since the World Cup in 2010, when a spat of injuries prior to and during the tournament limited him game time. It seems that Andes Villas Boas and the football world is losing interest in Torres quickly, and his star is undoubtedly falling.

One striker who is certainly not disappearing is Machester City striker Mario. He is like the human equivalent of Marmite in the way he divides opinion; he has provided football fans with numerous talking points in his football and personal life.

Fans either love of hate the Italian, but whatever the feeling, nobody can deny his entertainment value. His domination of back pages has finally taken away from the usual stories we hear about footballers.

Players’ private lives, mostly conducted in public nowadays, are notoriously repetitive when the story leaks. Sticking to a tried and tested formula, glamour models or wannabe WAGs go to to the tabloids to tell of their late night meeting with a married footballer. The tabloid in turn prints the story, calling the player a love rat, and calling their source every synonym of the word ‘gorgeous’ that was ever coined.

The annual story of Rooney’s dissatisfaction at Manchester United has sprung up again, while the story of Tevez has been played out so many times that people have begun to forget that he can kick a ball.

Homesick and unhappy with yet another employer, on numerous occasions the Argentine has made noises about moving home, before being linked with clubs further away from home.

Balotelli meanwhile has been accidentally hilarious and fascinating in his actions. There is no doubt that what we see on a regular basis from the Man City striker is the real Balotelli; from his parking tickets, to his house fire, to throwing darts at a youth team, right to his awarding of £1,000 to a homeless man after a casino win. The actions are Balotelli’s, not an act. While not all of his actions can be laughed at and passed off as a bored, petulant young man with too much money, such as his apparent mafia associations and the incident with the darts, his actions are keeping football interesting off the field, as well as on it.

As a youth, he picked up numerous awards, as well as picking up a European accolade for best Young Player in Europe last year, after which he said only Messi was better than him, and that he had never heard of the runner up, Jack Wilshere. Balotelli has begun to show his undoubted talent in the Premier League this season.

If one thing is to sum up the Italian in a nutshell, it is his goal against Norwich, where he shouldered the ball into an empty net. Just to be different. Just to be interesting. Why always him?

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