So, you’re a modern, hip and tactically astute manager, and you want to play with one up-front. It allows you to play a roaming play-maker and two defensive midfielders. I get it. It doesn’t make buying a backup striker easy, though, does it?
As we have discussed on our podcasts recently, this summer transfer window has been one of frustration for many clubs, especially, and ironically, some of the bigger ones. Manchester United haven’t yet found their dream centre-back. Arsenal have not yet landed upon their mythical defensive midfielder. Tottenham haven’t been able to secure a quality midfield partner for Nabil Bentaleb. However, the one position that has stumped clubs more than others has been that of the central striker. Here’s why.
Most elite teams and managers now play with a lone striker. Most teams, at this point, have an established first choice forward. If you look at the top Premier League clubs who have been on the hunt for a striker this summer – Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool, only the latter have added one of any quality in Christian Benteke, and even then there are mitigating factors. Brendan Rodgers is far more amenable to a 4-4-2 diamond than any of the managers of those other teams, and Liverpool’s first-choice striker – Daniel Sturridge – is constantly injured. Benteke knew upon signing that he would immediately get a chance be the main man.
At Arsenal there is Giroud. Wenger is willing to replace him, but only with a significant upgrade. Failing that, he would rather have hybrid wide-forwards such as Walcott, Welbeck and Sanchez deputize in the striker’s role than buy a second out-and-out #9 who would get severely limited chances. This way, the manager knows his backup strikers will get minutes in other positions, keeping them match fit and relatively content.
Manchester United and Tottenham, meanwhile, are suffering from the same problem. In Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane both clubs have one undisputed, undroppable – barring injury, suspension or an inexplicable Soldado-esque meltdown – first-choice striker. The two of them are the focal points of their teams, and chief goalscorers. Any striker who isn’t very obviously better than them would come into each club knowing that they are only backup. Spurs do have a chance of getting Saido Berahino from West Brom if they pay the English premium, but even he would probably not accept being second choice for very long, despite being only somewhat established.
United, meanwhile, are also looking for a needle in a haystack. They need a striker better than Hernandez and Wilson, good enough to score consistently at the highest level but not so good that he demands to be first choice. Someone like Lacazette would be perfect, and perhaps Premier League wages might tempt players like him to accept a bit-part role, but ultimately the situation would be unsustainable.
At Chelsea, Mourinho recognized the problem and year after year has had to shuffle his striking options in order to deal with it. In his first season he knew Torres would accept a part-time role due to the Spaniard’s disastrous form. In Eto’o, Mourinho brought in someone who would accept being backup due to his age. In Demba Ba, Chelsea had a striker grateful just to be at a top club. None of them were good enough and all were swiftly moved on. The comedy in this is that the one striker of the necessary quality Chelsea had at the time was Romelu Lukaku. He was also the only one not willing to accept being second choice, so Mourinho sold him.
Next season, in came Remy. Like Ba, he was thankful for the chance at a Champions League club after suffering the horrors of being a QPR player. Next, Drogba. Like Eto’o, he was willing to accept being a substitute due to his age. This season, Drogba has moved on and Remy has remained but the only viable backup Chelsea have managed to muster is Radamel Falcao.
The less said about Falcao the better, but he does illustrate the point perfectly. Backup strikers at top clubs these days have to be one – if not a combination of – the following:
- Relatively unambitious (Remy).
- Too old to expect a first team spot (Drogba) or too young and unestablished (Wilson) to expect a first team spot.
- In decline or poor form and thus understanding that they do not merit a first team place (Falcao, Soldado, Van Persie).
- Willing and able to play another position in order to get game time (Walcott, Welbeck).
I was going to say that clubs these days are looking for modern-day Solksjaers, or Wiltords. The super-sub with the unshakably good attitude. But it is actually even more complicated than just finding someone willing to accept their place in the squad. The role of the striker has changed so much that clubs now need to find players who not only fit that criteria, but are also able to play as a lone striker. In this bid, they are failing miserably.
There simply aren’t the players available that fit the role. Javier Hernandez as a lone striker? Not big or powerful enough. In a 4-4-2? Solksjaer-esque and 15 to 20 goals a season. Falcao on his own? Poor with his back to goal and not enough mobility. In a 4-4-2 where all he has to do is goal-hang and shoot? Much better return. This may be the reason why nobody is convinced by Charlie Austin, despite his prolific form for QPR. He isn’t very quick, his link-up play is average, and he spent nearly all of last season playing with a strike-partner. If you buy an Austin, you might just need to buy a Zamora to go with him.
Even if we look across Europe, the elite clubs are all in similar situations. PSG already had Zlatan when they bought Cavani. The latter has been frustrated ever since because he’s been shunted out wide for most of his time, and the relationship between to the two strikers has caused tension. At Barcelona, there is no direct replacement for Suarez. Were he to get injured, one of Neymar or Messi might come central while a younger player fills in on the flanks, but there is not more than one established striker. The same is true of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Lewandowski and Benzema are alone. At Bayern, Muller is the most direct cover and he can play so many positions that some of them don’t even have names. At Real, Jese, Bale and Ronaldo may all be used in a striking role this season, but since the club sold Morata they have decided against buying a direct backup for Benzema.
The upside to this is that players who would have in years gone by been sitting on the bench for big sides are now moving to get game time. It is far better to see players like Morata and Lukaku starting for Juventus and Everton than rotting at Real and Chelsea. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether and how the top teams solve their backup striker dilemmas.
Is Heskey available?