“I see some players who call themselves strikers but their goal-to-game ratio is laughable. These guys are forwards who occasionally score a goal and the Trade Descriptions Act should be onto them for calling themselves strikers.”
So writes Gordon Strachan in this month’s edition of FourFourTwo magazine. The Middlesbrough coach is addressing the rise of a growing modern phenomenon – the striker who does not score. But is it a genuine cause for opprobrium or a simple failure of vocabulary?
Britain’s tactical vocabulary is woefully lacking when it comes to describing a player’s on-pitch role. Where Italian, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese have given us a wealth of phrases to delineate subtle differences between positions, English gives us defenders, midfielders and strikers. Defenders defend, midfielders run around in the middle and strikers strike.
Increasingly, however, they do not. The centre forward’s role is changing. The widespread popularity of single-striker formations such as 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 demands that a team’s most advanced attacking player must be capable of leading the line on his own. Some, like Didier Drogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović, manage to marry the role of target man with that of a lethal finisher. Less well-rounded forwards, though, are deployed principally as facilitators; their job is to hold the ball up, occupy the other team’s centre-backs and establish a foothold in their opponent’s defensive third.
Premier League players like Bolton’s Kevin Davies, Aston Villa’s Emile Heskey and – in previous seasons at least – Fulham’s Bobby Zamora are often maligned for not scoring enough goals, irrespective of how many goals they create and how well their team is playing. A striker, in this instance, is not in the team to score goals but to serve the system. Even Fernando Torres admits that he is sometimes asked by Rafael Benitez to sacrifice his natural goalscoring instincts for the sake of the game-plan.
“In England, lots of teams have centre-backs that man-mark you,” he told FourFourTwo. “Often my job will be to bring that centre-back out with me and leave one there isolated on his own so that [Steven] Gerrard can go against him. My movement will be tailored to making space for Gerrard, [Dirk] Kuyt or [Yossi] Benayoun. I’ll go into a game knowing it’s unlikely I’ll score because on that particular day scoring goals is not my job.”
That Torres still continues to score at a rate approaching a goal a game is testament to his outstanding quality, but if even he is sometimes asked not to score, why are less gifted players like Davies, Heskey and Zamora criticised for not rippling the net every time they step onto the pitch?
Debate over who should be named among England’s forwards at the World Cup revolves almost exclusively around who scores the most goals. But what about who brings the best out of the team? The problem for Davies, Heskey and their ilk is not that they don’t score enough goals, but that fans and pundits expect them to do so even when that’s not why they’re in the side. The popular expectation alluded to by Strachan – that strikers exist purely to score goals - demonstrates the damaging effect that Britain’s linguistic uninventiveness has reaped on our collective appreciation of the different roles a forward can be asked to adopt.
It seems somewhat absurd that the glaring differences between players like Torres and players like Davies are not acknowledged in the vocabulary of the Anglophone football journalist. If a player spends his time darting in and around the opposition’s penalty area, working the channels, sniffing out chances and goals, then call him a striker. But if he plays with his back to goal, if he contests headers in the middle of the pitch, wins flick-ons and often plays alongside his team-mates in midfield, he is something else. A central forward? A utility forward? A central attacking facilitator? Call him what you like. Just don’t call him a striker.