Tra­di­tional strik­ers get­ting over­looked in English soc­cer

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

There’s a new craze sweep­ing through the Premier League - and it spells bad news for the tra­di­tional cen­ter for­ward. In the last three rounds, as many as seven teams have started matches with a winger or at­tack­ing mid­fielder play­ing as a con­verted striker. Take last week­end, for ex­am­ple. Roberto Firmino, an at­tack­ing mid­fielder, started up front for Liver­pool as he has for most of the sea­son and scored in a 4-2 win at Crys­tal Palace.

Winger Alexis Sanchez led the line again for Arse­nal and scored twice in a 4-1 win at Sun­der­land. Eden Haz­ard, usu­ally a left winger, was a goal-scorer and star player for Chelsea af­ter start­ing the 2-0 win at Southamp­ton in such an at­tack­ing po­si­tion that he was of­ten play­ing fur­ther for­ward than striker Diego Costa.

Right wingers Nathan Red­mond and Michail An­to­nio were cen­tral strik­ers for Southamp­ton and West Ham, re­spec­tively. Mean­while, for two of Tot­ten­ham’s last four games, South Korea at­tack­ing mid­fielder Son He­ung-min has started as the main striker. And Swansea’s Amer­i­can coach, Bob Bradley, played mid­field play­maker Gylfi Sig­urds­son as a lone striker against Arse­nal for his first game in charge.

Es­tab­lished in­ter­na­tional strik­ers like Daniel Stur­ridge, Divock Origi, Olivier Giroud, Vin­cent Janssen, Shane Long, Michy Bat­shuayi and Fer­nando Llorente have of­ten had to be con­tent with a role as sub­sti­tute at the ex­pense of wingers or mid­field­ers. Some of them haven’t even come on. Even the player widely re­garded as the best striker in Eng­land has been af­fected. Ser­gio Aguero was on the bench for Manch­ester City’s Cham­pi­ons League game at Barcelona, with coach Pep Guardi­ola pre­fer­ring play­maker Kevin De Bruyne up front so he could drop back to help his mid­field.

English soc­cer is late to the party when it comes to the con­verted for­ward or “false nine,” which was pop­u­lar­ized by the suc­cess­ful Barcelona and Spain teams of the past decade and also in the Euro­pean game by cur­rent world cham­pion Ger­many on oc­ca­sion.

At the turn of the cen­tury, it would be rare to see a Premier League team that didn’t start with two strik­ers. A decade later, play­ing with one tar­get-man has be­come the vogue. Now, some teams don’t even have one, or some­times play strik­ers out on the wing in­stead.

WHY THE CHANGE?

It’s been com­ing for a while, ac­cord­ing to Arse­nal man­ager Arsene Wenger, who spoke last year about the lack of out-and-out strik­ers in Europe af­ter a fruit­less search in that year’s trans­fer win­dow. “What we pro­duce now are good tech­ni­cal play­ers be­cause there are nice pitches out there,” Wenger said. “Be­fore, you played in the park where you had to kick the ball up front and you had to fight. A boy of 12 who played against a boy of 16 had to be shrewd and push to get the ball. “All those kind of things have gone.”

Then there’s a grow­ing pref­er­ence for a high­en­ergy press­ing game, which re­lies on a more mo­bile for­ward line. Hence why Liver­pool man­ager Juer­gen Klopp chooses Firmino over Stur­ridge and Origi, why Son has some­times been pre­ferred to Janssen as the lead for­ward for Tot­ten­ham in in­jured Harry Kane’s ab­sence, and why Sanchez looks like be­ing the pre­ferred choice to Giroud at Arse­nal this sea­son.

The likes of Sanchez, Red­mond and An­to­nio three quick, hard-work­ing wingers - can stretch play by mak­ing runs be­hind de­fense, al­low­ing their teams’ many at­tack­ing mid­field­ers (Me­sut Ozil, Theo Wal­cott, Du­san Tadic, Dim­itri Payet) more space to ex­ploit.

As for Haz­ard, re­liev­ing him of de­fen­sive du­ties is one of the key rea­sons Chelsea man­ager An­to­nio Conte has turned the Bel­gium winger into more of an out-and-out for­ward. Haz­ard’s at­tack­ing flair was stymied last sea­son by then­coach Jose Mour­inho, who made him work too hard de­fen­sively.

“You have a sim­i­lar type now in Eng­land who looks happy to have moved from wide to cen­ter,” said Wenger, who con­verted Thierry Henry from a winger to one of the best strik­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. “Most of the time, you de­velop a good tech­nique on the flanks as a winger be­cause you are against the line and you have to drib­ble. And when you are in­side, you have a bit more room.”

Slowly in­fused into the Premier League, the “false nine” isn’t so pop­u­lar among the top teams in Europe’s top leagues at the mo­ment.

Strik­ers and speedy for­wards are still the pri­or­ity in Spain, with Barcelona (Luis Suarez), Real Madrid (Karim Ben­zema) and Atletico Madrid (Kevin Gameiro) hav­ing gen­uine strik­ers. No ma­jor team in Ger­many plays with­out a clas­sic striker - ex­cept for the Ger­man na­tional team it­self, and that’s only the case when strik­ers are in­jured - and the phe­nom­e­non hasn’t re­ally spread to Italy or France yet. — AP

SUN­DER­LAND: Arse­nal’s Alexis Sanchez cel­e­brates scor­ing his side’s first goal of the game dur­ing their English Premier League soc­cer match against Sun­der­land at the Sta­dium of Light, Sun­der­land, Eng­land, Oct 29, 2016. — AP

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