Old-style poacher’s coming under attack
EVERY manager wants a 20-goals-aseason striker, the penalty-box predator who nicks one when the team is under pressure and punishes opponents when the team are on top. The alchemists who turn chances into goals are the players that kids in the playground want to emulate, whose names sell the most replica shirts, who get the star ratings in fantasy leagues and video games.
But, while goalscorers may attract the highest fees and earn the biggest wages, do they guarantee success? Billy Kee, the Accrington Stanley goal machine, appears set for a rare double this season – top scorer and promotion winner.
Elsewhere, individual ruthlessness and team success do not appear to mix.
Prior to this weekend’s programme, the Championship’s scoring charts were led by Matej Vydra (Derby), Bobby Reid (Bristol City) and Lewis Grabban (Aston Villa), all with 19 goals, followed by Leon Clarke (Sheffield United) with 18. Villa are in the play-offs, Derby should join them, but the others will miss out.
In League One, Jack Marriot has hit 26 goals for Peterborough and Brett Pitman 22 for Portsmouth, but both look destined for another year in the third tier.
The nearest challenger to 25goal Kee in League Two is Mohamed Eisa, whose Cheltenham team are much nearer the bottom than the top.
It is the same in the Premier League, where Liverpool are a long way adrift of Manchester City despite Mohamed Salah’s 31 league goals, and Tottenham further behind, regardless of Harry Kane’s 26.
The last time the Premier League top scorer won the title was in 2013 (Robin van Persie, Manchester United).
It is no different in the National League, with Andy Cook’s Tranmere (26 goals) and Danny Rowe’s Fylde (24) trailing champions Macclesfield (top scorer Scott Wilson, on 12).
Accepted, there are goalscorers going up. Diogo Jota (Wolves, 17), Wigan’s Will Grigg (18), Bradley Dack of Blackburn (18) and the Luton pair of Danny Hylton (20) and James Collins (19) have all secured promotion. But none is the leading scorer.
Last year was similar. Billy Sharp’s 30 goals for Sheffield United carried them to promotion, but of the other dozen Football League players to score 20 league goals only three finished in the promotion places (Dwight Gayle of Newcastle, Brighton’s Glenn Murray and John Marquis of Doncaster). Just as many were at clubs that flirted with relegation (Tammy Abraham of Bristol City, James Vaughan at Bury and Crawley’s James Collins).
Having a goalscorer, a fox in the box, is beneficial but being over-reliant on one player is not. It is not just the risk of him being injured, it is the way teams consciously play to that player’s strength, even when there may be better options. Unconsciously, they rely on one player to get the goals instead of feeling the responsibility to contribute.
In addition, the game has changed. English football is not as direct, not as reliant on the centre-forward-and-sidekick combination of yore.
Playing a high line, squeezing up to catch players offside, is less common, especially against better teams.
This forces promotion-hunting managers to seek other options, other ways of finding and using space.
Full-backs attack, on the underlap and overlap. Midfielders drive into the box for cut-backs. Wide players are increasingly a source of goals (exhibit A: Ryan Sessegnon).
The front man is now as much a space creator, through his movement and passing interaction, as a goalscorer.
I remember Derek Hales, the Charlton legend, who barely touched the ball against Gillingham, but when he did, bang! Gills lost 1-0.
Goals will always be prized, but the days of a poacher, who did nothing but score are fading.