Premier League this season. For a country in which, traditionally at least, 4-4-2 is the preferred system, I find it surprising that a number of clubs, many of whom are fighting for position at the top end of the table, such as Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal, begun the season with just two strikers in their rosters.
Perhaps it is a symptom of how the game is changing, as two up front is becoming a rarety – it is more common nowadays to find a front man with a supporting striker or attacking midfielder placed behind him.
But in my opinion, there is always a point where a team will need two strikers on the pitch, perhaps not every week, perhaps not away from home, but in a league which is so fast paced and games are decided more often than not by moments of opportunity, having two strikers on the pitch can be a massive advantage in the final fifteen minutes of a game after the midfield battle has already been lost and won.
Not only that, but simply in terms of depth, it seems rational that a manager would want as many players in his squad as possible with true goal-scoring instinct. Of course, midfielders can score goals, and in the modern game, most clubs, especially at the top end of the Premier League, have attacking midfielders and wingers who are expected to contribute almost as many goals as the front men, but being blunt in attack and lacking in that certain cutting edge can seriously diminish a team’s ability to see off games.
Take Chelsea for example, who are one of the clubs in question. Although their unsatisfactory form cannot all be attributed to the lacklustre Fernando Torres, you’d imagine that they would still be in contention for the title if they had a razor-sharp striker to provide the desperately needed finishing element to their fast-paced counter-attacks. The Torres situation is difficult – it seemed at the end of last season that he had overcome his failings, and with the departure of Didier Drogba, he would step up to the challenge as any professional footballer would be expected to. But the reality is, he hasn’t. And with Lukaku sent to West Brom on a season-long loan, Chelsea started their campaign with just Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge on their books. I do believe bringing in Demba Ba as a replacement for the outgoing Sturridge is a good move, but if you analyse the Blues’ squad, up front is still their weakest area on paper.
They’re certainly not the only club on trial however. By November, Liverpool were already beginning to pay the price for having just two forwards on their books. Fabio Borini’s long term injury on international duty left Brendan Rodgers with only one striker at his disposal – an excuse he used a number of times to justify some questionable performances. Luckily, that one striker was Luis Suarez, who carried the team through their slow start to the campaign and has provided more than enough fire-power with his 17 league goals this season. Suarez is an exceptional player, but had he been seriously injured, which is a possibility for a footballer when playing in almost every minute of every game, Liverpool’s season would be over by now.
The latest victim of having limited strike options are Tottenham Hotspur, who are now without Jermain Defoe for at least the next three weeks. In the meantime, they’ll have to rely on Emmanuel Adebayor, a striker who has been misfiring all season and finds himself being caught on Match of the Day making a glum expression with his arms folded on the Spurs bench. But the Togo forward may not even return home from the African Cup of Nations in time for this weekend’s game against Newcastle, and even if he does, African players have tendancy to come back to domestic duty in an exhausted and burnt-out state, spending the remainder of the season running on half empty.
Perhaps Tottenham are a tad unlucky – they spent most of January chasing after potential strikers, ranging from Gary Hooper to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and Fernando Llorente to Leandro Damiao. But they started the season with just two strikers in their squad, and therefore they should expect to finish the season with the same personnel; the mid-season transfer window should not be relied upon.
Just look at the two Manchester clubs who have been the two dominant teams over the past few seasons. Sir Alex Ferguson always has four strikers at his disposal, and the Scot believes that three of them – Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernandes – are capable of scoring at least twenty goals per season, and similarly Manchester City have Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Carlos Tevez, and until a few days ago Mario Balotelli as well.
Furthermore, the ability to score goals has been the difference between Man United and their rivals this campaign, and will no doubt prove to be the difference by the end of the season. Although they are arguably lesser than Man City and Chelsea on paper in terms of midfield and defence, their strike force, which has proved itself to be more capable than Manchester City’s, has been unplayable this year.
Strikers are on average the most expensive players to purchase; the biggest fees are still held out for them and perhaps that is part of the problem. But to be seriously contending for a Champions League position, or for that matter the Premier League title in Chelsea’s case, talent up-front should be the first priority. It is goals after all that decides games. A lack of options up front not only limits the way a team can play in terms of formation, but also leaves clubs susceptible to injury crises. Obviously finance is an issue, and wingers, attacking midfielders or even centre-backs can be used as emergency strikers, but if you had the choice between a lousy plumber and an electrician to fix your toilet, you’d choose the lousy plumber.