Goals are the only absolute things in football. Goals win games. Trends come and go in football. There have been periods when teams favor a direct approach, such as during the 1990’s in the Premier League.
And others in which the merits of possession become relatively more important, such as the recent Barcelona-lead tiki-taka revolution. And yet the importance of goals never changes.
Traditionally, strikers have been the players most responsible for getting goals. Next to the goalkeeper, the position of centre-forward is arguably the one that comes with the most pressure. Mistakes by strikers means goals aren’t scored. And when goals aren’t scored, teams lose.
Today, we expect a lot more than goals from our strikers. As the game has decreased in physicality, positions are becoming less functional and players are expected to contribute more to general play, with centre-forwards being no exception to this.
Olivier Giroud is one such striker who’s affect on a game stretches far beyond the scoreboard. In spite of this, the Arsenal man still finds himself coming into criticism for not scoring enough goals. But as the game has changed so much, should we not also change what we expect from a striker?
The traditional centre-forward fits into one of two categories: ‘big man’ or ‘little man’. The big man’s job was to hold up the ball, provide an ‘out ball’ for his team and power in an array of headers. The little man tended to be faster and more nimble, operating on the shoulder of the last defender and always on the poach.
Aside from the fact that one’s big and one’s small, the two leading scorers in European football over the past few years, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, don’t fit into either of these molds.
Messi, perhaps the ultimate betrayer of the traditional centre-forward role, has been labeled a ‘false 9’ as he likes to start where strikers tend to, but invariably drops deep to pick up the ball. Ronaldo also shares this preference for having the space to run at the defence, but prefers to start off in a wider position.
With these non-strikers scoring so many goals, should we still be expecting our strikers to score as much?
The stats of Olivier Giroud would suggest not. Although he is Arsenal’s top scorer in the league with 12, this is not a very impressive tally considering Arsenal only play with one striker and are a team challenging for the league title.
But as well as scoring goals, Giroud is also provides them. The Frenchman also has the second most amount of assists at the club this season with seven, only one behind Mesut Ozil, the much lauded ‘king of assists’.
Giroud manages to provide so many assists because he does not simply loiter in the box as centre-forwards of old tended to do. His play is more nuanced than this, linking up the various lines of attack by receiving the ball from midfield and playing in teammates running beyond him. Judging the Frenchman on goals alone seems to crude a simplification to make.
It’s surprising that in the shift to the ‘4-2-3-1’ formation that we’ve seen recently, the onus on the ‘one’ up front to score has reduced, rather than increased. But then this really shouldn’t be that shocking given that, in effect, there are now four forwards.
Chelsea perhaps provide the most clear example of this. When they have the ball, the four players up front essentially have a free role, with no one player remaining in front of goal and solely concentrating on finishing. While the toils of Torres et al. are well documented, a traditional centre-forward may not score as many goals as we’d expect in this system given it’s fluidity.
Goals may be the only absolute in football, but who scores and who provides them appears to be in flux. Assessing a striker on goals alone may no longer be a very good measure. If we accept that the game is changing, then we must also start changing how we judge our strikers.