It took the workings of a 5’8 striker on the last day of the 2011/2012 season to land Manchester City the Premier League title, while Lionel Messi—a player who also stands at a similar height—has been one of the keys to unlocking a door into a new world of football, one which has little use for giant strikers.
But football clubs—at least those who aren’t able to match the innovations of Barcelona—are continually led down a road that requires a tall and powerful figure to form the tip of the sword. In turn, should it be a worry that smaller forwards like Jermain Defoe and Theo Walcott will be forgotten as good players simply because their height doesn’t meet the requirements?
Sergio Aguero is one of the current exceptions and would be a leading light for any club in the world. The Argentine is deceptively strong and possesses all the characteristics of a world class striker. However, the shift of emphasis onto a formation that requires only one forward has seen most teams demanding players like Robert Lewandowski or Fernando Llorente instead of Giuseppe Rossi or Giampaolo Pazzini to lead the line.
It’s not so much about the pace and quick thinking of a Jermain Defoe figure running across the opposition back line, but rather a need for a strong target man to do all of that as well as a little bit more.
Defoe saw most of his action last season from the bench, as Spurs dropped the previously used twin striker attack for something a little more continental. It was interesting to look at the number of games in which Defoe started last year in comparison to his years where he formed a successful partnership with another striker, most notably at Spurs. Emmanuel Adebayor, even through mini scoring droughts, was never really in danger of losing out to a smaller striker, despite Defoe being the better finisher.
Kevin Gameiro is another who has seen little interest from big foreign clubs in need of a good striker. The Frenchman was the leading scorer for FC Lorient two seasons ago and subsequently landed a move to big-spending PSG. But Gameiro will not be shoving Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of the way anytime soon, and the desire for a smaller striker like him is continually waning across Europe.
But like Aguero, Wayne Rooney never finds a problem in adapting to the changing formations at Manchester United, yet he’s likely to drop deeper in a move to accommodate a bigger centre-forward in Robin van Persie. Rooney’s strength, however, allows him to be a key figure in either formation, with very few able to bully the England forward off the ball or out of games.
But the problem is so many stereotypes of this now-popular formation with a packed midfield suggests that tall strikers are the way to go. With Tottenham landing a more powerful presence in Adebayor this summer, what then happens to Defoe?
The England international has a phenomenal snap-shot and predatory instincts around the box that is always desirable when looking for a scoring forward. Comparisons have rightly been made with Ian Wright, yet clubs are increasingly looking for something very different from their strikers.
Quickness and intelligence seems to take a back seat, while a big, no nonsense battering ram is preferred. I’d hardly call Robert Lewandowski a battering ram, and Fernando Llorente has so much more about his game. But a proven Premier League goal scorer in Defoe was made available this summer, yet clubs were more interested in knocking on Napoli’s door enquiring after Edinson Cavani. A better striker? Perhaps. But Defoe would have been a great bargain for the right club.
It’s also interesting that with the smaller striker becoming less of a need, the old fashioned no.9 is also on the decline. Instead of needing a striking to hang on the shoulder of the last defender and tuck away easy chances from a few yards out, modern forwards are required to do a lot more. Link up play is important, as is their technical ability to combine well with talented midfielders. Lionel Messi and Barcelona have begun a process where conventional strikers are not needed at all, with a deadly forward in David Villa having to adjust his game on the left side of the attack. But you’re unlikely to see many traditional no.9’s in the modern game who are comparable to someone like Alan Shearer. Instead, strikers are used much more around the pitch, including in the taking of set pieces.
But it terms of smaller strikers, it seems they can only really survive in the majority of the modern game if they are paired with another forward. But then the problem arises in another area of the field where teams are likely to be overrun by an opposition with more bodies in the midfield.
Walcott should be given increased opportunities through the middle, while Defoe remains one of the best finishers in the league. Unfortunately, the need for them looks to be decreasing, with a greater passing game leaned on in midfield and bigger targets entrusted in the advanced role.
It’s hardly the death of smaller strikers, but these players are struggling to consistently find their place in a world where the old fashioned strike partnership is going out the door.