During the 80’s and a period in the 90’s English football’s top tier had a glut of forward players who were characterised by one thing – goals. Goals were their currency – and they amassed a fortune! Scoring, was what they lived and breathed for out on the pitch and, for most, their ability to sniff out a chance and put the ball in the back of the net was the sole reason for selection in the team. These goalscorers or ‘poachers’ often had two distinct skill sets, with some even excelling at both: they sat on the shoulder of the last defender and timed runs to perfection, using their pace to get onto through balls and finish one-on-one situations, or, they had an uncanny knack for finding space in the penalty box, anticipating play and getting onto the end of crosses or pouncing on mistakes. Names like Kerry Dixon, Tony Cottee, Ian Rush, Gary Lineker, John Aldridge and Clive Allen all fell into this category and were later joined by the likes of Robbie Fowler, Andy Cole and Michael Owen in the Premiership era.
Back then, English teams played generally played a 4-4-2 formation. It’s what every schoolboy knows and what we were brought up on. Of the two selected to play upfront, one would mainly comprise of the poacher (as detailed above). In order for him to work best, he would need a partner on whose presence he could thrive on. Famous ‘poachers’ usually operated best in partnerships, and his striking partner would come from two distinctly different groups. The first being the physical ‘big man’ or target-man – who’s play would involve holding up the ball, being a ‘battering-ram’, winning aerial duels and flicking on balls to his partner. Think partnerships like Heskey and Owen, Sharp and Lineker/Cottee/Heath or north of the boarder, Hateley and McCoist.
The second group from which successful partnerships were forged came from the deep-lying forward, or player in the ‘hole’ – a creator, whose quick thinking and skills would engineer chances for the poacher often by feeding him through balls with their sublime vision. Think Dalglish and Rush, Beardsley and Aldridge, Bergkamp and Anelka, or Cantona and Cole.
However these diminutive types of goalscorers started to fade as the Premier League era took hold and have all but vanished from the game. The likes of Fowler, Owen, Cole and Anelka the last of a dying breed. Some might say they haven’t vanished as such, but merely evolved. The demands of today’s game along with all the tactical and physical changes, have saw any player unwilling or unable to get involved in team ethics and build-up play, cast aside. In other words, JUST bringing goals is deemed not enough. This has led to current strikers having to amalgamate two roles into one; they have become hybrids of the partnership era. We only have to look at the likes of Thierry Henry, Leo Messi and Wayne Rooney to see they are both the deep-lying forward AND the goalscorer, mixing the ability to both score and create for others. From the other group which consisted of the target-man came the likes of Shearer, van Nistelrooy, Drogba and Adebayor – all physically imposing, integral to build-up play but mobile and sharp goalscorers. With these types of player at their disposal, managers are able to field ‘two-types-of-player-in-one’, thus freeing up another space for an ‘additional’ player in today’s quest to control the midfield areas, be it another creator or holding player. We only need look at the various formations for the majority of today’s teams to see the evidence. Gone (for the most part) is 4-4-2, and in has come 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, 4-3-2-1 or 4-3-3. This modern phenomena is not just set to the Premier League of course, it has been going on all over the continent for years.
Last season in the Premier League we were treated to what appeared to be a throwback player. A ‘poacher’ had returned to our league – but he wasn’t English. Step forward Javier Hernandez. The Mexican bagged a very impressive 20-goals in his debut season for Manchester United, but it was his style of play that intrigued. Not since the 80’s and early 90’s had we seen a striker of this sort. He wasn’t particularly tricky, he wasn’t physically imposing and didn’t seem to concern himself too much with build-up play. However, he was razor-sharp – and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to score goals. That instinct of knowing where to be in the penalty box, of which many often said ‘couldn’t be taught’ appeared with to be with him. In light of his success, one wonders if the rise of Javier Hernandez has signalled the start of the return for the old style ‘poacher’, to our game?