The old adage claims strikers are worth their weight in gold, but recent dealings in the transfer market tell us that isn’t necessarily true in modern football. None of the beautiful game’s six most expensive signings of all time are centre-forwards in the traditional sense, while just two make the top ten and a mere five make the top twenty.
As all but one of these signings have taken place since summer 2009, it’s clear the biggest clubs in world football believe their vast fortunes should be invested in other areas – predominantly the middle-to-final-third berth that encompasses attacking midfielders, wingers and supporting forwards.
The diminishing importance of traditional, goal-scoring centre-forwards has been noticeable since Jose Mourinho traded a second striker for a defensive midfielder in the 4-3-3 setup that took the Premier League by storm during his first spell as Chelsea manager, instead placing an emphasis on front-men who can bring others into the game, while the idea of not having a striker at all has become increasingly popular since Pep Guardiola reinvented Lionel Messi as a false nine and Barcelona waltzed to the 2012 Champions League title.
But amid the influx of superstar managers during the last few years, the trend has been especially prevalent in the Premier League.
Liverpool are perhaps the most extreme example, because one of the Premier League’s most potent strikers before he took the Anfield helm in 2015, Daniel Sturridge, has spent practically the entirety of Jurgen Klopp’s tenure watching a positionally-vague attacker in Roberto Firmino – best described as a versatile forward – lead the line instead.
However, the way the Brazilian is utilised is incredibly telling; while he’s expected to find a healthy portion of goals himself, his primary duty is to bring Liverpool’s roaring wingers into the game in dangerous areas whether that’s with the ball or through nomadic movement.
Rather than the central striker, Liverpool have mostly relied upon Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and until recently Philippe Coutinho for goals, or at the very least match-winning cutting edge.
At Manchester City too, Sergio Aguero – arguably the most proficient striker in Premier League history – has found himself a surprisingly expendable figure under Guardiola. Every Manchester City manager since the Argentine arrived at the club has viewed him as the first name on the team-sheet, often risking him while carrying injuries, but Guardiola has taken a markedly different point of view.
Aguero has started just two thirds of City’s Premier League fixtures this season, although injures have been a factor for some games, and perhaps most tellingly of all, he could now have a more versatile forward in Alexis Sanchez overtake him as the pace-setters’ first-choice front-man.
But perhaps because of the gradual change in emphasis from central strikers to the attacking wide men either side of them, the numbers are starting to justify the new way of thinking.
Take the Premier League’s three biggest striker signings of the summer – Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata and Alexandre Lacazette – who cost their clubs a combined £187.7million during the last transfer window. Across all competitions, those strikers have scored just twelve game-winning goals between them, haven’t started in 38% of their respective clubs’ games this season and have failed to find the net in 62% of their outings.
*Note: These stats are correct as of January 9, 2018
That doesn’t mean those players aren’t contributing in other ways, but it also suggests all three probably haven’t completely fulfilled expectations thus far – something most Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United fans would likely agree with – and that they’ve rarely been a decisive factor for their respective employers.
While it may be a painful coincidence that three of the Premier League’s top clubs have spent vast sums – including two club-record fees – on strikers who are yet to prove truly fit for purpose, it feels like there are more significant forces at work. After all, how much can really be expected when Lacazette is still essentially the support act to Mesut Ozil and Sanchez, and Morata comes a distant second to Eden Hazard in Chelsea’s power rankings.
It’s also intriguing that – despite investing in new centre-forwards – both clubs have scored less Premier league goals after 22 games than they managed last season.
Lukaku is the exception; he’s by far and away Manchester United’s most significant attacking presence and Mourinho’s side have vastly improved upon their 33 goals in 22 games from last term.
But in many ways, that only proves why some of the Red Devils’ rivals have stopped relying on an out-and-out, traditional centre-forward as their main force in the final third. Lukaku has delivered a healthy return this season, but his goals have made a marginal impact in terms of actual results – with only three being game-winners – and his all-round performances have come under recurring criticism.
In stark comparison, no summer signing has impressed more this season than Liverpool’s wide forward Salah, currently the Premier League’s second-top scorer with 17 strikes in 21 outings and the Reds’ across all competitions with 23 in 29.
While he’s only scored three out-and-out game-winning goals as well, he’s become Liverpool’s biggest attacking threat, the focal point of their counter-attacking play and has made himself undroppable; he’s failed to start just five of Liverpool’s competitive fixtures so far this season, and came on from the bench in two of those.
Curiously too, while Harry Kane stands out as a rare exception simply because of the frequency in which he scores, the other member of the Premier League’s top three goalscorers this season is Raheem Sterling – another wide forward – and just seven of the top 20 are out-and-out strikers. That number’s even dropped from last season, when just eleven made the top 20.
It all begs the question of what the striker role is becoming, and whether it will be a striker role for much longer or simply a means for bringing the new match-winners and goalscorers – the wide players – into the game.
The statistics, at least, suggest the new approach is the most beneficial; while Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham continue to rely on traditional centre-forwards, it’s Liverpool and Manchester City with their fluid front-lines, expendable poachers and false nines that have scored the most Premier League goals this season.
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