Euro 2016: Attacking midfielders come to the fore as Europe's lack of world-class strikers shows

England’s campaign at the 2016 Euro tournament was one to forget but there was a day when it looked like the team could go on to achieve great things. A last-ditch comeback win over Wales was just the kind of victory that could give a boost to the side’s confidence. The potential was there to play attacking, free-flowing football; it’s a shame that Roy Hodgson’s insipid management denied that possibility.

However, in a moment of uncharacteristic recklessness, he had unleashed four strikers on the deep-lying Welsh defence in order to gain three points. To England’s joy, Daniel Sturridge scored a thrilling late goal to accomplish the task in true ‘Roy of the Rovers’ fashion. But it was not him alone who matched the fictional hero’s exploits.

Firstly, to clarify, the title of the comic strip is not a reference to Roy Hodgson. Rather it is the story of the comic hero Roy Race, who for generations has typified the idea of an English football hero. In the series, Roy would often rescue his team Melchester Rovers from the brink by producing a goal out of nothing. Sturridge and Jamie Vardy did much the same against Wales. The latter in particular got a lucky break when the opposition skipper Ashley Williams headed the ball in his path and the Leicester City striker stabbed home from close range. Vardy had spent only a few minutes on the pitch but he had drawn England level. It was a heroic turn that even Roy Race would have drawn satisfaction from.

Cristiano Ronaldo during match against Poland. Reuters

Cristiano Ronaldo during match against Poland. Reuters

As an idea, though, ‘Roy of the Rovers’ is nearly obsolete in current-day football. If the comic series is recreated today, Roy Race would be more than just a goal-scoring poacher. He would run to the wings, play through balls and hold the ball up to bring others into play. This is not to say every striker in elite football is adept at each of those skills, rather that the idea of an ideal striker has undergone a complete transformation. Jose Mourinho summed this up well when he said, “For me a striker is not just a striker. He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2.”

The Portuguese manager must be pleased to see there is no dearth of such options in European football. But how many world-class strikers have we seen in France at the ongoing Euro tournament? The transformation is not lost on a legendary striker either, a man who scored no less than six times in the continental championships. In a 2014 interview to The Blizzard, Thierry Henry recognised what had changed. “If you look at the 1960s and 1970s in England — even when I arrived (at Arsenal) in 1996 — in every club you had strikers, and I mean (actual) strikers: who headed the ball, who were present on every cross. We have less now.”

Interestingly, Henry was one of the forwards who had typified the move to a more dynamic presence upfront towards the end of the last century. Having started out as a winger on the left, his movement and skills were harnessed to ensure a conversion to the position of a centre forward. It was at Arsenal that he truly became the feared striker that the world came to celebrate but he was not without the gift of the defence-splitting pass. In the same interview, Henry admitted that he had imitated the attributes of Liberia’s legendary striker George Weah in his early years. According to the Frenchman, Ronaldo (the Brazilian master finisher), Romario and Weah “reinvented” the centre-forward position.

It would be disingenuous, however, to claim that a handful of strikers could change the meaning of the striker’s role. A confluence of ideas have brought upon this transformation. As the change in offside rule in 2005 ensured that defenders could no longer just step forward to play the opponent offside, the space in midfield grew considerably. Not only did this allow small, technical midfielders to flourish, it also gave more room for strikers to roam in front of the opposition defence. Managers sought to exploit this situation and, consequently, sought more from their forwards.

This change has led to a stream of tactical reimagining — which is interesting because only a decade ago, Roberto Mancini had said in a lecture that the future developments in football would be seen in preparation and not tactics. It is clear now that he’s the latest victim of predicting an end to history. But is Europe at the thin end of the wedge that seems to be more tipped towards South America?

To be clear, this is not to say goal scorers have become a rarity. That would be an absurd claim in a generation where Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi continue to push the boundaries of goal-scoring targets. However, top European clubs are increasingly dependent on players brought up outside Europe. Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar lead the fabled line for Barcelona, Manchester City has Sergio Aguero, Chelsea’s attack has been led by Diego Costa who spent his formative years in his country of birth Brazil, Juventus rely on Argentina’s Paulo Dybala and Napoli on his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain. Borussia Dortmund hasthe Gabonese Pierre-EmerickAubameyang as its prime striker while PSG’s top two scorers after Zlatan Ibrahimovic were EdinsonCavani and Angel di Maria last season.

A look at the ongoing Euro tournament lays bare the problem in European football. After Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski, it’s a struggle to name one world-class striker who began his career in the position. Hence it has not been a surprise to see Wales’ Gareth Bale and Portugal’s Ronaldo feature as strikers for their respective national sides, who meet each in the first semifinal on Wednesday. Germany was forced to recall the almost-forgotten Mario Gomez to its squad after finding goals hard to come by while France continues to rely on Olivier Giroud, who is not the most reliable figure.

Instead he has been left behind in the scoring charts by Antoine Griezmann who represents the kind of striker Mourinho described above. The Portuguese manager’s bête noire Arsene Wenger once claimed that Europe does not produce top strikers anymore because players are brought up in the cosseted environment of academies. According to him, an elite striker needs to play more street football in order to become tougher mentally. Playing footballer in those less coordinated environments develops an instinctual feel for the game that European strikers do not seem to nurture.

This is a contentious argument since there has been no widespread dearth of goals across the continent, even though the latest iteration of the Euro tournament has been short on goals (only 2.14 per game; the 2014 World Cup had 2.67). But there is some truth to Wenger says. This is probably the most obvious in the rise of Ronaldo and Messi as unstoppable goal scorers. Both of them did not play as a striker for a long time but in the absence of prolific goalscorers, they have made the position their own. The presence of Lewandowski and Ibrahimovic, though, should remind us that strikers can become the focal point of their sides if not told to only cover space and create situations for their teammates to score. They need to be adaptable while persisting with what sets them apart – consistent and calm finishing. Scoring goals will never go out of fashion. But the kind of player who scores them will always be susceptible to the whims of time and ideas.

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Updated Date: Jul 06, 2016 09:41:02 IST

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