The Evolving Role of Strikers in modern Football

Robert Lewandowski is one of the top active strikers in world football.
Robert Lewandowski is one of the top active strikers in world football.

Strikers lead the attack, score goals, have flamboyant celebrations, and are the ’face’ of their team. Though football is a team sport, no position is as celebrated in the game as that of a striker is. Ask any kid which position he would love to play, and he is likely to reply, “STRIKER promptly!”.

But as glamorous as it looks like, the striker’s position is perhaps the most rigid of them all. As per Charles Darwin’s theory, only the fittest survive, and football is no exception to this rule. Adapt or get extinct.

On that note, let us have a look at how a striker’s role in football has evolved in the last 25 years.

That 90s Show

Thierry Henry & Dennis Bergkamp
Thierry Henry & Dennis Bergkamp

The era of Diego Maradona had just ended, and the world was waiting for the next superstar.

There was the Argentine swag of Gabriel Batistuta, the Joga Bonito of Ronaldo and Rivaldo, and the classic English Alan Shearer. These were the guys who brought the term 'Goal Poacher' in football.

Their eye for goal, control on the ball, movement in the box, and more importantly consistency and precision in scoring goals set some serious benchmarks for years to come. This was the era where the strikers hunted in pairs, such as Sherringham - Shearer and Del Piero - Inzaghi.

The world saw more enigmatic striker pairings over the turn of the century. The Dwight Yorke – Andy Cole partnership set the Premier League on fire. On the other hand, England football fans have Gerard Houllier to thank for gifting the pairing of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen followed by Emile Heskey partnering the Liverpool blue-eyed boy. While Emile Heskey had an astounding physical presence, Owen would find his way through defences with his pace and dribbling guile.

It’s worth noting that 4-4-2 was the formation in trend during the late 90s and early 2000s. Sir Alex Ferguson is perhaps the most notable manager associated with this formation along with Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles who deployed Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp upfront.

The strikers in 90s had mastered the art of being in the right place and at the right time. Hover in and around the box, have an eye on the near post, find the spot and when the delivery arrives ‘in the zone’, nail it in the back of the net. Though the work-rate of the strikers then wasn’t a must have’s in the game, their clinical record in front of the goal was never in question.

One Man Army

Chelsea v West Bromwich Albion
Chelsea v West Bromwich Albion

The 2000s is perhaps a galvanising decade in modern football. Much of the credit in this regard goes to the tactical maverick Jose Mourinho and his Porto days, followed by his stint at Chelsea. It was his strategic brilliance where he sowed the seeds of attacking defence defamed as Park the Bus.

Had it been any other tactical display on the field, the significance of a lone striker in the team wouldn’t have been noticed. 4-2-3-1 was already a formation in trend. The spotlight from the midfield diamond was now taken over by the attacking quartet. A playmaker in the midfield orchestrated the attack, wingers triggered a quick counter-attack, and the lone striker punched the final blow.

At the time Mourinho’s 'park the bus' was changing the dynamics of football in the Premier League and the world over. Didier Drogba with his brute force and sniper’s ability to finish things off, was Mourinho's weapon of choice to kill games.

Werder Bremen v Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Werder Bremen v Bayer 04 Leverkusen

At the same time, Thomas Schaaf was keeping the mighty Bayern Munich on their toes with a blistering attack spearheaded by Miroslav Klose. This was the time when Klose was the face of the German attack on the international platform. Klose exhibited German finesse with his headers and flashy mid-air somersault celebrations.

Besides the two above names, it comes across unsurprisingly that strikers like Milito, Roque Santa Cruz, Roy Makaay and more recently Edinson Cavani have flourished under the attacking quartet tactic.

Forward Thinking

Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern Muenchen - Bundesliga
Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern Muenchen - Bundesliga

In the pre-season of 2008, two men stepped up in their managerial careers. One in Spain and other in Germany, both in their respective motherland. The Spaniard won everything as a player at the Catalan club Barcelona. The German, on the other hand, was a Loyalist, having spent his entire career at one club in the second division. Pep Guardiola was unveiled as the manager of Barcelona while Jurgen Klopp took charge of Borussia Dortmund.

Both the managers implemented a similar 4-3-3 tactic on the field. For Guardiola, there was a centre forward supported by wingers on either side. Both these wingers would cut in from outside to aim at the goal.

Jurgen Klopp’s forwards were more direct and would interchange their positions while attacking. To maintain the fluidity in attack, Klopp always has had a preference for versatile players and would often mould a player perfect to play in other positions if needed. Jupp Heynckes also observed a similar tactic at Bayern Munich where Arjen Robben would wreak havoc in the opposition defence playing as an 'inverted winger'.

It is in this phase of modern football that the label of ‘winger’ has somewhat become a conventional one. The flank players are simply generalised as forwards in the line-up, be it Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane.

The success of Jurgen Klopp, Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola has propelled the significance of pressing in the game and thereby putting more responsibility on the forwards’ shoulders.

Managers like Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs smartly learned the tricks of this trade too as it is evident by how important Son Heung-Min was for the Argentine's side. The forwards no more score only goals, but as Klopp says, they are the first defenders of the team. Recover the ball as early as possible and disrupt the scoresheet before the opponent reassembles its defence. One can see a similar technique being implemented at Red Bull Salzburg, Wolves, Hoffenheim, Napoli and more recently at Atalanta.

Roberto Firmino is the anchor that makes the Reds
Roberto Firmino is the anchor that makes the Reds' attack click.

A noticeable fact is that there were few ‘strikers’ and more ‘centre forwards’ in the game than ever before. Players like Robert Lewandowski, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero have continued to stay relevant with their goal-scoring prowess.

But there is a growing breed of forwards who are following the footsteps of Bayern Munich’s Thomas Mueller, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, Lazio’s Ciro Immobile or even Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli. They operate just like a joker in a pack of cards. They will exploit half-spaces, create a window for their teammates, drag their markers out of their position, and while doing this, won’t shy away from scoring critical goals for their team.

Finishing Touch

The age of football that we are living in is one of versatility. While the masters are revered and always welcomed in the game, more and more teams are striving for players who are the jack of all trades.

Adaptability has become a must-have along with the primary positional skills concerned with every department. The role of goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders have changed. Forwards, or as they say in the old school language, strikers, are no exception either.

It would be interesting to see what the next chapter unfolds for these forwards. We can only wait and watch!

Edited by Bhargav
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