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Where have all the strikers gone?
Most or the Premier League top scorers aren't classic nines. What's happening?
Have you taken a look at the Premier League top scorers chart recently? It makes for curious reading.
Way out ahead in the Golden Boot race is, of course, Mohamed Salah. He’s scored 16 goals, six more than anyone else this season, and been generally outstanding. But you already knew that.
Behind him is Diogo Jota on ten goals, then Jamie Vardy on nine. After that, you have a whole host of players on eight for the season so far: Cristiano Ronaldo, Emile Smith Rowe, Emmanuel Dennis, Son Heung-Min, Michail Antonio, Raphinha and Sadio Mané.
There are a mix of profiles here. You’ve got your wingers who like to cut inside in Salah, Mané, Son and Raphinha. Then there are “strikers” like Ronaldo, Dennis and Antonio, who have spent much of their careers out wide before being converted into the number nine role. Emile Smith Rowe is a curious one as more of a number ten who’s been getting onto the end of chances. Anything we’re short on? Ah, yes.
Vardy alone is the only honest to god striker on this list of Premier League top scorers. And even he was a winger once.
The next best proper striker is Neal Maupay, on seven goals. After that, there’s Callum Wilson on six and Ivan Toney. All the other classic centre forwards in the division have no more than five goals each, more than halfway through the season.
This is partly a story about specific players in poor runs of form. Last season’s top scorer, Harry Kane, hasn’t hit his usual standards. Patrick Bamford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin – who each scored 17 and 16 times last campaign – have suffered injury problems. Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings have struggled to coexist together at Aston Villa, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looked on the decline even before falling out with Mikel Arteta.
But it’s also about teams and systems. Manchester City couldn’t land Kane in the summer, so Pep Guardiola just went without a recognised striker for another season. Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp have never been interested in playing with a conventional number nine. Chelsea spent a lot of money on Romelu Lukaku, but Thomas Tuchel often seems happier without that profile of attacker in his forward line. That’s the three best teams in the country who are all happy to forgo a natural striker.
These things don’t happen overnight, but tactical trends in the Premier League overwhelmingly start at the top and trickle down. José Mourinho plays a defensive midfielder at the base of a three-man midfield (the famous ‘Makélélé role’) and everyone does the same within a few years. Leeds have played with Daniel James upfront recently, but that seems to have more to do with Bamford’s fitness than a deliberate tactical choice by Marcelo Bielsa. Right now, this is about England’s elite and almost nobody else.
It’s not happening elsewhere in Europe. In the Bundesliga, the four leading scorers are Robert Lewandowski, Patrik Schick, Erling Haaland and Anthony Modeste. All broadly fit the mould of old fashioned centre forwards. La Liga’s leading pichichi contender is Karim Benzema, who I’m sure you’re familiar with. Conventional strikers Ciro Immobile and Dusan Vlahovic lead the scoring charts together in Serie A. This is really an England-specific problem.
That runs counter to everything we’ve traditionally thought about English football. While other countries admire technical number tens, England has always most prized the classic striker. Figures like Jimmy Greaves and Dixie Dean embodied the old First Division. When BBC One broadcasts its weakly Premier League highlights show Match of the Day, the host is Gary Lineker, flanked most frequently by Alan Shearer and Ian Wright. All three were best known in their playing careers for one thing: putting the ball in the back of the net.
Part of this is just specific managers. Guardiola, Klopp and Tuchel are all more relaxed about using conventional strikers than even their continental peers, let alone English traditionalists. The Premier League’s biggest clubs have used their wealth and (in some cases) greater patience with managers to poach the best minds from continental Europe, and “elite” managers today tend to be more focused on building a cohesive system than most. That seems to mean forgoing old fashioned centre forwards to get more pressing and link-up play into the side.
The other factor might be about England itself. Academy coaching has changed the type of players produced in the country. English football went into something of a crisis around 2010, after the national team’s repeated failings, and placed a huge emphasis on technically proficient and tactically fluid players. The ‘England DNA’ document for how English youth football should be developed explicitly talks about producing footballers who can “adopt varied playing styles and formations” where attackers can interchange across the frontline. Take Mason Greenwood as an example of this. A generation ago, he might have emerged as an out-and-out striker. Today, he’s expected to be equally comfortable out wide and consistently contribute outside the box. A generation of academy work has changed the game.
Or perhaps that academy work is just building off the other ways England has changed. In the old days, English football’s problem was about putting ten-year-olds on full-size muddy pitches. No wonder the game favoured physical strikers who were comfortable receiving long balls. But available green space in urban areas has been declining for some time. For many English footballers, especially those aged 23 and under, they had to hone their skills on concrete.
“You can tell when a professional footballer learnt their trade playing on concrete”, Carl Anka explains. “The ball moves quicker and bounces higher on the hard surfaces compared to grass, forcing youngsters to develop a particular quickness of mind and sense of anticipation. Goals can be smaller and lower than those found at a typical Sunday league club, creating players with a different type of shooting profile, often aiming hard and low to corners.”
English footballers raised on concrete are the exact opposite of those raised on massive grass pitches. An emphasis on dribbling through tight spaces and driving towards goal has led to an abundance of English inside forwards. So many of the current crop wouldn’t naturally suit a 4-4-2 shape, despite growing up in England. These skills are all very useful, but they’re not quite those associated with classic centre forwards. This is a different profile of player, and they’re not old fashioned strikers. As they have risen, the number nine is declining.
Maybe it’s a bit of all these reasons. Or maybe it’s none of them. It’s pretty likely strikers will have a resurgence in 2022, just due to individuals regaining fitness and form. It does feel, though, that the trend is moving in a certain direction. If the best teams in England – and thus some of the best in Europe – are happy to go without strikers, you can expect others to follow in due course. All these teams still need to score goals, of course. The striker will never die off, but we might have to accept it’s becoming a part-time role for now.