Attack under attack

The poachers have had their days in the sun. But the future belongs to the men who can retreat to build up an attack, hold the ball up for colleagues, and give support to the wide men, writes N. U. Abilash.

Long ago, in the 1980s, the emotional templates of Diego Maradona's mind had firmly set `fan reality' in football. Maradona, who played as an attacker in the 1986 World Cup and as playmaker in the 1990 edition, said, "Attackers are different emotionally, physically and mentally. Instead of protecting them and enhancing the beauty of the game, FIFA is mindless to allow the game to be dictated by defenders."

Two decades later, at the beginning of the 2005-06 season, Michael Owen was left wondering what the fundamentals of the game was all about as England's quicksilver finisher went looking for a club. To his horror, he found that tactics, formations and strategies had swamped the game altogether and that he had to struggle to find his way out of Real Madrid for there were no willing `buyers'. "It is tough to understand the sport now," a bemused Owen confessed. "It has become very complicated. It is no longer simple and about scoring goals." As a matter of coincidence, Owen had, in France 1998, come the closest to emulating the great Argentinian's 1986 `Miracle Goal'. The Englishman's strike against Argentina in St. Etienne came close to Maradona's goal against England in FIFA's `Goal of the Century' poll.

Brazilian Ronaldo, a World Cup legend who is hoping to become the tournament's all-time leading scorer in Germany, knows what Owen is going through. Ronaldo, a brilliant soloist whose three scorching runs at the Argentinian defence in the South American World Cup Qualifying match in 2004 all produced penalties, simply does not understand the talks that his World Cup place is in doubt because of tactical reasons. "Critics must realise that I am not here because of charity. I have merit that cannot be overlooked. Who said that I cannot play alongside Adriano and Ronaldinho? Football is all about scoring one more than your opponent and if three of us play together Brazil can win the tournament," said the ace striker.

Welcome to Germany 2006, where we know what will be stacked against forwards never mind the presence of some astounding brilliance in this department, young and experienced. Owen will be there, as will be his striker partner Wayne Rooney, who certainly has it in him to win England a World Cup almost single-handedly as Maradona did for Argentina in 1986 and Zinedine Zidane for France in 1998. The moot question is can Rooney do it in his first attempt in Germany, where the awesome Brazilians (Ronaldo, Adriano, Robinho, Ronaldinho, Kaka et al) are the all-out favourites, or would he have to wait till South Africa 2010?

Ruud van Nistelrooy will be there, anxious to make a mark in the world's most followed sporting event (believe it or not, he will be playing in his first World Cup because Netherlands had failed to qualify for Japan and South Korea) and the brilliant Frenchman Thierry Henry, who and his team did not score in Korea and Japan, will be hoping to set the record straight. Spain's Raul Gonzalez and Argentina's Hernan Crespo, both superb predators, have World Cup experience but have done very little of note in 1998 and 2002. Ukraine is playing in its first World Cup and if the qualifiers are any indication Andriy Shevchenko is all set to extend his AC Milan success at the highest level to the international scene as well.

Some high-quality attacking midfielders will also be seen in Germany. Most dangerous among them is Brazil's Kaka whose combination with the creative genius of Ronaldinho is going to give nightmares to rival defences. England's Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can give the Brazilians a run for their money if Eriksson persists with the strategy used in the `friendly' against Argentina in November 2005 where Ledley King was used as the defensive midfielder so that Gerrard was freed to join Lampard in attacking duties. The Ghanaian pair of Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah will be the surprise package. Portugal's Brazil-born Deco will run rings around rival defences and so will the great Zidane hoping for a memorable swansong.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If the history of the World Cup is any indication, the 2006 edition in Germany has a strong possibility of throwing up some new celebrities. Pele became one in 1958, Gerd Muller in 1970, Paolo Rossi in 1982, Owen in 1998 and Ronaldinho in 2002. The young guns knocking on the door of celebrity status this time are Juventus's Swedish striker Zlatan Ibramovich, Spain's Fernando Torres, Netherlands' Rafael van der Vaart, Italian trio of Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino and Antonio Cassano, Argentinians Carlos Tevez, Javier Saviola and Lionel Messi, Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast and Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo. Wide attackers as a breed may be facing extinction in world football but that will not stop `Flying Dutchman' Arjen Robben, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, Spain's Jose Antonio Reyes, England's Joe Cole, Korea's Park Ji-Sung, Ghana's Suley Muntari and Australian Harry Kewell from playing their heart out in Germany.

If injury does not play spoilsport, the world can watch all these attacking talents in Germany, where a lighter ball is going to be used so as to arrest the progressive dipping in the number of goals scored in recent World Cups. There is also a lot of brouhaha coming from Zurich, the FIFA headquarters, that the 2003 interpretation of the "active play" concept of the off-side rule will help scoring. The fact remains though that goals will be scored only if managers devise attacking formations. The reluctance to blood old-fashioned centre forwards of the Michael Owen, Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy mould by many managers also hurts attacking football.

The structural emphasis on multi-tasking attackers means that players such as Ronaldinho, Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry, Andriy Shevchenko and Rafael van der Vaart will be the ones who have a future in top competitions such as the World Cup and the Champions League. The poachers have had their days in the sun, as Gerd Muller, Ronaldo and Owen would testify, but the future belongs to the men who can retreat to build up an attack, hold the ball up for colleagues, and give support to the wide men.

Young Rooney, Robinho and Van der Vaart have added multi-tasking feathers to their caps. Real Madrid's most recent coach Juan Lopez Caro moved Robinho from a central position to wide on the left and the youngster, who is talked about as a fine blend of Garrincha and Pele, has been outstanding in his new role.

As for Rooney, his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson was grinning from ear to ear as he watched the young genius, whose muscular athleticism brings to memory Ruud Gullit's heyday, employed as a playmaker in a recent FA Cup match. "He is such a great genius that he can excel anywhere," said Ferguson. "He is a manager's dream." Exactly the words that Marco van Basten, the Dutch coach, used to described Van der Vaart.

Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, who used a semi-defensive formation in his successful 1994 campaign, announced before the Confederations Cup that he would be changing his 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3 (in effect a 4-2-1-3) and using the more attacking strategy until further notice. Fans of the `beautiful game' would hope that the notice never comes.