Strikers and the future

Published : Aug 11, 2001 00:00 IST

FIRST, we must ask ourselves, what IS a striker? And appreciate that in terms of soccer history, the term is a relatively new one. For many a decade, the term not only didn't exist, if it had, then it could have been applied only to the centre-forward. The true hero of the attack; with occasional goal scoring exceptions such as pre-1914 Steve Bloomer, a prolific scorer from the inside-right position. The centre forward was the glamorous figure of football. Go back to the years spanning the start of the 20th century and you will find the legendary amateur, G. O. Smith.

For long after he had retired to become a quiet schoolmaster, Smith, always an amateur, and a fine cricketer besides a footballer, was eulogised as one of the greatest centre-forwards of all time. Yet he would not head the ball! On principle! Indeed he was quoted as saying that soccer was a game that should be played along the ground. He would be glad to see heading forbidden! So much for such future superb headers of the ball as Dixie Dean, Tommy Lawton, Sandor Kocsis and Pele. Yet Smith in his day was a hero.

The bulldozing, physically robust storming centre-forward was in evidence long before Arsenal invented the third back game in 1925 and based its attack on robust spearheads such as Jack Lambert and Ted Drake. Jimmy Quinn of Celtic and Scotland was a famously formidable figure, muscular, determined and able in those far off days to play a far more physical and combative game than would ever be permitted today.

Nowadays such players would certainly be known as strikers. When Arsenal abandoned the old style of play, deploying a stopper or third back centre-half, moving the wing halves into the middle and fielding the two inside-forwards just in front of them, they left upfield the centre-forward with a winger on each flank. Ideally the fast and penetrative Joey Hulme on the right and Cliff Bastin on the left. In one amazing season, when Arsenal became League champions, Bastin, a precocious young outside-left, scored no fewer than 33 goals. But in current terms you would not have called him a striker.

Drake and Lambert were expected to go hell for leather after the through balls provided by the immensely skilled Scottish inside-left Alex James, or for the high crosses that came in from the wings, regardless of personal risk. Drake in fact was constantly and seriously being injured, and ended his career in 1945 after a particularly heavy fall on the ground of Reading, whose manager he subsequently became. The Scot Jock Dodds was another such player, heedless of potential danger, playing in the 1936 cup final for Sheffield United, later for Blackpool (till after World War II) and Scotland. Often injured but undaunted.

You might say that the concept of striker began with the 1958 World Cup when Brazil introduced the game to the 4-2-4 formation. Up front played Vava, a classically quick, strong, fearless centre-forward, a fine opportunist, and the 17-year-old Pele, superbly skilful, with a ferocious right foot and ability in the air - witness his goals in the 1958 and 1970 World Cup Finals - which belied his height of a mere 5 foot 8 inches. Vava indeed was a classical centre-forward but what could you call Pele if not a striker, for he did not really seem to fit into any other category. Certainly he was not your orthodox inside-forward of the third back days, who might - in the image of inside-right David Jack of Arsenal - slip up beside the centre-forward and score many a goal, but was expected above all to link defence and attack. Pele, a glorious all-rounder, was always able to provide subtle passes to his fellow attackers, but he was famous above all for his goals.

The 4-2-4 formation as we know modulated into 4-3-3, the pattern with which Brazil retained the World Cup, largely without Pele, in Chile in 1962. Vava was partnered up front after Pele was hurt by 24-year-old Amarildo, essentially an inside-left rather than a striker. But after 4-2-4 came 4-4-2, still an immensely popular formation, not least in England. And later still we became familiar with a formation which had indeed just a solitary striker up front, though he would often be supported by a colleague playing as the English put it "in the hole" or as what the Italians call a tre quartista, a three-quarter player.

When I hear the term Striker, I think also of the term Midfielder; which itself derives from the 1958 Brazilian revolution. Note that initially the Brazilians themselves divided midfielders into the two distinct categories of wing-halves and inside-forwards, which in my view still exist. Just as I still see certain strikers as in essence centre-forwards - look at Paolo Rossi whose six goals in the 1982 tournament in Spain won Italy the World Cup, or Ruud Van Nistelrooy, just sold by PSV Eindhoven to Manchester United for �19 million. But then look at the Liverpool and England attacker Emile Heskey and you do indeed see the quintessential modern striker.

Meaning that he can and does play right across the faces of the attack. Heskey began with his local club Leicester City as a winger, usually on the left though he could just as well operate on the right. He had great physical power, plenty of pace, and other skills to get past his man. But as time went by, he was increasingly used in the middle where he showed all the talents of the traditional centre-forward, not least when the ball was in the air. This is a true striker; you cannot categorise him either as a centre-forward or a winger, though he can operate equally effectively in both roles.

The tendency indeed has been for talented wingers to became impatient with playing on the flanks, where they are dependent on a service of the ball from other people, and insist on operating more centrally. In other words with a far freer role as strikers. This was very much the case with Italy's Gigi Riva, who made his name as an outside-left, excelling in the Cagliari team which so surprisingly won the championship in the late 1960s, but steadily became an all-purpose forward, a striker, both for club and country.

Geoff Hurst, whose three goals in the World Cup final of 1966 at Wembley will surely stand as a record for all time, could also be called a striker, though he was never a winger and would seldom try to act as one. He began with West Ham United in fact as a moderate wing half whom the club were on the point of selling to a third division club. Luckily for them, for Hurst and for England, they relented, converting him into a forward. A centre-forward? Not really, despite his muscular physique and great force in the air. Indeed, you might say that when England won the World Cup they didn't really have an orthodox centre-forward, as West Germany surely did in the compact Uwe Seeler. When Jimmy Greaves - best seen surely as an opportunist inside-forward playing off the centre-forward - was left out, Hurst and Liverpool's Roger Hunt operated as a duo of strikers up front, with Bobby Charlton hovering just behind them, ready to shoot.

So I think that we can usefully divide today's attackers into the categories of centre-forwards and strikers and I imagine this will hold good for the future. You might say that a centre-forward is by definition a striker but I'd disagree. He can come in all shapes and sizes. Paolo Rossi was small, Dixie Dean. Tommy Lawton, Italy's formidable Silvo Piola, World Cup winner in 1938, were big. Scotland's Hughie Gallacher was a little man. So was another star of the 1938 World Cup the Black Diamond of Brazil, Leonidas, famed for his spectacular bicycle kick. But they all largely did their work through the middle. The future striker will, I believe, continue to increase in versatility. He will be more than what is now described as a mere Target Man, stationed in the middle of the attack ready for the ball to be played up to him so that even under pressure, he can hold it and lay it off to his deeper lying colleagues. Was Johan Cruyff, the inspiration of the Holland and Ajax teams, a striker? Or essentially a centre forward who could indeed move out profitably to the wingers as a complete striker would? I'd incline to believe that Cruyff was in a category of his own.

More and more, in years to come, the striker will be expected to go it alone, to fight for the ball down the middle, to move out to the wings and show the classical winger's skills of pace and control. Milan and Ukraine's Andrei Shevchenko can do all that, though he has all the gifts of the great centre-forward. But the lack of a "real" centre-forward was well illustrated by the French team of the 1998 World Cup even if they managed to win it. Since then of course they have centre-forwards in abundance though one of these, Thierry Henry, originally a winger, can be categorised as a striker too, using his pace and control down the flanks at will. Such players when you can find them surely constitute the ideal striker of the future. But there will never be a super abundance of them.

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