Tribute to centre forwards

Of course we don’t often hear them called “centre forwards” nowadays; they are generically referred to as “strikers”. But the terms are often interchangeable and most of us know a centre forward when we see one. By Brian Glanville.

The Immutable Law of the Ex is what the Italians call the supposed inevitability of a player scoring against his former club. Certainly it was recently borne out at Old Trafford where the Dutch attacker, prolific Robin van Persie, inadequately marked, swooped to head in a corner; the only and winning goal for Manchester United against Arsenal, the club for which, until last season, he had scored so often. And, as things have stood ever since he went, irreplaceably.

By contrast, Arsenal’s centre forward that day, the Frenchman, Olivier Giroud, had an indifferent time of it. To give him his due, he had meagre support and looked tired after a strenuous series of games in which he had quite frequently scored. But between him and van Persie there is no valid comparison. True, Giroud is looking a much more effective player than he did last season, but he is never going to be another van Persie, let alone a Thierry Henry, who scored goals for the Gunners in such abundance, establishing a record never likely to be broken, easily outstripping such former goal-getters as Cliff Bastin, who once got 33 in a season from the left wing, and the England centre forward, Ian Wright.

Of course we don’t often hear them called “centre forwards” nowadays; they are generically referred to as “strikers”. But the terms are often interchangeable and most of us know a centre forward when we see one, not least supporters of Arsenal.

As often as not, teams now play with just one “striker”, but if you wish to distinguish the traditional centre forward from a secondary attacker, surely there is no better example of the second category than the players largely regarded as the finest of all time, Pele. He would invariably play upfront, but always alongside an actual centre forward, whether it was Vava in the 1958 World Cup-winning Brazilian side in Sweden or Tostao when Brazil regained the World Cup in Mexico City in 1970. Indeed it is arguable that Pele would not have scored as abundantly as he did, not least in those two World Cups, had he been closely marked by a stopper centre back, as would an actual centre forward be.

There are now leading teams which dispense with a centre forward altogether; notably Spain and Barcelona. In each case, Cesc Fabregas, essentially a quick and talented attacking midfielder, has been used as a kind of phantom striker, gliding into dangerous positions from advanced midfield, often with success. At Barcelona, this till now has worked especially well, since, till he was recently injured, Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the best player in the world, once an outside right, has been granted a free role popping up whenever and wherever he liked. He is of course an Argentinean international, but so far as his national team is concerned, there are formidable rivals for the central striking positions, in Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain.

In these three cases, there is menace in the air, which is not part of little Messi’s repertoire. In the 2010 World Cup, Diego Maradona, as manager, kept him out on the left wing, which rendered him comparatively ineffectual. It is hard to see Argentina, recently beaten 3-2 by their eternal River Plate rivals, Uruguay, changing their pattern next year in Brazil.

Meanwhile, however, Messi’s injury gave Barcelona the opportunity to play with a centre forward of outstanding talent. Anyone, who like myself, watched Alexis Sanchez of Chile take the defence of a disorganised England team to pieces, scoring both Chile’s goals in a 2-0 win, will have been lost in admiration. Yet Sanchez was expected initially to play on the right wing, where he is deployed when picked by Barcelona. Sanchez simply toyed with the bewildered English defence, even if the second goal came from a shocking blunder by the English centre back Gary Cahill, in injury time.

Sanchez’s was a performance of huge confidence, superb technique and sleight of foot. That he was notionally deployed on the right wing seemed to delude some observers; it was, in fact, Eduardo Vargas who played there rather than in the middle.

That same evening Germany were drawing 1-1 with Italy in Milan where they operated without a recognised centre forward in the current fashion, but were none the worse for that, striking the woodwork of the Italian goal three times. Yet, in the 1970s, the West German attack was led by Gerd Muller, scorer of a remarkable cornucopia of goals including the winner of the World Cup final against Holland in 1974. Thick-thighed, a demon in the penalty box, he was once criticised by Heide Rosendahl, a champion German athlete of the time, as doing nothing but hang around the penalty box and score goals: But what goals they were, gems of strength, skill and opportunism.

On the occasion of that World Cup final, the opposing centre forward was an infinitely more versatile all-round player in Holland’s Johan Cruyff, the inspiration of his team and of the Ajax side which won three successive European Cups; as Muller’s Bayern Munich did in immediate succession. Cruyff would score often from central positions but in Dutch club and country teams playing so called Total Football, he could pop up on the left wing or drop back into midfield.

Today, there are such classical centre forwards — whatever you may call them — as Poland and Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, who is largely left on his own as Gerd Muller never was. Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden is another natural centre forward, however you may classify him, tall, acrobatic, original, deadly on the ground and adept in the air. In the 1950s the dazzling Hungarians familiarised us with the deep lying centre forward in the shape of Nandor Hidegkuti. But later came the 1966 World Cup star Florian Albert who was superb upfront.