Wenger and van Gaal’s avoidance of strikers shows change in mentality of football
United manager has spent €315 million but hasn’t bought an established striker
Both Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger failed to sign an established out-and-out centre forward during the last tranasfer window. Photo: David Price/Getty Images
As long-serving leading men go Wayne Rooney has always tended to attract an unusual degree of free-floating rage. The national team’s declining tournament performances. Manchester United’s willingness to pay their star player a huge salary. The fact that despite his own best efforts Rooney will ultimately be classed as good rather than great, some way short of English football’s great white Pele. All of these are apparently All Wayne’s Fault.
To this list can now be added the chronic lack of centre-forwards that has led to Rooney taking that position for club and country at a time when most high-end players with 12 full seasons already on the clock might be thinking of conserving their energies, refining their influence and generally running around a bit less. Let’s be honest, asking Rooney to play as Manchester United’s chief - and indeed only - centre-forward at this point in his career feels a bit like forcing a middle-aged man out on stage to disco dance. Here he comes, gut swelling over the hem of his lycra pantsuit, dutifully getting the YMCA wrong.
Rooney’s current 10-game goalless run in the league reflects both his own declining mobility and the cautious attacking rhythms around him. But it is also part of a wider picture. Much has been made of the basic oddity of United starting the season without a serious alternative in the role of senior centre-forward, but they are not alone in looking a little thin up top. Total Premier League spending in the summer window came close to topping €1.2 billion. A glance down the list of recruits reveals a bulging roster of state-of-the-art omni-forwards - number 10s, inbetweeners, half-and-halfs - and a dearth of high-end specialists. No doubt Roberto Firmino, Dimitri Payet, Anthony Martial, Son Heung-min, Kenedy and the rest will contribute more than their fair share of assists, interceptions, covering runs, no-look passes and sound defensive cover. But where have all the centre-forwards gone?
The world has, of course, moved on since the days when four top-class strikers - the Cole-Yorke-Sheringham-Solskjaer model - was seen as the quorum for a title-chasing team. Most teams play with only one striker now, as United often did in the late Ferguson years. Chelsea won the league last season with just Diego Costa, Loic Remy or a very convincing statue of Didier Drogba as their lone centre-forward.
Plus it was not so long ago the central striker was being declared tactically deceased, pushed to one side like an outdated combine harvester and replaced by a plague of fluid attacking midfielders. Except, it did not quite work out like that. La Liga’s scoring charts are still dominated by the combined Messi-Ronaldo godhead, but the best club teams still tend to contain the best centre-forwards. Robert Lewandowski is Bayern Munich’s most potent attacking force. At Barcelona Luis Suarez’s muscle and guile have been a vital cog in one of the great attacks of the modern age.
The Premier League still craves a centre-forward. Last season 13 of 18 players with more than 10 goals were orthodox number nines, although as ever this is a slightly fraught dependency, a need only chaotically serviced, to the extent that there is still a notable shortage among the top teams. Manchester City have the best in the league - by some distance - in Sergio Aguero, but their real depth is in attacking midfield. Arsenal have looked light on punch with Oliver Giroud - a stylish, likeable, cumbersome B-lister - as their chief central attacker. United basically have only Rooney, with Marouane Fellaini a novelty variation when it comes to muscular central strikers.
It is not hard to see why English football has struggled to produce and nurture pure number nines. There are tactical reasons, not least the preference for high-pressure, athletic forwards who play a variety of positions. Often the ability to cover defensive weakness, a general Heskey-fication of the role, seems more important than the ability to create space and take half a chance, both of which will arrive in any case.
Crystal Palace’s attack was formidable at Chelsea on Saturday, albeit more for its ability to press hard and break with power. Connor Wickham was excellent but he will probably not get 10 goals this season.
Meanwhile the academies continue to unproduce. The dearth of technically refined attacking players is either a function of over-coaching or under-coaching - take your pick - but when it comes to central strikers the usual fear of early responsibility seems to apply. Much better to learn to hustle and migrate to the wings than expect to be given a chance as the cutting edge of a Premier League team. Which perhaps explains why the England squad contains four strikers with nine goals in their last 40 combined Premier League matches.
With this in mind the signing of Martial is effectively an admission that, if you cannot beat them, you might as well buy them. And why not? Price tags aside, Rooney, Martial and Memphis Depay look an alluring combination of speed, skill and knowhow. Perhaps they might get enough game time to form a potent attacking unit, the WMD forward line: hard to locate but only ever 45 minutes away from mayhem.
For all that, none of them is actually a centre-forward. It is a bizarre anomaly that Louis van Gaal’s cautious, reverse-rear revolution should leave a club whose lucrative global brand is based on its own grand tradition as a rakish, chancy goalscoring machine, with a single slightly creaky central striker.
There are some good reasons for this.
Van Gaal’s belief in possession-based team play is not exactly geared towards specialist goalscorers. A player like Javier Hernandez, who contributes in between the beats, in broken play, when the game becomes fractured, was never going to fit his systems-based approach. Fit the pattern first: score later.
The second problem is perhaps simply that, as Arsene Wenger has publicly lamented, there are not that many top-class centre-forwards out there. Looking back now, the most striking thing about the golden quartet of Andrew Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham, is simply what excellent players they all were, four men with 548 career Premier League goals between them, each a level up from anything going around the Premier League in the current window.
For United the signing of Cole in 1995 was the start of a golden thread, the first real out-and-out central goalscorer of the Fergie years after the more versatile, deep-lying presence of Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona. From Cole to Yorke to Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rooney (2011 version) and Robin van Persie United have had a great run of central strikers.
Until now, that is. There is perhaps an element of unnecessary caution here. Just as Arsenal seem to have decided Karim Benzema is the only centre-forward out there who might actually improve their team, there is a general willingness to do without rather than take a chance on a specialist. Would Bafetimbi Gomis really not improve Arsenal? Could United really say they are better off not having spent some of that €315 million on a decent, orthodox number nine along the lines of Gonzalo Higuain?
On this occasion Van Gaal might perhaps have learnt something from Alex Ferguson, a hunch-manager whose best teams tended to play in surges, and whose only real process over 27 years in charge was finding players who could help him win matches.
– Guardian Service