The “Striking Department”
By Tim Charlesworth
After recent forays into writing about the Labour Party and the US national anthem, I was jerked back to reality by the pure joy of Mesut’s hat-trick, and decided to write about football again.
There are lots of things that annoy me about football – my darling wife has patiently explained to me that this is because I am a miserable old git. One of the things that annoys me most is the claim that in order to win the league you must have a ’20 goal-a-season striker’, and this nonsense is particularly pertinent to the way that Arsenal are playing this season.
Of course, like all lazy observations, this one has some truth to it. Firstly, champion teams have good players in them, and so a champion team is likely to have a good striker. Secondly, when a team plays well, they stretch opposition defences and create time and space for a striker (this is almost the definition of good attacking football), so any given striker is far more likely to score 20 goals when playing for a good team than when not.
The problem is that we are confusing symptoms and causes here. A title winning side often has a 20 goal striker, but it does not follow that acquiring a “20 goal striker” leads you to win the league. Jamie Vardy is the perfect example of this. Playing for an exceptional Leicester team last year, he scored 24 goals, but this was the first time that he had broken the 20 barrier since the 2011-12 season (when he was playing for Fleetwood Town in the Conference). Vardy is hardly a 20 goal-a-season Premiership striker, yet Leicester were able to win the league with him at #9.
What about Arsenal’s great strikers?
I think we all love Ian Wright. He was wonderful to watch and scored some amazing goals for us, so I rather hesitate to make my next point – the Ian Wright signing should have been a triumph, but it wasn’t. He joined a team, in September 1991, that was top of the world, having won the 1990/91 title losing only one game. He should have been the icing on the cake, and he was our top scorer for six consecutive seasons from 91/2 to 96/7, but his Arsenal career coincides with the ‘lull’ between the period of Graham’s successes and the golden period of Arsene Wenger.
Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. In the 91/2 season we scored 81 goals, more than the 74 of 90/1 or the 73 of 88/9. But in the following five seasons, with Wright as our top scorer, we scored 40, 53, 52, 49, 62. The problem was that we replaced a striking partnership (Smith and Merson with others contributing) with a single point of attack (Wright). Wright was a more potent goalscorer than either Smith or Merson, but the team lost its attacking elan and variety when he arrived.
We never seriously challenged for the title during Wright’s best years. The team descended into a tactic where its basic aim was to defend, get the ball to Wright, and hope that he could do the rest. The problem with this tactic is that it is predictable and very obvious to opponents. It can be countered by marking Wright out of the game, and this is basically what our opponents did. Despite Wright’s brilliance, we became a low scoring team.
Our only real route to victory was to keep a clean sheet and hope that Wright could wriggle away from his minders and nick one, or we could get one from a set piece. This tactic could be successful, as our cup triumphs of this period attest, but required feats of defensive discipline that simply couldn’t be sustained every week, and so league performances dipped.
The period of Ian Wright’s pre-eminence was the most obvious manifestation of this problem, but similar issues seemed to afflict the team towards the end of Henry’s time at Arsenal and then again when RVP was at the height of his powers. In both cases, these players became the focus of all of our attacking play and we were full of doom and gloom following their departures.
Henry’s departure in the summer of 2007 was followed by the ‘near miss’ of the 2007/8 season (when Eduardo’s horrific injury precipitated a collapse). We scored 74 goals without Henry in 2007/8, compared to 63 the season before and 68 the one before that. RVP’s departure in the summer of 2012 was followed by a very similar season to the one before his departure, with 72 goals scored, compared to 74 in RVP’s least year, despite widespread predictions that we would fall out of the top four.
Wright, Henry and RVP were great players, and it would be absurd to imply that their loss improved our team, but it seems that their departures did ‘free-up’ Arsenal to play in a more varied attacking style that our opponents found harder to handle. At the very least, this tactical improvement seemed to compensate for the loss of the great players.
So, it seems to me that a classically dominant ’20 goal-a-season’ #9, who acts as a spearhead for the attack and gets most of the chances is often as much of a problem as a solution. Certainly in Arsenal’s recent history, we haven’t really prospered with such a line-up.
Fans often like this kind of arrangement as they can easily understand what the team is trying to do on the pitch – our affection for Ian Wright is certainly disproportionate to the success that he brought to our team. When we don’t have a clear 20-goal-man, it is more difficult for fans to understand what we are doing, and this can be frustrating, but remember the opposition defence are having exactly the same problem, and this can be a real advantage.
So what is happening this season?
This season, one of the major talking points so far has been that Sanchez appears to be emerging as our first choice striker, displacing Olivier Giroud. Over the summer, we failed to get the 20-goal-a-year man that so many fans craved (did we really even try?).
Some see the conversion of Sanchez to a striker as a ‘plan B’ or second best option. I’m not sure that this is correct. There is more to this change than a simple substitution of one player for another, it seems to be affecting the style of our play:
- Sanchez, the nominal no 9, is leading the team in assists with 5 (Ozil got his first one against Ludogorets!)
- Ozil is scoring (6 so far), and if you watch his positioning on the pitch this season, he is playing more like a second striker (Bergkamp) than a central attacking midfielder (Fabregas). His goal against Swansea was a good example of this as he was positioned on the ‘last shoulder’ in the lead up to the goal and was clearly looking for the kind of ball over the top that Sanchez duly provided. Against Ludogogrets, one goal was the result of running ‘Henryesque’ laterally across the defensive line and then being put clean through on goal and another was the result of receiving a cross in the middle of the penalty box. And have a look at what he did against Watford – running through the centre and nodding in a cross! These are all classic #9 goals.
- Iwobi is producing a lot of creative play, replacing some of the imagination that Ozil provides when he plays deeper.
- Walcott is scoring more goals from the right than he was as a #9 last season. Most of his goals are coming from runs, or positions that are more typical of a #9 than a right winger or right midfielder.
So it looks to me like Sanchez is playing a withdrawn interpretation of the no 9 role (sometimes described as a false 9) and that Ozil and Walcott are making use of the space that this creates. This might be confusing to our opposition, but as time goes on we might expect opposing teams to cotton on to what is happening and take steps to counter it. However, even if you recognise what is happening this ‘rotational no 9’ tactic is hard to counter, as it remains unpredictable from minute to minute.
It’s also notable that this team looks a lot more like a 4-4-2 than we have seen at Arsenal for a long time. Ozil and Sanchez are playing a bit like a classic striking partnership with Walcott supporting in the style of Limpar, Overmars or Pires. Ozil and Sanchez are interacting a lot in the final third. I almost wonder if this is really a variation on the old schoolboy tactic of: ‘get your best two players and play them up front’?
So do we have enough striking threat to win the league?
We probably won’t have the most prolific striker in the league this season. If Sanchez is to play the majority of the season as a number nine, it would seem unreasonable to expect him to reach his full potential in this first season, and anyway he is not playing as a classic ‘lead the line striker’ in the sense of Giroud or even Aguero. He may or may not get 20 league goals this season (my bet is not), and he is unlikely to be the league’s top scorer.
But of course, what really matters, is not how many goals one individual gets, but how many the team gets, and as observed above, a single high scoring individual does not necessarily lead to a lot of goals for the team.
I think its better to think of our current team in terms of ‘striking resources’ rather than just an individual striker. At various points in the game, Sanchez, Walcott or Ozil can be found playing off the shoulder of the last man, and this unpredictability is making us difficult to defend against. In particular, defensive midfielders don’t know whether to hold position or to follow Ozil, centre backs are unsure about following Sanchez away from goal, and left backs are similarly confused by Walcott.
We may not even have the best ‘striking resources’ (Sanchez+Ozil+Walcott) in the league this season, but that is not a disaster. The team that does have the best striking resources may or may not win the league, and the same is true of the team with the best centre backs, goalkeepers, full backs, midfielders, wingers etc etc. It may be true that the ‘striking resources’ are slightly more important than the other parts of the team (goals are, after all, the crucial statistic in the game), and that is why strikers tend to be the most expensive players, but the difference is marginal and a good team is made of eleven players, not one.
But what about the centre halves?
As a final thought, there is some evidence that, over the course of the season, it is the team with the best central defensive partnership that often wins the league. Certainly Huth and Morgan were immense for Leicester last season, Terry and Cahill for Chelsea the season before. If so, then Mustafi and Koscielny are showing good early signs, but (sorry about this) there can be little doubt that Alderweireld and Vertonghen look like the best partnership in the division.
If you liked this article, you might enjoy Tim’s book “It’s Happened Again”, which is now available on Amazon (print and Kindle versions). Read a sample chapter at www.itshappenedagain.com
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