Why are ArsÃ¨ne Wenger and Louis van Gaal so reluctant to sign strikers? | Barney Ronay | Football
September 10, 2015
The fact that despite his own best efforts Rooney will ultimately be classed as good rather than great, some way short of English footballs great white Pel. Here he comes, gut swelling over the hem of his lycra pantsuit, dutifully getting the YMCA wrong.
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. 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. United basically have only Rooney, with Marouane Fellaini a novelty variation when it comes to muscular central strikers.. A player like Javier Hernndez, who contributes in between the beats, in broken play, when the game becomes fractured, was never going to fit his systems-based approach. Most teams play with only one striker now, as United often did in the late Ferguson years. But it is also part of a wider picture. 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. 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.
There are some good reasons for this. Lets be honest, asking Rooney to play as Manchester Uniteds 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. Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP
The second problem is perhaps simply that, as Arsne Wenger has publicly lamented, there are not that many top-class centre-forwards out there. And why not? Price tags aside, Rooney, Martial and Memphis Depay look an alluring combination of speed, skill and knowhow. A glance down the list of recruits reveals a bulging roster of state-of-the-art omni-forwards No10s, inbetweeners, half-and-halfs and a dearth of high-end specialists. Rooneys current 10-game goalless run in the league reflects both his own declining mobility and the cautious attacking rhythms around him. Chelsea won the league last season with just Diego Costa, Loc Rmy or a very convincing statue of Didier Drogba as their lone centre-forward.
It is not hard to see why English football has struggled to produce and nurture pure No9s. Fit the pattern first: score later.
Javier Hernndez is unveiled at new club Bayer Leverkusen. Connor Wickham was excellent but he will probably not get 10 goals this season.
Meanwhile the academies continue to unproduce. All of these are apparently All Waynes Fault.
For all that, none of them is actually a centre-forward. Except, it did not quite work out like that. 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. 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. Manchester Uniteds willingness to pay their star player a huge salary. Would Baftimbi Gomis really not improve Arsenal? Could United really say they are better off not having spent some of that 230m on a decent, orthodox No9 along the lines of Gonzalo Higuan?
With this in mind the signing of Martial is effectively an admission that, if you cannot beat them, you might as well buy them. There are tactical reasons, not least the preference for high-pressure, athletic forwards who play a variety of positions. 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.
As long-serving leading men go Wayne Rooney has always tended to attract an unusual degree of free-floating rage. It is a bizarre anomaly that Louis van Gaals 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.
The Premier League still craves a centre-forward. The national teams declining tournament performances. Last season 13 of 18 players with more than 10 goals were orthodox No9s, 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. La Ligas scoring charts are still dominated by the combined Messi-Ronaldo godhead, but the best club teams still tend to contain the best centre-forwards. At Barcelona Luis Surezs muscle and guile have been a vital cog in one of the great attacks of the modern age.
Related: Arsne Wenger defends lack of transfers and questions 80m Martial deal
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. Arsenal have looked light on punch with Oliver Giroud a stylish, likeable, cumbersome B-lister as their chief central attacker. There is perhaps an element of unnecessary caution here. But where have all the centre-forwards gone?
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. Van Gaals belief in possession-based team play is not exactly geared towards specialist goalscorers. 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. Manchester City have the best in the league by some distance in Sergio Agero, but their real depth is in attacking midfield. Robert Lewandowski is Bayern Munichs most potent attacking force. 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. From Cole to Yorke to Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rooney (2011 version) and Robin van Persie United have had a great run of central strikers.
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.
Until now, that is. Total Premier League spending in the summer window came close to topping 900m. Crystal Palaces attack was formidable at Chelsea on Saturday, albeit more for its ability to press hard and break with power. Which perhaps explains why the England squad contains four strikers with nine goals in their last 40 combined Premier League matches.
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
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