Javier Hernández had been in Madrid for almost eight months and had not contributed anything significant in his capacity as a striker for Real Madrid, the giants of world football. When the chance came his way in the second leg of the quarter-finals of UEFA Champions League against local rivals Atlético Madrid, he took it with both hands. It was a goal scored in the dying moments of the game, a goal that sent Real Madrid into the semi-finals of the competition.
In the Sky Sports studio after the game, Chicharito was being praised for his decisive impact by Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness, the pundits analysing the game. However, the third expert, Thierry Henry, seemed unimpressed. In the whole scenario of a goal being scored with a composed finish by a substitute who had hardly played, the Arsenal legend had noticed a seemingly bizarre and trivial point- after scoring the goal, Hernandez had run off to celebrate on his own rather than celebrating with the team-mate who made the pass for the goal, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Henry noted that Ronaldo had been quite unselfish in letting go an opportunity to shoot and had passed on to Hernández as the Mexican was in a better position than him. While the analysis by Henry left the other two pundits and many fans puzzled, Henry was making a bigger point- the lack of team ethic in today’s strikers. The lack of selflessness.
It’s difficult to define the term selflessness in football, especially so in the case of strikers. Aren’t strikers helping the team by scoring goals? Aren’t they supposed to score goals? After all, football is all about winning and victory usually comes when a team outscores the other.
The strikers in such cases are especially important as they are the focal point of a team’s attack. The point is typified by the exploits of title-winning teams, which almost invariably have had a prolific goal-scoring striker. Who remembers if these strikers turned around and acknowledged the one who made the assist? Who remembers how much they worked for the team? How many passes they made and how much they ran?
Ruud van Nistelrooy, for example, was described by Sir Alex Ferguson as a striker obsessed with goals and only goals. The Dutchman is remembered as a legend for his contribution to the Manchester United cause because his goals helped the team win trophies. Goals have been and are the yardstick for a striker. However, as convincing and complete as it sounds, the criterion seems extremely narrow and restraining in an information-intensive era where in every other position on the pitch, the all-round contribution of players is taken into account while making an assessment.
However good the attacking prowess of a winger or the offensive ability of an attacking midfielder may be, if they cannot combine defensive work with it, they generally become the object of scorn for their supporters. It is quite telling that players who work hard rather than those who offer more potential are preferred in these areas for the simple reason that they offer more balance to the team.
Each position requires more than just specialisation. A while back, Tim Sherwood described the concept of a pure defensive midfielder as a myth. As per him, a midfielder is supposed to do both – offensive and defensive work. It is an era where John Stones has become the most expensive English centre-back in the history of the game and Arsenal have signed Rob Holding from League One, simply because they offer better all-round ability needed in today’s football world.
That this trend hasn’t caught up with the foremost position on the football pitch seems a bit surprising on the face of it. Teams today seem to exceedingly prefer strikers that score maximum goals. There was a time when Zlatan Ibrahimović, top-scorer in the Ligue 1 last season and who has been signed now with much gusto by Manchester United, plied his trade at Barcelona. It was a period to forget for the athletic Swede who had problems adapting to the tiki-taka style of the Spanish club.
When he left after just one season, Barcelona’s then Sporting Director Andoni Zubizarreta made an interesting comment on Zlatan’s time at the Camp Nou. Touching on the individual and team duties of a striker, Zlatan was rated as extraordinary in the first department but lacking severely in the second. Zubizarreta felt that to excel in a team where team-mates work for each other, a striker had to use both the dimensions; more so the latter. While this analysis shows one side of the coin, the same style of Ibrahimović has helped his teams win trophies wherever he has been.
Today, with the second part of the argument being more dominant, football is fast becoming a sport where strikers are being judged by their ability to score maximum goals, breeding and encouraging a streak of selfishness. However, the trend seems contrary to the traditional definition of football as a team game – a sport based on the working of specialised units carrying out different duties in a mechanistic form but overlapping in an organic manner for achieving the common goal: making the team win.
In this original spirit of the game, which stresses on selflessness, most modern strikers are out of sync, as are most fans and pundits who make the assessments. In today’s goals-obsessed world, strikers in the mould described by Thierry Henry and Andoni Zubizarreta are rare. In such a football world, strikers like Olivier Giroud, who work hard and toil for the team, are misfits.
Does this mean that strikers who relied excessively on goal-scoring were not team players? Of course they were team players. How else do we explain the pivotal contributions of a certain Gerd Müller to the Bayern Munich and West German cause? How else do we understand the impact of another glorious striker who seemed technically limited to other contemporaries of his generation but scored like none other, Filippo Inzaghi?
Goals are an important indicator, sure. It is the foremost duty of a striker to score goals. However, goals are a means to an end and should not be understood as an end by itself – the end being able to win football games. A striker has other duties too, through which he can have an impact on the outcome of a game. Capabilities of a striker such as creating chances and the work-rate, which go unnoticed in the glare of goals, make a direct as well as an indirect contribution in deciding the outcome of a game in thier team’s favour.
The concept can be understood by thinking of a three-tiered inverted pyramid approach, with goals occupying the highest level with the highest importance. This level represents the individual dimension of a striker’s game, in other words how efficient he is in his job. The impact is tangible in that the goals have an obvious measured effect on the team’s fortunes.
The other two levels determine his work for the team – the most obvious of which is by the chances a striker creates for his team-mates to score. Output at this level is less direct in comparison to the previous level but is still a tangible way by which a striker can help his team in achieving its objective of winning. Just like the shots he takes which lead to goals, chances he creates also lead to goals, albeit by someone else.
Robin van Persie, who won the Golden Boot award for the most goals in consecutive seasons in the Premier League, stressed on the importance of creating chances for team-mates by saying that they gave as much joy to him as the goals he scored, if not more.
The bottommost level – the ability of a striker to do the dirty work – is where their output becomes the most intangible and indirect, perhaps explaining why this attribute to a striker’s game seldom receives attention. A striker is the first line of defence in a team as per the basics of football. This is exaggerated in modern football where the input of each member of the team in every department is so essential in deciding the winning stakes.
Strikers today are required to run and press the opposition defenders, man-mark opposing players during set-pieces, and even cover the spaces left by other players so as to provide balance to the team. They are not just isolated entities entrusted with scoring duties in this multi-level approach – they are part of a unit in which their role is to help the team win by providing an all-round contribution.
It is when this approach to a striker’s game is understood that Olivier Giroud’s usefulness as a striker becomes visible. He is a striker who, if only his goal-scoring returns are considered, seems a good player, but when the attributes described in the second and third level are added, becomes an exceptional asset for the team. A look at the table given below of the top five Premier League strikers’ performance in 2015-16 season gives a good insight into understanding this point.
A comparison of strikers’ overall performance (per hundred minutes)
The three-tiered model for assessing a striker’s contribution
The manager who gave Romelu Lukaku his debut at Anderlecht was Ariël Jacobs. As someone intimate with Lukaku’s development, Jacobs was asked to point out the weaknesses in the Belgian striker’s game. In Jacobs’ opinion, Lukaku’s goals were hiding the flaws in his game and would continue to do so. The regret, he felt, was that Lukaku was snapped up too early by a big club that was looking to replace its ageing goal-scoring machine with an 18-year old striker who was being bought due to his mere ability to score goals.
Lukaku failed to make the cut at Chelsea. Over the course of time, the weaknesses would remain like hidden undressed wounds while goals were like that beautiful part of the body visible to everyone. The reason was that as a manager of a young player, Jacobs and his staff were not given the time to work and produce a finished product. A work-in-progress was snapped up in expectations of doing a complete job.
Similar fate awaits many others as clubs are increasingly picking up strikers who can score, in the hope of competing for places and trophies. Patience is wearing thin. Few managers today go for an all-round striker. Blame cannot solely be laid at the altar of these managers, however, as they are simply not in a position to take risks since immediate success is the need of the hour.
It does not come as a surprise then when Arséne Wenger, a long-serving manager with a focus on team-dynamics, lists his French striker as one of the best in the world and an underrated player. Antoine Griezmann, the Atlético Madrid striker in-demand nowadays and who played alongside Giroud at Euro 2016, described him as a “selfless player”.
With defining the term ‘selfless’ for a striker being problematic due to the subjectivity quotient, the case of Olivier Giroud manages to give as good a practical definition of the term as possible. It is much more difficult than we imagine it to be so because he plays in a position that demands individual output.
Technically, it would serve him better if he was to change his game and focus more on himself to fall in line with the demand dynamics. And perhaps that is where the problem with Olivier Giroud lies – he plays football the way it is to be played, as a team player. He is like a lover who believes in wooing the girl of his dreams the right way even though others around him seem to opt for opulence and extravagance in their attempts for the same girl.
Olivier Giroud combines goal-scoring ability with a wonderful team-ethic and that is what makes him a rare breed, a world-class striker if you may. However, cruelly for him, he is plying his trade at a paradoxical point of time in the game’s history where the use of statistics in analysis, the level of the game, and its coverage, are at an all-time high, but still the evaluation is being done based on an extremely narrow criterion. It represents a great risk to the future of the game.
As managers, scouts, fans and pundits look across to the goals tally for determining how good a striker is, strikers with a well-rounded game will be continually questioned, eventually leading to the production of a prototype which will be focused solely on goal scoring. After all, the market supplies what the consumer demands. A dangerous precedent is in the process of being established unless the evaluators bring the striking department on par with the other areas of the pitch.
Until the time when football world recognises the value of looking at all the dimensions of a striker’s game rather than judging solely based on the goals scored, strikers like Olivier Giroud and many others in the present and coming years will continue to suffer.
By Rohit Prabhudesai