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AS MODERN FOOTBALL transitions into ever-increasing levels of physicality and tactical fluidity, the ‘fox in the box’ striker is a dying breed close to extinction. Throughout the history of the game this player’s skillset – a pragmatic use of energy, a laser-sharp sense of positioning and ruthless finishing – has been pivotal to some of the finest teams of the past century.

In 2018, aspiring young forwards must wonder how they fit into such a constantly evolving system. The modern striker needs to possess a multi-faceted range of skills – goal-scoring, but also with a blend of athleticism, pace and defensive capabilities – so top-level clubs can no longer merely rely on a one-dimensional poacher who offers little else to the overall workings of the team. In a world of false nines and fluid forwards, the necessary attributes for each position on the pitch has become blurred, where previously young players slotted neatly into a formulaic, clear-cut system. 

This seems particularly relevant today, as managers in the top flight struggle to accommodate players heavily reliant on natural goalscoring instincts. Slaven Bilić and David Moyes have both been left scratching their heads at how to harmonise Javier Hernández’s keen eye for goal alongside the Hammers’ target man Andy Carroll.

Hernández carved out a reputation at Manchester United as a clinical super sub, a role synonymous with the fox in the box. At West Ham, though, Hernández has struggled to score with any regularity, with little success as a deeper-lying attacking midfielder or left-sided support striker. Despite his protestations to the contrary, it’s unsurprising that he has been linked with a move to a variety of clubs.

Similarly, Charlie Austin, an immaculate finisher, has rarely played a full 90 minutes this season. He often shares game time with Shane Long – an industrious all-rounder not renowned for prolific goalscoring – who seems to embody the modern preference for physicality over shrewdness, grit over grace. The puzzling situation for Austin is that although his build-up play for Southampton is generally sound, there is an argument that the success of the team has been hindered by its over-reliance on him when he does play. After all, a player whose reputation is based almost exclusively on an impressive goals-to-games ratio runs the risk of becoming the fall guy when the inevitable goal drought does come.

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Prolific strikers from the lower leagues have also struggled to make an impact in the Premier League, including Dwight Gayle and Jordon Rhodes. The latter has proven a master at conserving energy, with little input in the build-up of play, to then provide the killer finish in the dying embers of a match, although during Rhodes’s brief spell in the Premier League at Middlesbrough in the 2016/17 season, he was required to provide more defensive cover than he was accustomed to.

One person’s conserving energy is another’s laziness. After only six league games and zero goals, Rhodes moved back to the comforting environment of the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday where his skillset is deemed more desirable. 

The original foxes

The game has seen a host of goal poachers with exceptional tallies – Leônidas, Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law, Gerd Müller, Gary Lineker and Romário to name just a few. Lineker, in particular, spent his career being criticised for goal-hanging, yet he scored a record 10 goals at World Cups for England. He even won the Golden Boot Mexico 86, including a hat-trick against Poland where each goal typically came from inside the six-yard box.

Towards the end of Lineker’s career in the 1990s and into the 2000s, Premier League teams persisted with various forms of a 4-4-2 set-up. The two forwards were complementary, harmonising between a little and large combination – Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn, Michael Owen and Emile Heskey – or a deep-lying creative player alongside a speedy striker – Peter Beardsley and Andy Cole, Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright.

Also in the 1990s, Francis Jeffers burst onto the Premier League scene at Everton, becoming one of the most famous examples of the fox in the bo’ moniker. Over time, though, this nickname became ironic, as Jeffers embodied the death of the phrase through his own nomadic career. Prolific form as a youngster at Everton convinced Arsène Wenger to sign him as part of the Invincibles squad. Understandably, though, Jeffers struggled to settle into the first team with stiff competition from Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Sylvain Wiltord. However, few would have predicted such a severe fall from grace in the years that followed.

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Jeffers’ only England cap came in a 2-1 loss to Australia at the Boleyn Ground in February 2003, a match which was incidentally the debut of a 17-year-old Wayne Rooney. Jeffers scored England’s only goal in a game which became famous for Sven-Göran Eriksson making 11 half-time substitutions. Following that match, the careers of the Evertonians moved in opposite directions. While Rooney went on to become England’s most-capped outfield player and highest goalscorer of all time, Jeffers never played for England again.

To this day, Jeffers is the joint top scorer, alongside Alan Shearer, for England under-21s with 13 goals from 16 appearances. Despite such a fruitful start to his career, Jeffers, by his own admission, simply didn’t adapt his playing style as the game changed around him. After initially leaving Everton, he notched only 22 goals over a 13 year period for 14 different clubs. “I didn’t fulfil my potential. That is a fact,” he said in March 2017. “When I came through, everyone was playing 4-4-2 so I was one of two strikers. That’s all I ever did so the things I was doing in the early stages of my career I continued to do. I know I should have done better.”

Rooney, on the other hand, had the gumption and work ethic to become a moveable cog in the overall machine. His willingness to drop deeper into a number 10 role or inside-forward allowed him to be used in a variety of tactical systems, seamlessly dovetailing with a range of diverse talents, including Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Robin van Persie.

Rooney is the second highest Premier League goalscorer of all time, but crucially, he also holds third place in the overall assist standings. Not only has he demonstrated a more adaptable approach to the game than Jeffers, his sheer appetite for the game was what stood him apart.

Adapt or die

Tactical systems now revolve around a range of attacking-minded players narrowly supporting a lone-striker, with less focus on so-called wingers providing crosses from out wide. Those players, previously labelled simply as forwards, in the mould of Jamie Vardy, now lead the line unselfishly running the flanks as part of a much more varied and diverse role.

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In his pomp, Didier Drogba became the benchmark, almost two players in one – an all-encompassing physical presence but with a deft touch and a keen eye for goal. In much the same way as ex-Chelsea teammate Claude Makélélé having the role of the holding midfielder informally named after him, the role of the perfect lone striker really ought to be named after Drogba as well. Perhaps the best explanation of the Ivorian’s all-action playing style came from the man himself: “People think footballers are all like robots – we can control everything on the pitch. But your heart is beating 200 times a minute; it’s very, very physical.”

A large chunk of the lone striker’s role extends far beyond attacking responsibility. Early into his punditry career, goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer gave a stern defence of his team’s lone striker, Bobby Zamora. Following a 0-0 draw at home to Manchester United, Schwarzer was asked, “How can a team rely on a striker with such a mediocre goalscoring record?” The Australian argued, “I really don’t see it that way, he performed his role perfectly tonight. We work on this in training every day. In matches like these, Zamora is the first line of defence.”

It was an interesting argument against players being judged solely on goalscoring statistics, as managers of inferior teams continue to search for any defensive advantage they can find, although can you imagine being in the shoes of the Newcastle United manager in the late-1990s and asking Alan Shearer to be the first line of defence? You would most likely be collecting your P45 soon after.

This is not a lament to a bygone era; it’s merely to point out that the game is evolving perhaps faster than ever before. Players, and indeed managers, have to be adaptable to survive in a volatile environment where they are faced with the paradoxical position of heightened pressure but where patience from ownership is at an all new low. Previously, the notion of a manager being flexible in their tactical approach was to shift a forward such as Chris Sutton or Dion Dublin back to central defence in order to dominate aerial duels. Things have moved on.

In the ever-changing landscape of modern English football – multi-faceted duties with a focus on supreme fitness and dynamism – a striker’s function is now manifold. Elite teams can no longer rely on a forward who operates almost exclusively inside the opposition’s penalty area. The fox in the box, a one-dimensional poacher, is close to extinction. In much the same vein as the theory of evolution, the lesson for any aspiring young footballer is a simple one: adapt or die. 

By Chris Henderson