Robin Van Persie showed that he is more than a support striker by leading the line against Roma, a sign that the requirement and ability of strikers is changing.
“Van Persie is Dennis Bergkamp – with goals,” enthused Arsene Wenger before the game at Tottenham. And while the Dutchman failed to inspire Arsenal to a win against their North London rivals and the two goalless draws in between, Van Persie has been involved in all goals the Gunners have scored this year when he has been on the pitch. But against Roma he did what the Arsenal legend failed to convincingly do; lead the line by himself.
Of course Bergkamp was from a different era and ultimately of a different style, one of the best ever in his position but with his frame one may feel the Dutchman could have fulfilled that role. Indeed the closest players to his style now may be Dimitar Berbatov of Man United and Alan Dzagoev of CSKA Moscow who is a wonderfully fleet footed second striker, both all about touch and movement.
The fact that Robin Van Persie can play in this higher role signals an evolution in the requirement of strikers. “Robin’s always had the vision and the talent, but what really stands out for me is how he’s developed into a team player,” continued Wenger. “It’s a remarkable transformation. And the fact he is 25, you know he’s going to get better. His best years are in front of him.” His heading ability must not be underestimated and has great touch and balance but more crucially he is making the correct decisions, which is the difference in top level football.
Strikers have evolved and are now expected to do more; to use their intelligence to drop off into space and play in team mates while also being able to make runs to stretch opposition. Goalscoring need not be a forwards principle purpose; an increased mobility and interchangeability in strikers has lessened the need for the traditional ‘goal-poachers ‘ while there is a greater expectation on midfielders to contribute goalscoring-wise. “For me, a striker is not just a striker,” says Jose Mourinho. “He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2.”
Tactically the game has changed with greater cautiousness especially of transitions in play. Defensively teams are stronger and the game could now be argued as one of many little battles where a goal poacher won’t have enough in his armoury to win and will require more work from team-mates.
As a result the traditional 4-4-2 is seen as harder to play. “I think 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases. In fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, 60% of your players are occupying 60% of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient in covering space,” Wenger says but even he has had to utilise Van Persie as the fifth midfielder by detailing him to track back. “If I have a triangle in midfield, Makelele behind and two others just in front, I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things. That’s why I think the popularity of 4-4-2 will come to an end in England. It has to. It does not work against teams like us.” All of Arsenal’s forwards can lead the line, play behind and out wide bar perhaps Adebayor. This allows the Gunners more flexibility and poses greater problems to opponents both tactically and individually, as essentially Arsenal could switch to a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 as displayed at Roma.
World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira even predicts that strikers may be a thing of the past. Wishful thinking it may sound but his notion is not unrealistic; it makes for harder marking, dragging defenders out with the movement to disrupt the tactical, compact block teams tend to defend in. “Systems are dying,” says Slaven Billic. “When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now.” When successful it is hard to mark as displayed by Man Utd last season as Ronaldo scored 42 goals while the other strikers still manager 15+ themselves. However effective utilization of movement requires great stamina which is one of the reason why the great Total Football sides had found it hard to continue.
With Arsenal’s five ‘hybrid’ strikers who can perform both roles of the forward in a 4-4-2 and more Arsenal can more easily than others achieve the balance of attacking fluidity and defensive solidity. Of course such strikers are not a new thing but the idea of them are as it was once thought teams should have a little and small partnership; one to run behind and one to link up and allow more variety. Fans who are not yet convinced of Bendtner usually feel the Dane should play as a natural target man but which is an old-fashioned notion. Yes maybe at the end of the game when the team should go gung-ho to save the match it is the best option but when you have two strikers who can do both, it can be more dynamic and less predictable.
While a Peter Crouch and a Micheal Owen have their merits as specialists, especially if things are not going well, it would be better if a team could have a player that can do both their jobs to get things right the first time.