The classic goalscorer may be seen to part of a dying breed but as football has evolved, the World Cup may have presented a case for their increased deployment.
Some people just don’t get Emile Heskey. He doesn’t score many goals (José Luis Chilavert, the former Paraguay goalkeeper has scored 8 international goals, one more than the Aston Villa striker), he misses open goals and generally falls down a lot. Indeed you may be forgiven for thinking that his same detractors feel he frequently scratches his own butt and drinks straight out of the milk carton, that misunderstood he is.
The assertion that he makes others playing around him perform better similarly falls on death ears seeing as Heskey has only “directly assisted” four England goals. The argument that he doesn’t score enough goals is as perfectly valid as the argument that the Premiership’s second best goalpoacher, Darren Bent should be in the team is invalid. Club form doesn’t exactly result in international effectiveness and although fairly intangible by statistics, Emile Heskey does improve the England team as he was crucial in both the country’s thrashings of Croatia in the qualifiers. (Note: This was written before England’s lacklustre 0-0 draw with Algeria. Hopefully the argument presented below advocates the need to deploy Rooney and his superior running of the channels higher up).
The increasing importance of Heskey, despite his diminishing potency in front of goal follows the trend that sees the classical goalscorer becoming a dying breed and that means goalscoring must be a shared responsibility. There are a number of reasons for this; (1) Firstly, the striker must now be a hybrid or to put it simply, they must be able to perform a number of functions for the team. “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.” This aids the supposed fluidity of a team and means that sides are not dependent on such a specialised as a goalpoacher. Indeed the game has become more of a homogenised affair as the increased fitness of the game exposes the technique of so-called specialists thereby requiring greater universality (2) among players. Of course it’s not just the strikers who have improved, defenders have gotten better and more mobile (3) and chances therefore not such a given.
Tactically, we have seen the troubles teams have had in scoring (although that is getting better) in the World Cup because of the way teams are set-up. Defences are organised in a tight defensive block, starting at the edge of their own area – the changes in the offside law is a cause of that, decreasing the space behind for the poacher – and are very compact. The assertion that Jose Mourinho popularised the tactic in Inter’s 2010 Champions League triumph is a moot point – coaches have stressed the importance of such a style far more earlier – USA’s 1-0 Confederations Cup victory in 2009 is an example of that. “The trend,” says Gerard Houllier, “is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball.”
However Fabio Capello’s insistence in playing Emile Heskey or even Peter Crouch alongside Wayne Rooney is not entirely because of more miserly defences as he states. Had he had someone like Fernando Torres at his disposal – the modern-day goalpoacher type – then we may not be having the same debate. “Only [Spain’s Fernando] Torres is a big striker in this moment in the world,” said Fabio Capello. “[As for] the others, Italy [are] so-so, Germany [are] so-so, Portugal [have nothing]. Also the French, you didn’t see anything. It’s a big problem now because the teams defend very well. It’s a problem everywhere. You have to play in a different style – the other players they have to score more goals.”
Football has evolved and that’s why it’s a non-argument to say the classic goalpoacher is dead. We cannot expect to see so much, in top-level football, the likes of Gerd Müller, Gary Lineker, Filippo Inzaghi or Clive Allen who were thought of to do nothing more but to score goals because football has changed. Goalpoachers have had to expand their skillset just as defenders have had to. Indeed, you don’t hear the argument that we don’t see the old-fashioned type defender any more, perhaps because their evolution is not quite as radical, nevertheless the thinking is still the same.
Gonzalo Higuain’s hat-trick in the 4-1 demolition of South Korea displayed the virtues of the modern-day goalscorer – he ran the channels all day, linked up play quickly and was always sniffing around the six yard box. His three goals were the stuff of a typical poacher; two far post headers and an opportunist tap in. Bojan’s wiry movement was also said to be a better option last year than Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Barcelona’s Champions League knock-out in the semi-finals.
The tactic yet to be fully optimised from open play in the South Afrcia World Cup is getting beyond the last defender partly because of deep-lying defences but as a means to drag defenders out, it is key. Perhaps then maybe playing a striker like Heskey – although with a better threat in front of goals – is crucial as it allows other players to break beyond unmarked but that’s not to say an opportunist striker cannot fulfil the same duties. “We used to say the midfielders are the guys who bring the strikers alive but what is happening now is the strikers are the guys who can bring your midfielders alive,” says Arsene Wenger. “They come to score from deeper positions and you can really do that with one-man up front.”
Indeed, the universal goalscorer is perhaps the less riskiest tactic as it does away with the dependencies and predictability a side may have in attack. But as Argentina have shown by playing four creators behind Higuain and with Wayne Rooney having enjoyed the best form of his life last season at Manchester United by refining his game to resemble a goal poachers instinct, perhaps there really is scope for the goalpoacher in the modern game.