We often see trends come and go in football. In the 90s, Italy’s Serie A was a step above the rest, the 2000s saw the likes of Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard plying their trade in the Premier League and for the majority of the last ten years we have seen the two best players in the world battle it out in Spain’s La Liga. We have seen formations such as 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 dominate world football and as we have lost wide midfielders we have gained inverted fullbacks.
Strikers no longer play the role in football that they previously did. Rather than just being traditional goalscorers- the likes of Van Nistelrooy and Miroslav Klose come to mind- forwards are now required to bring other team-mates in to play. Roberto Firmino has been doing it for the past 3 years at Liverpool, Karim Benzema has always been seen as a deeper centre-forward and we have even seen Harry Kane, previously one of the most obvious “out-and-out” strikers in football, dropping much deeper to link up play and claim assists.
The point I am getting at here is that there are constant comings and goings of tactical styles and preferences and I think we are probably due a new one. With Aguero’s injury and Guardiola’s lack of faith in Gabriel Jesus (yes, I know he scored twice against Wolves), we have recently seen Manchester City deploy a striker-less system and I wouldn’t be too surprised if we saw more teams pick this up. I know what you’re thinking. This is hardly new. Spain won the World Cup in 2010 with Fabregas, hardly even an attacking midfielder and often deployed as a deep-lying playmaker, in the false 9 role. A false, false 9 if you will. But the point I’m trying to make is that he was still a focal point for Spain. We haven’t been seeing that with Manchester City and it’s quite clear from their run of 21 games unbeaten that teams have no idea how to defend against such a fluid system. Rather than teams playing in one formation throughout the match, we have recently started taking a closer look at teams’ “in possession” and “out-of-possession” shapes. A lot of teams play in a 3-2-5 when attacking and Manchester City and Liverpool, the two dominant Premier League teams of the past few seasons, are the prime examples of this.
We will see more and more teams adopt this tactic. The top 5 Premier League goalscorers since the turn of the year are all midfielders. If you are a team who dominates possession, why do you need an outlet playing on the shoulder of the last defender? To be honest, I’m surprised we haven’t already seen other teams try it. At Manchester United, Martial isn’t good enough to play as a lone striker and Cavani has his injury problems. It’s an obvious solution to Ole’s problem of trying to fit Bruno Fernandes and Pogba in the same team. Arsenal fans, for some reason, can’t stand it when Lacazette is on the pitch and with no obvious replacement and a wealth of attacking options in Odegaard, Smith-Rowe, Saka, Willian, Aubameyang and Pepe, why not give it a try? We even saw Chelsea try it out briefly against Manchester United at the weekend when Olivier Giroud was replaced by Christian Pulisic, leaving them without a true striker until Timo Werner was brought on.
Of course, not every team will be able to play like this. I can’t imagine the likes of Burnley or West Brom playing without a striker as they knock the ball around the edge of the opponents box, but for the bigger teams in the league who see a lot of the ball it’s certainly an option. It might even be the answer to Graham Potter’s goalscoring (or lack of) conundrum at Brighton.
And what about the strikers that wouldn’t fit in to this system? I’m not sure Erling Haaland would be a big fan of joining a team that plays striker-less, or Romelu Lukaku would be happy if he was forced out wide again. Jamie Vardy is one of the most exciting players in England, what would we do without him? But I do think we are going to see more and more of this “striker-less” system as teams focus more on possession and creating high quality chances and less of getting the ball up the pitch as quick as possible.
As much as I enjoy watching teams playing without strikers, of course there will always be a place in football for them. They are the players we get on the back of our shirts and the players we cheer loudest for when their name is announced on the tannoy before a match. They are the players who get us on our feet and get our heads in our hands. They are what makes football, football.