Surplus strikers, hat-trick Hans & belated Golden balls

Strikers on the doleBeing a striker has always been an insecure profession. They have long been afflicted by mysterious fluctuations in form, a variable quality of service from team-mates and ridiculous expectations from fans and directors.

But their trade is now more uncertain than ever. Across Europe, from youth teams to first teams, coaches are increasingly reluctant to attack with two forwards. Many strikers in their 20s will face a stark choice... retrain or retire.

Stick someone else up here gaffer, I'm lonely 

Why has this happened?First, it’s the culmination of a trend which has seen teams shift from such cavalier formations as 1-1-8 in the 1870s to 2-3-5, 3-3-4, 4-2-4, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and now 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 or even 4-6-0. The offside rule hasn’t helped. Uncertainty over how the law will be applied has prompted many teams to defend deep, squeezing the space strikers thrive in.

In response, even attack-minded managers find it more productive to have players running defences from midfield or from the flanks. The brutal truth is that two strikers, permanently stationed up-front, are much easier for central defenders to manage. It is far trickier to defend when any one of five midfielders – or either full-back – can run into the area from nowhere.A lone striker doesn’t necessarily mean a team is playing defensively. Their attacking intent will have more to do with the balance between screeners and creators in midfield, the space they are encouraged to play in and whether either or both full-backs are encouraged to bomb forward. As Spain showed in the Euro 2008 final – and the recent World Cup qualifier against Belgium – teams can be more threatening if they just play with one striker, providing they have the right calibre of passing and running in midfield.

At Euro 2008, Spain passed the opposition to death. After losing to Spain in the quarter-final, Christian Panucci complained he was exhausted because: “they never played it long.”

"Stop passing it you little sod. I'm knackered..." 

The popularity of one up front will, effectively, halve the number of positions available to strikers on the team-sheet.

This concern was raised by Andy Roxburgh, UEFA’s technical director, after the U19 European Championship this summer: “By restricting the strikers’s representation to 10% of the outfield workforce, are we laying the foundations for senior national team coaches to complain, as some did at Euro 2008, about a lack of goalscorers?”The old-fashioned penalty box predator – think Pippo Inzaghi or Michael Owen– is already an endangered species. After all, the last two Golden Boots have been won by free-scoring midfielders Francesco Totti and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The next generation of strikers will need to multi-task, like the industrious Carlos Tevez. But there is a risk that something – the lethal instincts of a striker like Inzaghi – may be lost to the game for good. Young players hoping to be the new Inzaghi might want to retrain as goalscoring midfielders.Who needs Hans?The idea that strikers are out of fashion would strike Red Bull Salzburg fans as ludicrous.

This season they have had the privilege of watching Marc Janko score 29 goals in 20 league games. He has hit five hat-tricks. The 25-year-old, just voted Austrian Footballer of the Year, has already broken the club’s record for goals in one season – and still has half a season to play.

Salzburg goal-machine Marc Janko 

His goals have earned Salzburg 15 points (out of 46) and in one astonishing performance as a second half substitute, he scored four in 24 minutes as his side turned a 2-0 defeat into a 4-3 victory.

Barring injuries, the 25-year-old Leonardo da Vinci fan could break the great Hanks Krankl’s record of 41 goals in the Austrian league, set back in 1976.By Juve!Jorgen Juve is still Norway’s all-time top international goalscorer. His haul of 33 goals in 45 games in the 1920s and 1930s is impressive, even by the freescoring standards of the era.

What is truly astonishing is that Juve only played 22 of those games as a centre-forward. He made his debut as a right-back, was switched to No.9 against the Netherlands (scoring a hat-trick), bagged 31 in his first 25 internationals and was then redeployed to right-back or centre-half for the last 20 games.

Versatility was a curse for Juve whose strike rate when played as a No.9 – 31 in 22 matches – is better than Gerd Muller’s.Belated Golden ballsIt’s Yuri Zhirkov I feel sorry for.

Nominated for the 2008 Ballon d’Or, and getting exactly no votes, the left-back was the true architect of Russia’s surprising demolition of Holland at Euro 2008.

Unsung hero Yuri Zhirkov, No.50 in FFT's Top 100 list 

Almost as tricky as Ronaldinho, Zhirkov works as hard as Deco in his Porto prime. His poor showing is especially galling given that, only last year, the Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa received one vote even though he has never played any club football in Europe, while Iraqi striker Younis Mahmoud bagged two. Not bad given that he has only played for Iraqi and Qatari clubs.

Mahmoud was my own, sadly ignored, tip for FourFourTwo’s latest 100 Best Players in the World poll. Still only 25, his talent already transcends mere geography.

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