Strikers are a curious breed of footballer. Some spend much of their working lives ploughing a lone furrow away from their team-mates. Their reputations balance on a knife-edge; a goalkeeper’s fingertips or the width of a goalpost can be the difference between hero worship and ridicule.
Becoming a master hitman requires skills beyond applying boot on ball. Strikers need a selfish streak to trust their instincts ahead of the expertise of their team-mates. An obsession with seeing the net ripple is a must, as is a coldness to routinely break the hearts of the opposition.
This blend of technical skill and mental cunning means elite frontmen are few and far between. It also makes goalscoring football’s most intriguing discipline. FFT speaks to a select few who have mastered the art to find out how they did it and what makes them tick.
Born or made?
Matt Le Tissier operated as a deep lying forward for much of his 16 years at Southampton, but that didn’t stop him from scoring 164 goals in 380 games. He believes the art of goalscoring can’t be mastered through practice alone.
“I think natural goalscorers are born,” he says to FourFourTwo. “They’ve got an instinct which I think comes very naturally to them. It’s very difficult to pass on the skill of scoring goals to someone who just doesn’t get it.”
Sunderland striker Jermain Defoe has been finding the back of the net for as long as he can remember. “As soon as I was big enough to walk, I was pulling chairs together in the living room and slotting the ball between them,” he tells FFT. “Nobody taught me to do that.”
However, Thierry Henry believes in another school of thought. The Arsenal legend began his career as a winger before being converted into a striker by Arsene Wenger. He went on to become the Gunners’ all-time top scorer with a haul of 228 goals.
He explains: “I had speed and the smell for goal, but at first I was hitting the fans, the crossbar, the goalkeeper was saving it. I started taking a ball and mannequins out on to the training pitch after the main session every day and then suddenly I was scoring more often than missing.”
Henry’s story reminds Harry Redknapp of his time working with Yakubu while he was in charge of Portsmouth. “I brought Luther Blissett in to work with him,” he recalls to FFT. “He’d spend an hour or so just finishing. He scored 19 goals that season.”
‘Strikers are arrogant and selfish’
Scoring goals brings with it adulation and a limelight craved by those in the striking business. "There’s a selfishness about a centre forward that you’re not proud to admit,” says former Liverpool and England striker Michael Owen. “Nice people can’t be strikers. You have to be arrogant and selfish on the pitch. You can be as nice as you want off it, but on it you have to be a very different person.”
Everton’s Romelu Lukaku believes single mindedness is a prerequisite for any top striker: “You have to be selfish to be a good striker. All the best strikers are selfish. Scoring goals is the most important thing on the pitch. Every good striker is selfish – we don’t need to deny that.”
Martin Keown spent his career trying to stop goalscorers in their tracks and recognises common traits amongst the most prolific. "Strikers know what they want,” he says. I’m not saying they’re selfish, but they certainly enjoy the limelight. Ian Wright was an example of that. Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker were the same.”
But does that mean strikers are only ever truly satisfied if they’ve scored? “If we win a game 10-0 and I haven’t scored, I’m not completely happy,” says Sunderland’s Jermain Defoe. “I’d be pleased the team got three points, but I’d go home and think…hmmmm….I just want to score.”
Goalscorers can be obsessive characters, who turn to bizarre rituals to aid their confidence in front of goal. “If I do finishing training on a Thursday and score a couple of goals at the weekend, I’ll do the exact same session the following week," says Defoe. "If I score a hat-trick, I have to wear the same pair of boots.”
Former Tottenham defender Ledley King remembers playing with the striker at Tottenham. “He was the most obsessed player I played with when it came to scoring goals. You’d be walking past him in the gym and he’d try and slot one past you. That’s why he’s 34 and still scoring every week.”
Craig Reid plays for League Two side Newport County and is also a striking coach for some of the Premier League’s top academy prospects. He says: “I always watch my goals back on DVD and I’ll always put my left shin pad and boot on first. I know strikers who will go and get a haircut if they’re going through a bad run in front of goal!”
Lukaku says there is no bigger thrill on a football pitch than finding the back of the net. “Goals, goals, goals - that’s the most important thing,” he adds. “When I go out onto the pitch I want to know how can I score. I have to believe I can score in every single game, how will I score and how will I help my team-mates win the game.”
Football’s hardest job?
Strikers are employed to be match-winners and thrive under the pressure of deciding games, but goalscoring is an art that eludes most players. Everton’s director of football, Steve Walsh, believes it’s the hardest skill to master in the game.
“Managers will always ask you to find them a goalscorer, but they’re hard to find and cost a lot of money – at Premier League level they’re very scarce,” he says. “I’ve never not been looking for a striker throughout my whole career as a scout - I think that tells you something.
“You have to have a variety of different attributes to be a top striker. Pace is an advantage, but if you’ve got a calm head, that’s so important. The best strikers make the best decisions – they know whether to lob a goalkeeper or go round him or they’ll wait to see if he goes down or stands tall before shooting.”
Redknapp still speaks in awe of former England striker Jimmy Greaves. “Jimmy Greaves was a genius,” he explains. “The whole world stopped when he got the ball in the box. He’d get the ball, feign to shoot and move the ball past the defender. Then he’d just roll it into the net side-footed.”
Defoe says the mentality of strikers is what sets them apart. “I’ve always loved the pressure," he concludes. "I’ve always thought, if you’re going to put that sort of pressure on me and I deliver, then I’ll feel great about myself, because you get so much love from the fans.”
Press play on the video below to watch the latest documentary from FourFourTwo films: The Art of Goalscoring