Wednesday, 4 July 2018

A Striking Problem

That the World Cup in Russia has turned out to be so entertaining is largely down to the poor quality of strikers. That might appear a dubious as much as a paradoxical claim when the goals that Edinson Cavani scored against Portugal and Kylian Mbappé's performance against Argentina are still fresh in the memory, but it is worth remembering that neither are conventional penalty area predators. Cavani's first involved an interchange with Suarez that saw the ball move laterally almost the width of the pitch before a late run into the box, while the second was a shot from the corner of the area of the sort you might expect from a winger cutting in. The penalty that Mbappé won (converted by Antoine Griezmann) and his second goal against Argentina were likewise about the power of his running from deep in his own half, though his first goal was a good example of sharpness in the area (he also got a tap-in against Peru). This style of play isn't a new development, essentially being a continuation of the wide striker model interpreted variously by Davor Suker, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo down the years, and whose roots go back to Johann Cruyff. What is novel is the eclipse of the more traditional strikers who aim to receive the ball in the penalty area. And I don't just mean the long-extinct fox-in-the-box poacher, but also the more mobile support strikers who have dominated for the last two decades.

This accounts for the early departure of big names such as Germany, Spain and Argentina. Though criticism of Germany has focused on tales of division within the camp between older and younger players, their problem was simply a poor and unimaginative attack against teams that sat deep. Timo Werner looked out of his depth, Marco Reus flattered to deceive and Thomas Muller was a pale figure of the man who won the Golden Boot in 2010. Spain hogged the ball but were unable to create angles to goal for their now slightly less nippy midfield while their strikers looked increasingly out of sorts as the tournament progressed (Diego Costa) or simply not good enough at this level (Iago Aspas). For Argentina, Lionel Messi was fitfully brilliant but played too deep while Sergio Aguero's prowess is clearly on the wane. The 3-3 draw between Spain and Portugal was the highlight of the first round of matches, but it was also a game that highlighted this transition. Though Ronaldo's hat-trick caught the eye, what was more significant was that Costa's old-fashioned brace, muscling defenders to create space for a shot and then a tap-in from a downward header, was followed by the full-back Nacho's strike from the edge of the area.

As Pavard's similar goal for France against Argentina suggests, success in this tournament may come down to a combination of goal-scoring defenders and fast breaks out of defence (consider the similarity between France's fourth goal and Belgium's winner against Japan), which means more spectacular goals. In this context, Mbappé might be a better bet than Harry Kane for the Golden Boot. The latter is unlikely to get many more penalties against better defences, and while he is capable of scoring from the edge of the area, he doesn't have the pace for a breakaway from the half-way line where he increasingly drops to in order to find the ball. The France-Uruguay quarter-final looks too close to call. France have the better midfield and more variety up front, but Uruguay boast a great defence and while at 31 both Suarez and Cavani are probably past their best, they have enough ring-craft to go all the way in this tournament. Croatia should be too good for Russia, unless it goes to penalties, while Brazil versus Belgium looks like another match that could go either way and will probably be decided by an error. Perhaps Neymar will pirouette spectacularly to the floor on the halfway line, allowing Hazard to pick up the loose ball and run on to score.

Colombia are on a par with England in terms of FIFA ranking, but they didn't looked particularly convincing during the tournament and are clearly not as good as the 2014 vintage that lost narrowly to Brazil in the quarter-finals. That England only just managed to edge them out last night suggests that Southgate's squad may have reached its limit, though they have a great chance to progress further against an ordinary Swedish team. While Kane got his customary goal from a penalty conceded for wrestling, he wasn't otherwise much of a threat, but the real disappointment for England was the poor decision-making and passing by Sterling, Lingard and Dele around the opposition area. With Young and Trippier struggling to get decent crosses in, England looked pretty toothless, managing only two shots on target over two hours of play. They defended well, particularly Maguire, but they also look like a team capable of at least one unforced error per game. They struggled against an ordinary Tunisia, and Kane will surely be surprised to find himself afforded as much space in the box again, while the steamrollering of Panama, a side currently ranked 55th in the world, was hardly a new dawn. That England lost to Belgium in the group's dead rubber simply told us that the latter have a marginally better bench, a fact proven in their last-16 tie with Japan when Fellaini and Chadli came on to score.

Sweden's defeat of Switzerland in yesterday's other game was a dour affair, marked by ineffectual centre forwards (Berg and Dzemaili were very poor) and a lack of real danger from the flanks. Xherdan Shaqiri produced a cameo familiar to Stoke City fans, all muscular running into blind alleys and wicked crosses not aimed at anyone in particular, while Granit Xhaka was unable to do much against a defence that sat deep, confident in its ability to defend high balls. The surprise for Arsenal fans was not his long-range strike against Serbia during the group stage, something he is capable of but doesn't do enough, but that it took four games for him to pick up a yellow card. Hopefully next season he can rely on someone else, possibly Uruguay's Lucas Torreira, to shoulder the burden of chopping down fleet-footed players breaking from midfield. With Xhaka and Ospina out, the Gooner interest is reduced to Danny Welbeck, who could well prove a useful impact substitute because of his strong running though he is clearly behind Jamie Vardy in Southgate's estimation. His best bet of a further appearance is probably an injury to Kane.

As the World Cup heads towards its conclusion and the summer transfers start to dribble in, it is worth casting half an eye towards the new regime at the Emirates Stadium. It is difficult to draw too many conclusions about the likely formation and style of play that Unai Emery is planning, not least because the transfers to date were presumably planned by Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi before Arsene Wenger's departure. The addition of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan to the attack in January, which we must consider the first fruits of the new regime, did not promptly turn around Arsenal's fortunes last season, though it did make a difference. Broken into thirds, we secured 22, 20 and 21 points. Given that 30 points a third is the target for a title challenge, the problem was that we lost 3 games too many in each third, mostly away from home. This wasn't down to poor chance conversion. At 74 goals scored, including a highly creditable 28 in the final third of the season, we achieved the joint third highest in the league and better than second placed Manchester United. The problem was poor defending. We conceded 51 goals overall, which was only marginally better than teams like Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion, and was actually worse than Newcastle United.

Over the last 3 season, our goals for and against figures have been: 65-36, 77-44 and 74-51, suggesting a steady decline at the back, not all of which can be put down to Cech's increasing tendency to make mistakes. To win the title, you need to score around 90 and concede around 30. Tightening up is clearly the priority and the incoming transfers confirmed to date, notably the experienced defenders Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, look like they're intended to do that. They're not long-term solutions but are presumably intended to provide a breathing-space for Emery to coach the younger players, such as Bellerin, Holding, Chambers and Mavropanos, into a more effective unit. There is obviously an implied criticism of Arsene Wenger, who famously first inherited the best defence in the league and then gradually replenished it by buying in proven talent that required minimal coaching, like Campbell and Lauren. His real interest was always in the attacking side of the game, despite having been a defender himself, while Emery's record suggests a more balanced approach built on a strong defence and fast transitions, which looks more in keeping with the current vogue for technical assurance at the back and flexibility further forward. "One-nil to the Arsenal" may prove a popular chant once again.

Further back, the acquisition of the 26 year-old German goal-keeper Bernd Leno suggests that Cech will now see out his contract to 2019, and may even be eyeing a one or two-year extension with a transition to a coaching role thereafter. David Ospina looks like he might finally depart for Turkey after the World Cup, which could open the door to another purchase between the sticks if neither Matt Macey nor Emi Martinez are deemed ready for regular bench-warming. At the other end of the pitch, there is a question about whether Emery can accommodate both Aubameyang and Lacazette if a defensive midfielder like Torreira is added to the mix. If he wants to field both Mkhitaryan and Ozil as well as Ramsay (assuming he stays) in a 4-2-3-1, then the two out-and-out strikers may find themselves competing for a single berth with plan B (chasing the game) being a 4-1-3-2. As the World Cup in Russia is proving, not only is the fox-in-the-box extinct, but even the specialist support strikers like Antoine Griezmann and Gabriel Jesus are struggling to get chances in an era of well-drilled defences, often using their movement as a decoy for attacking midfielders. The French decision not to take Lacazette to Russia may prove prophetic for Arsenal.


  1. Ben Philliskirk4 July 2018 at 12:18

    "goals that Edinson Cavani scored against Portugal"

    I wouldn't give Cavani too much credit for finishing his first goal, which came off his cheek.

    "In this context, Mbappé might be a better bet than Harry Kane for the Golden Boot."

    He's not going to play against any defences as weak as Argentina's for the remainder of the World Cup though.

    Quibbling aside, I think you're right about the decline of both the centre forward and the striker, though I think it was evident four years ago and at Euro 2016 as well. There have been plenty of chances, so I don't think it's just down to tactics. If I had to speculate I would venture that the significance of strikers/centre forwards has declined as players have been expected to be less specialised and more like all-round athletes rather than players with particular strengths, and also that fads like squad rotation stop many forwards from gaining goalscoring 'streaks' with the accompanying confidence and sense of instinct that encourages.

    The increased competitiveness of this World Cup has been facilitated by a decline in quality and a general dead-end in tactical thinking. Football is crying out for different styles of play and strategy.

  2. Worth mentioning that England, Kane's lucky heel excepted, have scored one goal from open play ... against Panama. Which brings me to set pieces - England's best opportunity maybe, but as we saw against Colombia, less effective against better defenders.

  3. Herbie kills Pedestrians5 July 2018 at 17:43

    “I wouldn't give Cavani too much credit for finishing his first goal, which came off his cheek. “

    Total utter bullshit, its a miracle he even connected with the ball, one of the best goals as far as I am concerned.

    I don’t think it is a lack of poor quality strikers, I just think it is the fact that strikers are a product of a bygone era, an era when teams didn’t put 11 men behind the ball, defenders didn’t just run into attackers every single time they got anywhere near the ball and every situation on the pitch wasn’t a set piece (oh and defenders didn’t worry too much about the diet)! Neymar may be a cheating twat but at the same time he almost isn’t allowed to play, if he was he would simply embarrass people. Add in the fact that referees are laughably bias towards defenders and defending teams and even trying to get a quality shot at goal if a mammoth task.

    This is why goals come via set pieces, incredible flukes or great shots.

    Having said that Jamie Vardy is simply out of his depth at international level!

    At this stage of the competition Mbappe will not be allowed to simply run through teams, his limitations will be clearly exposed from now on in. And Dembele is the biggest waste of money in the history of football, even more so than the mediocre Di Maria (though not as mediocre as Memphis Depay)!

    If Brazil can get over missing Casemiro they will take some beating from what I have seen, a Brazil England final would be great!

  4. Ben Philliskirk6 July 2018 at 09:09

    @ Herbie

    "Neymar may be a cheating twat but at the same time he almost isn’t allowed to play, if he was he would simply embarrass people."

    What nonsense. He dribbles constantly into dead-ends, which he then extracts himself from by seeking any contact with the nearest opponent in order to win a very soft free-kick. Most referees have actually played very little football, which is why they fall for this kind of trick.

  5. Herbie kills Pedestrians6 July 2018 at 13:37

    "He dribbles constantly into dead-ends, which he then extracts himself from by seeking any contact with the nearest opponent in order to win a very soft free-kick."

    Quite a damning condemnation, I must say I don't agree (not saying this never happens). I have fond most British football 'fans' rarely watch anything outside England and form opinions from their ignorance. I suspect you fall into that category.

  6. Ben Philliskirk6 July 2018 at 15:43

    I find many British football fans regularly watch games shown on TV that are in the Champions League or from countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany or even South America, and they are aware that the game is now little different in style or behaviour across the world.

    Globally many fans realise that Neymar is an overrated cheat and reject the condescending attitudes of snobs such as yourself.