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Once upon a time in world football, a clinical striker was the be-all and end-all. It was the most attractive position in the game, the one that stole all the headlines, the one that produced all the goods.
But if modern football has taught us anything, it is that out-and-out strikers are becoming a thing of the past. This is particularly true of the English Premier League.
A quick glance at the current Premier League goalscoring leaderboard clearly conveys that the likes of wingers and other attackers are outscoring the strikers, but a more in-depth look at certain managerial tactics provides concrete evidence as to why.
The rise of the Premier League wingers
Taking that first point into consideration, it’s evident that Europe’s leading goalscorers this season are predominantly playing out wide. Looking at the Premier League alone, the top 10 scorers reads in favour of this, with Harry Kane, Ivan Toney and Jamie Vardy the only out-and-out strikers on the list.
Arguments could be made for Diogo Jota and Cristiano Ronaldo playing largely in central roles, but they certainly cannot be compared to the likes of Kane, Toney and Vardy, and even then they are still outnumbered by wingers.
Wide players are dominant, with Liverpool wingers Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane very high up on the list. Tottenham forward Son Heung-min and Manchester City wide duo Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling complete the top 10. Salah himself is miles ahead of the chasing pack on 20 goals.
In La Liga, this is much less evident, with Vinicius Junior and Juanmi the only natural wide players occupying spots among the leading goalscorers. That said, the former has bagged 14 for Real Madrid in a sensational campaign, while the latter has netted 12 for Real Betis.
In the Bundesliga, Bayer Leverkusen star Moussa Diaby, Bayern Munich man Serge Gnabry and Borussia Dortmund leader Marco Reus have all been high on the list for goals this season. But still, the wide players are outweighed and outscored by the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Patrick Schick and Erling Haaland.
As for Ligue 1, Monaco striker Wissam Ben Yedder leads the way with 17 goals. He is closely followed by forwards Martin Terrier (16,) Kylian Mbappe (15), and Gaetan Laborde (14). While all three attackers have featured on the wing this season, they have played the majority of their minutes in centre forward.
And in Serie A, wingers scoring goals is almost unheard of, with Sassuolo and Italy star Domenico Berardi the only such player to boast double figures for the current campaign.
Guardiola and Klopp setting the tone
A lack of a recognised striker is, therefore, seemingly a concept that only the English top-flight has really developed. Perhaps there is not exactly one reason for this, but the tactical approaches of certain managers can undoubtedly account for at least part of the reasoning.
Unquestionably the league’s top three tacticians, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Thomas Tuchel have all heavily relied on a system that does not involve a natural striker.
At Man City, Guardiola has Gabriel Jesus at his disposal. But the Brazilian has been left out in the cold by his boss, who has favoured many different natural wide players in the middle of his front three.
The likes of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, and even Bernardo Silva have played in the role. Guardiola’s cautious, patient tactical approach in the final third seemingly has no need for an out-and-out striker, with City only outscored by Liverpool this season. Moreover, the Manchester outfit currently sit top of the table, so it’s clear that the approach is working.
At Liverpool, Klopp has long relied on his trusted front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane. That deadly trio have brought much success to the club, working perfectly as a front three in both attack and defence.
As the league’s top scorers, perhaps other clubs can take a leaf out of Klopp’s book. That said, not every club has attacking options like Liverpool do. That formidable front three have now been joined by Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz, two extremely talented forward players who have the ability to win games on their own.
Tuchel adopting a similar approach
Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel is another who has often chosen to completely avoid playing a striker up top. This is, in part, due to the struggles of the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner, but also because he has at his disposal other attackers who are capable of slotting into the role effortlessly.
One such player is Kai Havertz. The versatile German was very successful as a centre-forward during his time in the Bundesliga, and he has now proven that he can do it in the English top-flight too.
Eight of his 11 goals this season have come in centre-forward, along with three of his five assists. He is certainly not a typical striker but has used his experience of bombing into the box from attacking midfield and out wide to help the Blues succeed.
Christian Pulisic is another to have occupied a centre forward role for Chelsea this season. The American international is far from being an out-and-out striker.
Is it merely a coincidence that Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea are currently the best three teams in the division, as well as scoring the most goals?
Are other top European teams following suit?
Guardiola and Co. may be outnumbered regarding their tactical approach, but they are certainly not alone. Considering teams remaining in this season’s Champions League, a similar line can be drawn for both Villarreal and Atletico Madrid.
The two Spanish sides have enjoyed an impressive run in Europe’s elite competition this season, with Villarreal overcoming Juventus and Atletico Madrid edging past Manchester United in the Round of 16.
The former relied on ex-Bournemouth man Arnaut Danjuma – predominantly a winger – in a lone striker role, supported by on-loan Spurs midfielder Giovani Lo Celso. And the latter deployed both Joao Felix and Antoine Griezmann as centre forwards at Old Trafford, with both players certainly not established strikers.
Even Real Madrid utilised central midfielder Luka Modric as a false nine in the recent derby against Barcelona, but that alteration from their usual striker Karim Benzema certainly misfired for Carlo Ancelotti.