Off the Crossbar: The Old-School Striker

Liverpool hosted Chelsea in the headline clash of the English Premier League (EPL) this weekend. The Reds looked to avoid another literal slip-up, exorcising the demons of their failed title run in 2014. With Chelsea embroiled in a ferocious battle for the top four and Liverpool in the midst of a grueling title charge, the match was billed as one of the biggest of the season, and it did not disappoint. In a thoroughly open, entertaining affair, the Reds held out for a 2–0 victory. Yet, there was something distinctly missing from both teams’ starting lineups: neither featured true strikers.

Chelsea deployed star winger Eden Hazard through the middle, as coach Maurizio Sarri opted to leave World Cup winner Olivier Giroud and Gonzalo Higuaín on the bench. Hazard’s natural position is out on the left; the Belgian thrives when he has space and grass to attack opposing defenses. With Giroud and Higuaín in poor form, Sarri decided to play without a recognized striker. The plan didn’t work. Hazard was alone up front too often and began to wander out wide just to get touches on the ball, so no one was in the middle to score off the crosses Chelsea put into the box.

Only after going two goals down did Sarri bring Higuaín off the bench. This substitution allowed Hazard to move to his preferred position out left while Higuaín occupied the center. The switch instantly made a difference. Chelsea’s two best chances of the night came soon after the Argentinian’s introduction. Hazard could make beautiful runs behind Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold and created two gilted opportunities that, on another day, he surely would have finished.

On the other side, Liverpool started Roberto Firmino, their Brazilian energizer bunny. While Firmino has been leading the line for Liverpool for a couple of seasons now, he is best known for his work ethic, keen positional awareness and link-up play. He is a perfect example of the term ‘false nine,’ which is used to describe this new set of attacking midfielders/wingers who are now deployed centrally.

Spain popularized the use of the ‘false nine’ during its successful Euro 2012 campaign when central midfielder Cesc Fabregas was often the furthest one forward for La Furia Roja.  It was a stark change from the earlier 2000s, when the game was dominated by central strikers like Ronaldo (Il Fenomeno), Raul and Miroslav Klose — out-and-out strikers who found pay dirt mainly in the box. Unlike Firmino, these men were not expected to drop back and help out their team. They had one job: to score goals. Nothing else mattered. These were the kinds of players who would be angry if their team won, and they did not score.

With more teams shifting towards using one of their more diminutive, flair players in a central roles, something has to be said for the old-fashioned center forwards. There are only a few left in today’s game: think Robert Lewandowski, Edinson Cavani or Benzema. But, goals do win games, and the poaching strikers may yet make a comeback.