The game of football is one that has constantly changed in philosophies and ways of playing over the years. For years the 4-4-2 formation dominated English football, until the more European notion of packing the midfield to control possession became a common strategy. While 4-4-2 was in operation at the highest level, the clubs often paired a bigger, taller player with a more petite and nimble counterpart in the centre forward positions. This allowed them to have a target, but also have a threat in behind. For the last three years at least, this has changed as teams now operate with one main striker. This striker has been the bigger player, from the pair that was once so prominent in the game. So what has happened to the little guy? They now find themselves being forced out onto the wing or being used as an impact sub. Looking at the top teams in England, we can see how this philosophy has taken over.
The model for this trend has been Chelsea. Since Jose Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea, most Chelsea managers have employed a 4-3-3, making use of a big central striker. For much of the last 10 years, that striker was Didier Drogba, but, Chelsea have also used Andriy Shevchenko, Nicolas Anelka, Fernando Torres and now Samuel Eto’o to name but a few. What is surprising is that all of these strikers, except Eto’o, are at least six foot tall. Eto’o stands at 5’11 which is no real difference, but the type of striker Chelsea have required is clear. Chelsea have wanted someone who is a presence, and have not favoured a forward who wants to get in behind. Although Torres fits the height requirement for a Chelsea striker, his style of play of wanting to get in behind has not matched the Chelsea way and could be the reason for his slump in form.
Another club who, it can be argued, have taken the same approach as Chelsea is Arsenal. In terms of strikers, Arsenal currently possess Oliver Giroud, Yaya Sanago and Nicklas Bendtner. The smallest of these three is Sanago at 6’3, which highlights the type of forward Wenger feels his Arsenal side needs. Adding to this is Wenger’s reluctance to play 5’9 star Theo Walcott in his preferred central striking role. After nearly seven years at the club, it was only last year that Wenger chose to field Walcott in that position, but only during a striker injury-crisis. Walcott’s misfortune mainly stems from the era he has found himself playing in, as only 15 years earlier, a striker of similar height and style in Ian Wright, was fast becoming Arsenal’s record goal scorer.
Perhaps one of the strikers most affected by this new philosophy is Tottenham’s Jermaine Defoe. Defoe broke through in the era when most teams played two up front, and was able to use his pace to get in behind. With a target man now being preferred, Defoe has found his opportunities hard to come by. Most recently, Defoe was overlooked for England’s two World Cup Qualifiers in favour of Rickie Lambert. Defoe has scored nineteen goals for England, but with the game changing, he has only made two appearances under Hodgson this year. At club level, Andre Villas-Boas has often preferred Emmanuel Adebayor and now Roberto Soldado to Defoe. Both are seen as more viable options for the style of football AVB wants to play.
There are few exceptions to this trend; most Premier League sides are favouring a lone tall striker, but at Manchester City, Sergio Aguero has been able to remain in the side. Before his departure to Juventus, Man City often fielded Carlos Tevez up front with Aguero. The two formed a deadly partnership towards the end of the clubs league winning 2011/12 campaign. What set these two apart from their fellow small forwards, is their world class ability. Therefore, we can say this is the requirement for a small striker to gain a regular starting place in his team. Finishing ability on its own is not enough. Javier Hernandez is one of the best finishers in the game, yet he is a bit part player at Manchester United.
Whether the game will change again, to allow small strikers to be given the opportunity to start regularly, remains to be seen. For now, it is clear that small strikers will have to prove their worth to their manager in order to get a regular starting place.