Friday, 31 July 2009

Four score… ten years ago

Afternoon folks,

When Ole Gunnar Solskjær prodded in the winning goal in the 1999 European Cup final he started a footballing myth that has continued to grow legs ever since, despite enormous evidence to the contrary. An untruth that bizarrely seems to still be canon amongst Premier League managers, the accepted wisdom is that any decent side must have four strikers fighting it out for two spots up front at all times; a theory that both Manchester City and Spurs have become obsessed with this summer.

However, the only problem with the accepted wisdom is that, as Alex Ferguson might say these days, “it’s bollocks”. And yet, this week we had Redknapp telling anyone who’ll listen that “four top strikers” is what you need “at every club”.

Yes, it’s true that when United won the treble in 1999, much of the reason they did so because of the strength of the four strikers who were aiming for two spots up front. Teddy Sheringham, Solskjær, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were all fighting it out for a first team place and all scored goals. When Yorke and Cole did the business against Barcelona and Juventus everyone was happy, when Sheringham and Solskjær did it against Bayern Munich everyone who had anything to do with Unireh was even happier. The season after, United amassed 91 points as they swatted away any competition for their title.

However, upon the belated arrival of Ruud van Nistelrooy in the summer 2001 the four striker theory was blown to pieces as he became a one man battering ram, scoring 23 league goals in an ultimately unsuccessful season for United. Sheringham left immediately after the Dutchman’s entrance to the squad, as did Cole, while once the season began Solskjær barely played and was hardly missed, meanwhile Yorke’s form petered out alarmingly over the course of his final season with the club.

From the moment van Nistelrooy came to Old Trafford until the moment Ronaldo departed the club this summer, the United front line has never been about four strikers fighting it out for two spots in the starting 11. Between 2001 and 2006 van Nistelrooy was an automatic first choice, with United playing a five man midfield in 01/02, before Diego Forlan or Solskjær partnered him for a good portion of 2002 to 2004 after which Wayne Rooney arrived. The system United have played since van Nistelrooy’s departure has never about having two men up front either, with players switching positions across a front three.

Yet, United’s change in formation didn’t stop others trying to imitate their previous model. Gerard Houllier (insert shiver down the spine for all ‘Pool fans here) was first to step up as he managed to destroy the confidence of both Robbie Fowler and Jari Litmanen when alternating the pair with the ever obedient, non-scoring Emile Heskey and Houllier’s favourite of the bunch, Michael Owen. This mismanagement ultimately led to a disastrous league campaign in 2001-02 which saw Fowler and Litmanen leave and Houllier destroy the good work of the previous season.

Poor Fowler of course left for Leeds United in early 2002, where he joined a front line consisting of Alan Smith, Mark Viduka and Robbie Keane as David O’Leary too fell for the four striker theory, bettering Houllier’s efforts by somehow managing to keep all of them unhappy simultaneously.

If Leeds, so often brought up as an example of what not to do in the Premier League, failed with the ‘four strikers into two’ method, why then have Man City and Tottenham decided that the answer to boosting their chances of a Champions League push is to follow O’Leary’s example and get in as many men up front as possible?
Instead of trophies, glory and goals, what tends to be produced when such an array of talent is grouped together is disharmony, disjointed play and, ultimately, the realisation that the manager is grasping at straws. How indeed, have Spurs not learned their lesson yet? Three years ago they had Keane, Dimitar Berbatov, an in-form Mido and a very sulky Jermain Defoe in their ranks. When Mido was jettisoned they brought in Darren Bent, a signing that, due to the ridiculous £16.5 million fee, only increased the problem leading to a terrible start to the following season and Martin Jol’s departure.

Keane of course now has to deal with Defoe teaming up again with former Portsmouth partner Peter Crouch after the latter’s £9 million move this week. All the while Roman Pavlyuchenko will pout in the background as his agent waits to hear of any interest in his services.

Man City may well have welcomed Carlos Tevez with fanfare and a pretty damn funny poster campaign, but can he guaranteed a first team place with Roque Santa Cruz and Emmuanel Adebayor also demanding games? That, of course, isn’t even taking into account the Robinho problem. A man who has already had his clashes with Mark Hughes over who’s in the side and who isn’t, the Brazilian is more of a second striker than a midfielder or winger; he was after all City’s top scorer last season, and fourth in the overall Premier League standings with 14 strikes.

Hughes, like Harry Redknapp, will have to disappoint players on a weekly basis whilst trying to not allow this to destroy team morale. Tevez, as has been abundantly clear in the last six months, feels he should be involved in every big game going so he may be a problem for a start. But while marquee matches came along every few weeks at Old Trafford, only City’s games against the ‘Big Four TM’ will represent a grand stage for them this year. Will Hughes be brave enough to play a top heavy side against Chelsea, United, Arsenal or Liverpool? Not a chance.

Even against the middle and lower tiers of the Premier League, trying to gain any balance with Tevez, Robinho, Santa Cruz and Adebayor in one side seems a remote possibility. Hughes, of course, has the money to experiment and get shot of whichever striker he feels surplus to requirements. Redknapp, you’d have to imagine, doesn’t have this luxury, and keeping his major defensive buys to Championship players Kyle Naughton and Kyle Walker backs up this theory.

In both cases they would have done well to see how success has been achieved in the Premier League since Van Nistelrooy joined United. The following season, an Arsenal side spearheaded by Thierry Henry won the title, before Van Nistelrooy fired United to victory in 2002-03. After Henry repeated the trick for Arsenal during their ‘Invincibles’ season, we would see Didier Drogba become the focal point of a front three which led Chelsea to two titles and then on to the United domination of the league that was based on their inter-changeable front line trio of Rooney, Greaseball and A.N Other.

Tevez, like Keane, like Pavlyuchenko and indeed any decent striker wants games. However, as Hughes and the increasingly baffled looking Redknapp may well find out this year, having four of them fighting for two spots will create plenty of headlines and training ground tension, but most likely very little in terms of the silverware.



Parrotbait said...

Great article. The whole 4 strikers phenomenon has probably been a thing hyped by the media, mostly because it gives them something to write about when they get pissed off. Think about last year, Barca really only had one striker, admittedly a brilliant one in Etoo but they did well enough.

On a side now, kudos to Jose for getting the deal of the season in the Ibra transfer, amazing piece of business. Also check out this, Defoe, Pavlyuchenko and Young trying to play GAA

Nice technique!

JJ said...

Cheers Parrotbait, kepper's not up to much in that clip is he?

Good point on the Ibra transfer, superb business and hopefully inter are better in europe this year with eto'o up front. If zlatan chokes on the big stage next year Guardiola better be prepared for a million and one 'I told you so' articles.