Wednesday, 31 August 2011
The death of the strike partnership?
Football fans of my age will remember various football comic strips - Roy of the Rovers, Jon Stark (''Match winner for hire'' - surely the future of football!) and Hotshot Hamish and Mighty Mouse. Roy Race lives on in Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jimmy Bullard - English heroes who manage to combine natural ability with cartoonish moments of improbability. Jon Stark never really existed but his day will come if FIFA allow it to occur.
Hotshot Hamish and Mighty Mouse live on in our minds. It is ingrained in the British footballing mindset that there should be two players playing up front - usually one big (Hamish) and one small (Mighty Mouse). It doesn't matter if that doesn't happen anymore. We think it is the case and, deep down, we wish it were still the case.
Sadly, however, various changes have done away with the classical strike partnership. The introduction of formations like 4-5-1, the 4-3-3 and the 4-6-0 have all rendered the idea of the strike duo obsolete. We now look at Nani, Rooney and Young as three musketeers, we consider the poetic spinning of Barcelona's multi-focus attack, we look to David N'Gog for Liverpool last season ploughing his own lonely furrow.
On top of that, these days of four strikers in a squad and squad rotation means that the even if a team plays two strikers in some form of throwback we do not see telepathic partnerships gelling. Keegan and Toshack wouldn't play together often enough to be linked, forever in the football mind, as one and the same. And that was the beauty of the strike partnership. It is difficult to imagine Sutton without Shearer, Hunt without St. John, McCoist without Hateley. In our mindset they are forever, inextricably linked, smiling, arms around each other, celebrating yet another goal.
Those days are gone. Look at Suarez and Carroll? Arguably a fine partnership in the making but already articles are being filed about how they will rarely play together. Berbatov and Rooney could be similar as could Rooney and Hernandez or, indeed, Berbatov and Hernandez. But rotation and the increasing tendency to play with numerous points of attack means we are unlikely to see that a proper partnership at United either.
Considering the partnerships of old it seems to me there were three basic types of strike duo:
First of all, there is the classic ''Little and Large''. In English footballing myth this is the ne plus ultra of the strike partnership. It is an image of football that echoes down the ages - like nippy wee wingers in baggy shorts, boys peeping over a wall to watch a game from the gasworks end, and smiling Brylcreem Boys being outclassed by Hungarians. Like the English obsession with 4-4-2, it stems from a false memory (we didn't play 4-4-2 in 1966 but everyone thinks that we did). Many examples of strike partnerships down the years haven't revolved around the little and large model - Gilzean and Greaves, Hunt and St. John, Keegan and Toshack etc.
Still in many of our heads, football should involve a gangly target man who would nod down chances for his little terrier of a team-mate to bang in goal after goal. This system has worked over the years for many - McCoist and Hateley in the early 1990s scoring bucketloads for Rangers, Phillips and Quinn for Sunderland, the fated SAS for Blackburn and Sutton and Larsson at Celtic.
The more aesthetically pleasing forward line is ''The Dagger and The Cape''. An out-and-out goalscorer alongside someone more refined, more skillful, more deep-lying. One subtle, one sharp. One show, one go. An out-and-out striker and a deep-lying forward or trequartista. Rather than lumping the ball forward to a big man, this duo relied upon the artistry and movement of one to create space and chances for the other.
Obvious examples from the English game are Lineker - a poacher extraordinaire - teaming up with the sumptuous Beardsley for England. A decade later, Shearer was complemented perfectly by the cerebral Sheringham. Perhaps the perfect example in the English game was Dalglish and Rush. Abroad, people may point to Del Piero and Inzaghi or - most sumptuous of all - Gullit and van Basten at AC Milan.
Another type, and perhaps the most exciting, is that of 'the explosive twins'. Wright and Bright, Romario and Stoichkov, and Cole and Yorke - similar sorts of players who just attempted to outgun each other.
Of course, as with any typology there is blurring. Some might argue that Yorke's ability to drop deep may mean that he and Cole fit more obviously into ''The Dagger and the Cape''. Others would point to, say, Butraengo (an out and out poacher) and Sanchez (an explosively gifted player) and argue that this should be a category in and of itself. Others still may say that to compare van Basten to Rush and Lineker is like comparing an Hermes Bag and a potato sack. The point, however, remains.
But the demise of the deadly duo in the game has been staggered. It could be argued that one of the most stunning strike partnerships showed that its days - for the time being at least, as these things tend to spin around - are numbered. Bergkamp and Henry were beautiful to watch but Henry wasn't a classical striker (for all his goals) and Bergkamp, arguably the finest player to play the game in England, again was more of a trequartista than a striker. They were a fine partnership, a fine strike duo but, in their own little way, both weren't really strikers. The term forward seems so much more appropriate. This was a little hint towards the future.
Others may argue that Huntelaar and Raul at Schalke are a pleasing throwback - a little and large show with everything that you would hope for from such a partnership. I agree. Others may point to how well Suarez and Forlan link for Uruguay (they would be categorised separately as ''intelligent explosive twins) and see life in the old concept yet. These are the exceptions, I believe, that prove the rule. Look at most clubs and you won't see a proper strike partnership for the reasons outlined.
It seems, however, that the trends of rotation, new formations and tactics which do not allow for two strikers, and the deepening of squads in general undermine the idea of having two players that play week in, week out and who form a symbiotic relationship. Whether that is good or bad is neither here nor there. It is happening and I, as a hopeless sentimentalist for the game, would rather like a modern-day Hotshot Hamish and Mighty Mouse.
Happily, nothing lasts forever in football and things that go out of fashion will come back into fashion in due course.